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Wine industry can help halt mass species extinction, says scientist

Speaking in Chile on Monday this week, a climate change scientist told a group of MWs that the wine industry could play a pivotal role in preventing a mass species extinction.

Addressing as many as 30 Masters of Wine at a seminar in Chile yesterday, Dr Olga Barbosa, from Chile’s Austral University, said that viticulture “can be a partner to solve the problem of mass extinction”.

Barbosa, who works at the Chilean university’s Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, said that it was vital that agricultural landscapes were used to enhance species’ richness, with wine estates proving especially powerful potential drivers of biodiversity.

She also explained that the environmentally-sensitive management of wine estates could help mitigate the causes of climate change, while enhancing wine quality at the same time.

“Conserving and sustainably managing biodiversity not only within protected areas, but also in human dominated landscapes, is critical to address climate change,” she said, pointing out that there is “huge evidence” to show that “we are facing climate change produced by our society”, and that we are facing the “sixth mass extinction because of our actions”.

Notably, she pointed out that as much as 40% of the world’s NPP (net primary productivity) was “controlled by us, based on agriculture”, and, as a result, she said that “we have to put in our mind that agriculture can be a partner to solve the problem of mass extinction.”

Noting that our “wellbeing” depends on the functioning of our ecosystems, be it pollination or pure water, she explained how it was in the agriculture sector’s interests to make changes to enhance biodiversity and protect natural ecosystems.

“Three quarters of everything we eat needs to be pollinated by something,” she said, outlining the need to conserve species such as pollinating insects.

For the wine industry specifically, she identified the need for biodiverse ecosystems to provide natural pest control, and complete nutrient cycles to the benefit of vine growth.

She referred to such advantages to viticulture as “ecosystem services”, and stressed the need to protect a range of habitats and wildlife corridors to aid “terroir”.

“Natural ecosystems in between vineyards provide important ecosystem services,” she said.

By way of example, she recorded studies in Chilean wine estates which show that the proximity of vines to other habitat types benefitted the richness of soil life.

“We have been working with nine wineries to see what happens to microbial terroir in a vineyard in relation to their distance from forests, and we’ve found that 80% of fungi and bacteria is common between the vineyard and the forest,” she began.

Continuing she said, “But as we move further from the forest then the community of fungi differs, which shows that microbiological terroir exists.”

But she said that it was important we considered “the mechanisms” that favoured diverse micro-ecosystems, commenting that “the biogeographical pattern” of these communities was “highly relevant for wineries”.

Providing a stark contrast she said, “If you were in a city, then you would be talking about a pigeon, a rat, and us; it is biological homogenisation, but if a winery loses their diversity, then they lose their terroir.”

Having helped to found the Wine, Biodiversity and Climate Change (WBCC) scientific initiative in Chile, she said that promoting biodiversity in viticulture “should be a goal for the wine industry”.

Now incorporating nine wineries in Chile, the organisation considers how properties can enhance biodiversity by planting native vegetation, maintaining wildlife corridors, using cover crops and compost, and was a winner in last year’s Drinks Business Green Awards for its pioneering practical, science-based approach to this issue.

She also pointed out that enhancing plant species richness could help to mitigate the causes of climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide, particularly when it comes to the establishment of native woodland.

“A vineyard has 5.15 tons carbon per hectare, but a forest has 24 tons,” she said, adding that it was important not to lose wooded areas, which are at risk because “vineyards are inside priority conservation places”.

Mentioning the wider influence of the approaches adopted by the WBCC, she said, “Our conservation practices are now part of the national sustainability code [laid out by Wines of Chile].”

Bearing in mind that 77% of the Chilean wine industry is now signed up to this code, this is of great significance.

And vineyards themselves can be part of the solution, she said.

“The wine industry contributes to climate change mitigation because the vines are there all the time,” she said.

Finally, she warned against a widespread belief among vignerons that the wine industry can escape the effects of climate change by moving to cooler sites.

“You can change viticultural distribution but it won’t prevent a change in ecosystem services,” she said.

In other words, the greatest threat to the wine industry may not be rising temperatures, but declining biodiversity above and below ground due to natural habitat destruction and conventional agricultural practices.

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