The documentary also revealed that South Africa has one of the world’s highest levels of children born with the severe brain damage known as FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome).
Both the film and the earlier Human Rights Watch report described these conditions as part of a chain of exploitation stretching back to the era of slavery.
The film asked critical questions of WIETA, the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association, as its board gives its industry members a majority say. Almost half of all wine producers in South Africa are members, and the organisation issues a Certified Fair Labour Practice label. A response by WIETA to the film stated that it was a “distortion of the work of WIETA and the progress that has been made in improving employment conditions”.
The documentary was commissioned after a sharp rise in imports of South African wine into Nordic countries. In ten years Denmark saw a 78% increase in South African wine imports. In Sweden, South African wines had become the second or third most popular wines, often outselling French wine.
Bitter Grapes had a big impact. Two Danish supermarkets removed Robertson wines from their shelves, and several major Scandinavian retailers organised an array of inspections. Robertson’s workers continue to try to improve their conditions through annual wage negotiations.
A few farms in South Africa now explore the history of slavery in the area, some taking it further by connecting this to present day conditions. Elsewhere in South Africa, Fair Trade certifications help to ensure that problems are minimised.
In fact 28 of the 49 certified Fairtrade wine producer organisations are based in South Africa. Stellar Organics, who appear at the top of our score table, are one such organisation. They are 26% owned by workers including seasonal workers, and have a non-profit organization which manages development projects on the farms and in the communities where many of the Stellar workers live.
They are certified by the Fair for Life scheme which is different but largely equivalent to the Fairtrade certifications we are more normally used here at Ethical Consumer.
Why buy Fair Trade certified wine?
As well as addressing some of the problems identified above, Fair Trade certification helps ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their crop and that the rights of workers on wine grape plantations are protected. As with many sectors in the food industry grape growers are often faced with huge price fluctuations. When prices are low this can have a negative effect on farmers and farm labourers alike. The minimum price aims to cover small growers’ average costs of production. They also ensure that farms have high labour standards for workers.
Fair Trade certified plantations must also adhere to core International Labour Organization conventions, including the right to join a trade union and collectively negotiate their working conditions, a safe and healthy environment and no discrimination or child labour.
The Fair Trade premium also helps to fund additional projects at vineyards such as building schools or paying for medical expenses. On vineyards with hired workers, a Premium Committee, consisting of elected workers, administers the premium and a General Assembly, consisting of all workers, decides how the funds should be used. Smallholder winegrower cooperatives collect the premium payments on behalf of their members, who decide how the funds shall be spent, for instance for new harvesting and processing equipment or education facilities for their children.
The Fair Trade standards also encourage more environmentally sustainable farming practices and control the use of pesticides. You can read more about Emiliana, an innovative larger scale Fairtrade certified vineyard in Chile, below.
Four Fairtrade Wine Facts
- Around 27 million litres of Fairtrade wine are sold globally each year
- The UK is far and away the biggest consumer of Fairtrade wine, accounting for half of total global sales.
- There are 49 Fairtrade wine producer organisations worldwide, across South Africa, Chile, Argentina and the Lebanon, representing more than 5,500 farmers and workers.
- South Africa is the largest producer of Fairtrade wine globally, with 28 producer organisations, and accounts for around two-thirds of Fairtrade wine sales.
Is local or Fairtrade wine best?
Discussions around ethical wine choices sometimes come up against whether it is better to buy a Fair Trade wine that has travelled halfway around the world or a locally produced wine with a lower carbon footprint.
Arguments on the Fair Trade side suggest that it is an opportunity to contribute to weaker southern economies where there is more extreme poverty. They go on to say, that if you look at the carbon burned in transporting it as ‘belonging’ to the southern producer, then there is still a huge imbalance in per capita carbon use in northern and southern economies. Some also argue that global shipping is less carbon intensive than using rail travel from Southern to Northern Europe.
On the local buyers side, if there is an opportunity to buy a product with a lower carbon impact then that should be taken. Southern wines should be consumed by those nearer to the markets. Because of this, some retailers (such as our own award winning Unicorn supermarket in Manchester) will only stock European wines.
The answer is only resolvable by individuals deciding whether their own immediate priorities are for addressing climate change or north/south social inequalities.
With climate change, there are now over 500 vineyards and 100 wineries in the UK. This is labelled as either English or Welsh. English vineyards are listed on English Wine Producers. English wines, particularly sparkling wines, have won international awards in recent years.
Vinceramos and Vintage Roots both stock a wide variety of English and European organic wines.
Chemicals in Your Wine
Pesticides and other chemical treatments are widely used in the wine industry as grapes are particularly prone to disease and pests.
Nowhere is this use more pronounced that in France where farmers use around 60,000 tonnes of pesticides each year and is Europe’s biggest user by volume.
According to the Guardian, "Vineyards represent just 3% of agricultural land in France, but the wine industry accounts for 20% of product volumes relating to plant health, and 80% of fungicide use specifically."
The problem has been acknowledged by the French government and in 2008 they pledged to halve the country’s pesticide use by 2018. However, by 2015 use had actually increased and the targeted reduction has now been delayed until 2025.
This delay comes despite the French government officially recognising a link between pesticides and various illnesses including Parkinson’s disease, which they admitted in 2012.
The issues received new attention in 2016 when a film focusing on the Bordoux region of France found that traces of 44 different pesticides were found in hair samples taken from school children – 24 of the chemicals were either banned or classed as particularly dangerous.
Film makers linked these chemicals to incidences of autism and attention deficit disorder. On seeing the evidence then agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll accepted the findings and described the issue as "a time bomb, a danger to health, to the environment and perhaps even to the economy’.
The film was made in part as a response to a 2014 incident that saw 23 pupils from a school in Bordeaux‘s Blaye region affected by nausea and headaches following fungicide spraying in a next-door vineyard. An investigation by local government agencies found the children’s symptoms matched those of pesticide exposure.
Previous studies have found that the chemicals sprayed on grapes often end up in the bottle. In 2013 the Decanter magazine reported that a study of more than 300 French wines found that 90% contained traces of chemical vine treatments. Researchers concluded that some wines contained up to nine separate chemicals associated with treatments, with ‘anti-rot’ fungicides the most commonly found.
In our research we found that the larger wine companies paid little attention to this issue in their environmental reports. Of the four larger mainstream brands we covered, three received a worst Ethical Consumer rating for environmental reporting and one a middle rating. None had any targets relating to reducing the use of harmful pesticides in their publicly available environmental reporting.
A group known as the ‘Médoc Pesticides Collective’ have staged demonstrations in the Bordeaux‘s region to highlight the issues and support those suffering the long term effects of exposure to pesticide.