21 November 2013

Saving the planet, one bottle of wine at a time.



This blog post was written by postgraduate student Michael Fake as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Michael revisits a Lincoln University research area that looks at increasing pollinators in vineyards published in 2012.

We have entered a period of global declines in both managed and wild pollinator species abundance. If this is not setting off alarm bells in your head it should, as over 30,000 plant species are dependent on pollinators, including a third of the world’s food crops. Pointing fingers gets tricky as more than one factor is involved. However, it is without a doubt that habitat loss due to human activity is the most significant detrimental factor to global pollinator diversity.

“Pollinator habitat enhancement: Benefits to other ecosystem services” is a recently published paper which addresses the finer points of the ecosystem services provided by enhancing pollinator habitat. Wratten and colleagues draw attention to the fact these habitats are useful for more than just pollination. They provide a myriad of potential services that should be considered when weighing up the pros and cons of potential Agri-Environmental Schemes.

These schemes are already in use in both Europe and America. Many aim at enhancing pollinator conservation and activity by encouraging the establishment of resource rich habitats in agricultural systems. They are frequently reinforced with monetary subsidies and technical guidance for their overall planning and management. It’s in land owners best interests to adopt these pollinator enhancing schemes.

As a budding viticulturist and ecologist, I believe New Zealand viticulture is prime territory for such schemes. Vineyards have already been proven to benefit from increased functional biodiversity in the system. For example, the use of selected cover crops can reduce both pest activity and disease pressure as well as a number of other services. On the whole, however, conventional viticulture is that of monocultural crop production, and there exists much room, both figuratively and literally, for improvement in regards to enhancing and harnessing biodiversity in vineyards.

Check out these websites for a more comprehensive view of vineyard agro-ecology.

Pyramid Valley Vineyards, a first-rate Bio-dynamically managed vineyard and winery from North Canterbury. Agri-environmental schemes would not only help our premium boutique producers continue to attract world attention, but could also result in the creation of more places like this. Image source: personal collection.
 
Bees and other arthropods benefit from habitat enhancement which results in landscapes of high habitat-connectivity and enhanced diversity in structure and species. This is evident as cropping systems in close proximity to natural or semi-natural habitat have increased flower visitation rates compared to un-connected systems. Increasing pollinator diversity not only increases yield, but also facilitates conservation of uncommon plants that share pollinators with widespread plant species.


Marlborough: New Zealand's largest viticultural region is dominated by vineyards, mostly of Sauvignon Blanc, yet remnant horticultural and cropping industries are scattered across the region. Source: "Marlborough" 41'47'08.52" S and 173'53'50.91" E. Google Earth. March 1, 2013.

Those of you who are botanically savvy will know that grapevines are self-pollinating; therefore enhancing pollinator activity may seem counter-intuitive. But that is really the point. We should begin to think of the effects that our actions will have outside property boundaries. It is likely that vineyards currently serve to reduce pollinator species diversity and activity, as they provide little in terms of food or shelter. Neighboring pollinator-dependent industries stand to benefit from habitat enhancement, as do surrounding native ecosystems through facilitation of ecosystem function. This research highlights many of these potential benefits, as well as biodiversity conservation, soil and water quality protection and rural prosperity and aesthetics. The implementation of AES in NZ viticulture can provide the beginnings of sustainability; not only of the industry itself, but also that of the environment.

Having experienced NZ viticulture first-hand, I know that many winegrowers want to be environmentally sustainable. Viticulture, however, like any other industry is driven by cash and profits. Keeping the bean counters happy means that in many cases less than ideal land is developed, or complex vineyard blocking systems are implemented to cover the greatest possible area to maximize yield/ha. Poor-quality land, such as water-logging-prone soils, can produce yields of poor quality and quantity with higher susceptibility to disease. Poorly designed blocking systems can mean improper trellis tension resulting in poor canopy management and subsequent vine damage.

I won’t get too much into details, but the increased disease pressure and suboptimal ripening of the crops basically this all spells reduced quality in the pursuit of quantity. AES schemes, if in place, would mean that these areas would not have to be developed. The subsidy would go some way as to cover the costs from reduced yields and the ecosystem services provided by the reserved area would return benefits, both financial and otherwise, to the wider system. These proposed changes would also have a larger effect on the greater NZ wine industry: shifting to quality over quantity parallels the long-term aims of the NZ wine industry of producing premium and truely sustainable, world-class wines.


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