The Limits of Agriculture
An interview with Chablis vigneron Olivier de Moor on the intent of his recent open letter to fellow vignerons.
For me, Olivier de Moor’s open letter to fellow vignerons of May 24th raised a number of questions. Most salient, perhaps, is his avoidance of any mention of organic agriculture. Nor does de Moor cite the environmental effects of synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and herbicides.
Yet, as you’ll see in the interview below, far from being insufficiently radical, de Moor’s letter is in fact proposing, in his own peculiarly delicate way, a wholesale reconsideration of the limits of agriculture itself.
OLIVIER DE MOOR: AN INTERVIEW
The following interview was conducted on May 31st. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What inspired you to write the letter?
There were essentially two elements. On a Sunday morning recently I learned there was a synchronicity between climate change and the sixth mass species extinction. The greatest extinction of species that the earth has known. And we know it’s linked to the acts of humankind.
Then, I’ve long been interested in the question of the rarefaction of water in France. Often, people say it’s part of a big cycle, and we can’t do anything about it. But scientists have found it to be linked to the rarefaction of vegetal matter. The fewer trees you have, the more you amplify desertification.
As long as we haven’t understood that we’ve got to maintain a maximum of vegetal matter, the problem will continue to worsen.
You don’t mention organics in your letter. Why not?
Because organics and biodynamics are not responses to climate disruption. With organics, if you want to obtain the same results as what has been procured by synthetic chemical products in the last fifty years, in terms of production and in terms of the visual aspect of the vineyard, then you do as much harm as with synthetic chemicals.
With organics, the advantage is we don’t apply noxious products. Even if there’s still copper and sulfur. These are things that pollute less than synthetic chemicals. The problem is the plowing. We have to manage to diminish the frequency of turning the soil.
Why is that?
It’s relatively simple. When you work the soil, you degrade the stock of organic material in the soil. That’s how you provoke carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere. When you plow, you discharge carbon dioxide instead of leaving it in the soil.
You have to consider organic material in soil almost as if you were a banker. It’s like capital. When you plow, you release a fund, which permits you to work that year. But if you don’t reinvest, if you don’t recreate stock, little by little you exhaust the system.
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You do mention mycorrhizae. Is it possible to maintain a healthy population of mycorrhizae while employing synthetic pesticides?
No. If you employ synthetic pesticides and herbicides, you accelerate the destruction of soil. It’s the same with certain types of fertilizer. Like phosphorus fertilizers. When you use them, you habituate the plants to deal without mycorrhizae.
Ideally, plants will give 20-40% of sugar that a plant makes to mycorrhizae. And in exchange they’ll receive a better access to water and micronutrients that are in the soil.
Is that reasoning clear in the text of your letter?
It’s not necessarily clear. But I was trying to make it short. The collective problem that we have is to reconnect plants and crops to mycorrhizae. To make it so the plants have close access to the mycorrhizae. It’s not a story of which products we use.
We have to move our farming closer to uncultivated areas. If you want that reconnection, you need conservation of, and proximity to, trees.
Vines are not plants of the desert. It’s a plant of riversides, a riparian plant. It’s a liana of woodland areas near water. The vine needs both light and water. If it has grown near woodland, it’s because it was connected to trees.
Whereas the conventional thinking is that trees compete with vines for water and nutrients.
We have to get beyond this notion of competition. If we’ve managed, unfortunately, to create a situation of competition between plants, it’s because we’ve thrown the mycorrhizal networks into disorder.
The relationships between plants are subtle. For example, if you want to reconnect vines to mycorrhizae, you need trees, but you also need grasses. Because trees have a horror of grasses, and the grasses will force the tree roots to go deeper, and they’ll return some of what they obtain to your vines.
Why might wine growers be reluctant to install ecological corridors? A fear of pests? A loss of vineyard surface?
It’s not just that. As soon as agriculture began, at the end of neolithic era, people perceived that when they plowed, whatever was near the plowed earth grew faster. It was more productive.
So, if you will, between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, the system was to deforest and plow the earth. Then it went to the Greeks. But they all regularly desertified their landscapes. By deforesting, they impoverished their land, and that’s why they went to colonize other lands, like Sicily.
This schema - to deforest in order to farm - is in place since Antiquity. When we do this too long, it leads to desertification. If we don’t plant trees.
Have you maintained and / or created hedges in your vineyards in Chablis?
Yes, we maintain hedges. But only, so to speak, individually. So it can’t have real repercussions, in terms of retention of water and coolness. That’s why I sent the letter to my neighbors. They need to understand that if they want to regulate water in their vineyards, they have to take their part of this shared responsibility.
The Chablisien landscape was largely replanted to vineyards in the last forty years. Whereas, between phylloxera and the 1980s, for about one hundred years, you had woodland, grains, fruit trees, etc. And that naturally reconstructed the reserves of organic material in the soil.
Do you plant trees?
For the last fifteen years, I’ve planted trees in a disorganized fashion, around our parcels. But now I’m starting to plant trees in the interior of parcels. This autumn we’ll start to plant many.
I have the impression that arguments against excessive plowing in organics are often misused by proponents of synthetic chemical agriculture. Are you concerned that your own discourse might be subverted in this way?
In writing this letter, I didn’t want to create a sense of opposing camps, or cliquishness. In the wine world nowadays, we put labels on people, and it becomes a caricature, an intellectual game. But we can’t classify people like that.
What I want, an in idealistic way, is for everyone to take into consideration the limits of our contemporary agriculture. Whether it’s organics, biodynamics, or conventional, it remains a limited model. If we continue in this way, we won’t get far.
Olivier de Moor
Alice and Olivier de Moor
4 Rue Jacques Ferrand
My English translation of Olivier de Moor’s open letter to fellow vignerons.
Olivier de Moor’s letter as it appeared on May 24th in Le Point.
Olivier de Moor’s letter as it appeared on May 24th at the blog of Jacques Berthomeau, who also helpfully includes links to de Moor’s inspirations, including agroforestry specialist Alain Canet and plant biologist Marc André Selosse.
My first visit to Alice and Olivier de Moor, back in 2013.
My interview with Burgundy no-till organics pioneer Jean-Jacques Morel.