Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970. It’s hard for us to imagine (or in some cases, remember) the state of the air, water, and land back then. Practically all of the major U.S. environmental laws came into being after 1970, and they have had a huge impact on our world.
But the virtual standstill over the past couple of months due to the coronavirus has showed us that we’ve still got a long way to go. The drop in transportation, industrial activity, and power generation from people staying home has made for less smog and less water pollution. Clearer skies over big cities and dolphins in the canals of Venice are things we should be expecting during the regular course of our lives, not just during a pandemic lockdown.
Likewise, if we look at agricultural practices in the 1960s and 70s, we’d be stunned at the variety of now-banned pesticides that were in use. I remember that Chlordane was sold in hardware stores for people to kill Japanese beetles on their lawns. One of my wine producers described that time as a chemical free-for-all. Thanks to regulation and changes in production mindset, chemical use has decreased by huge amounts.
Obviously, there’s still further to go with wine production and the world at large. The cleaner environment over the past couple of months has made me wonder if we’re going to see a difference in the 2020 wine grape harvest. As I mentioned before, grapes that show little to no detectable contaminant residues aren’t just a product of not using chemicals on the vines – they also come from vineyards that are protected from chemical drift and transportation pollution by geography, topography, or prevailing winds. Transportation particulate pollution often contains heavy metals, as well as droplets of condensed organic chemicals.
Vineyards near well-traveled roads are normally subject to more of this pollution. But with fewer non-essential trips happening, these vineyards are getting a reprieve. This time of year is important with bud break, flowering, and fruit set happening. The vines expend a lot of energy producing the grapes, and take in more of what’s in the environment. It’s not unrealistic to expect that the longer the shutdown lasts, the less transportation contaminants will end up in the grapes. In addition, less smog would allow more direct sun and that could reduce spring molds that might otherwise develop.
Will this cleaner period have a measurable impact on public health and the environment down the road, let alone on wine grapes? In terms of public health, we may not get a definitive answer – especially if people aren’t seeking medical attention that would help tally results of respiratory illnesses. Even if we knew that there was an improvement, it could well be swamped by coronavirus cases. For wine grapes, I assume that winegrowers who test for chemical residues at harvest will continue doing those tests, so perhaps we’ll get some data, especially from organic vineyards if they choose to release the information. But the vast majority of publicly-available data from residue tests are done by public interest organizations, not winegrowers. Residue testing is expensive, and unless those testing organizations get more funding we probably won’t see any results.
Obviously, there are other differences from year to year that influence the flavors and quantities of grapes, including prevailing winds, so transportation pollution effects might not even be detectable. But if we do find a difference in the grapes that we can pin on a quiet spring, it would be a great data point to add to other evidence that could influence future regulation and practices. Helping drive government, industry, and individuals to find ways to lessen our environmental footprints without economic disruption and a public health crisis could be a small silver lining to these difficult times.