Copper vs Algae: a fight going unnoticed

„Copper now regaining strength…. yes, yes, he is getting up…..tumbling a bit, mind you….but can he still do it….. Algae’s performance tonight has been mind-blowing, the fans’ screams are deafening….Algae has surprised us all by dominating this fight from the beginning… he will be a deserving champion tonight…..[pause]….ohmygod!…ohmygooooooood!!!!!….Copper is going in for another punch….goodnessgracious meeeeee!….Algae is on the floor!!!!….He – has –  done – it… Copper has done iiiiiiit…..He found some strength somewhere and wiped out his opponent when everyone had him written off already… Copper – is – the –  winner!!!!!

It could have sounded something like this. The wrangling in Brussels as to which substance certified organic vintners should be allowed to use to fight one of the mildew illnesses that would otherwise seriously damage the grapes, or wipe out the entire harvest. Algae (brown Algae to be precise, in a product called „Frutogard“, containing „phosphonate“), or various Copper products.

If Mohammad Ali had been in the fight above, you would have heard of it. Every paper would throw headlines at you the next morning. You could not avoid knowing. But the same fight struggles to make it through to the consumer’s eyes and ears, probably even as they are munching on grapes, when it comes to knowing what substance has been sitting on the skin of these grapes.

Not a fight scene. No copper. No algae. In fact, the wrong picture altogether.  Possible that Erbse fancies himself as the Muhammad Ali of the parrot world. The raspberry on the beak faking a bloody fight.

Not a fight scene. No copper. No algae. In fact, the wrong picture altogether. Possible that Erbse fancies himself as the Muhammad Ali of the parrot world. The raspberry on the beak faking a bloody fight.

The illustration with graphic images may be lacking. I dare you to mash up stock photos of algae and copper into an epic fight scene. It is happening in my imagination, but it won’t come out in any meaningful way.

But here is an image I can hopefully convey: Imagine you are putting on a onesie out of clingfilm in May and at no count are you allowed to take it off until August. Most importantly, it must not tear. The tiniest rip and you are doomed. In fact, picture something more fragile, very thin crepe-dough poured evenly over your skin and it has to hold for 3-4months. You are walking through rain and it must not come off. You bash into things and it must not come off. You grow (best to picture a toddler in a onesie here, as analogy for the growing leaves) and the onesie must not tear.


grapes and harvest

In real life, we are trying to put this onesie over all berries and leaves in a vineyard, from May until August. You start with a few tiny leaves that grow into many big leaves in that period. You start with pin-needle berries that grow into pea-sized berries. Unless you are growing a new breed of vines that is resistant to fungus („Piwi“s), any rip in the onesie spells disaster: In this rip, the illness, the fungus, can grab hold of the leaf or the berry. It gets a chance to spread and before you know it, you have lost and the fungus has won.  As leaves and berries grow, you need a larger onesie. Otherwise the clingfilm layer gets too thin, allowing the fungus onto the plant. That’s why we watch the plants’ growth and re-apply the „paint“ every week or so to ensure the onesie stays intact.

Then there is the rain.  The onesie washes off. Not so much if the onesie is made from synthetic substances. That’s why conventional vintners can spray less often. All the organic substances, algae, copper, baking powder, sulphur, whey, will come off very easily in the rain. And thus need to be re-applied immediately, to stop the fungus spreading in the cracks. Have a spraying machine that doesn’t turn the leaves around to cover both sides? You have lost already. That’s how extreme it is.

What does it mean, if the fungus wins?  Organic vintners have lost their entire harvest in years of severe fungus, such as 2016.

As far as covering everything from May to August, everyone is on the same page. Then comes the question what substance works best. This is where, as far as the organic side is concerned, you’d think there’d be a major fight, – an assessment of all pros and cons. But apparently, it happened very quietly. The license to use the algae product in organic farming was not extended in Brussels. And so the choice was gone and copper is the only option.

I am not a scientist, but I understand the concerns at the amounts of copper being thrown into the air between May and August. Not that it should distract from the badies conventional farmers cover their leaves and berries with. But the signal it sends to consumers damages the concept of organic certification at the core:  If a consumer decides he would rather buy wine that went through algae spraying (and thus far less copper spraying; it could never replace copper entirely), he/she would have to start the precise research that the certification aims to avoid: ring the vintner, know the vintner, know a lot to ask the right questions.

Picture the vintner who decides it is unethical to go with the copper-only option. He/she loses his/her organic certification. A three-year period is then between the vintner and a new certification.  If legislation decides to re-introduce the algae the following year, you might have two vintner neighbours spraying the same thing (algae), one still holding on to his certification; the other one still waiting for three years, because he changed his system on his own accord during one year, on the basis of what he considered best.

I can’t help but at least consider a path away from certification and towards a distribution system that makes sure the consumer knows what we spray.

(Thank you to Johann Schnell for sharing his insights from so many years of spraying with us. And yes, the ruling out of the algae happened a few years ago, so you could argue, the complaint comes a bit late. But until the papers pick it up, it is worth writing about it. This article from 2008 mentions Frutogard briefly.)

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