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It’s hard enough to develop, coordinate, and execute sustainable programs for wine-grape-producing regions even statewide, but Australia is implementing environmental stewardship on a national basis—and succeeding.

The Australian wine industry’s path to sustainability began in the early 1990s under a cloud of confusion, said Dr. Jim Hardie, chief executive officer of the Cooperative Research Centre for Viticulture. “The industry was first confused with the notion of sustainability, definitions, and where it should be going in regards to sustainability.

“Growers didn’t know what environmental management systems were or who was driving the concept of environmental management,” he said, adding that growers were “scratching their heads” trying to figure out whose requirements they should meet: consumer’s, market’s, community’s, industry’s, or other’s.

Australia’s visionary 2025 strategic plan said little about environmental sustainability, Hardie pointed out. “It was obvious that we needed another strategic plan dealing with sustainability.”

Thus, Sustaining Success, a strategic plan for sustainable viticulture, was developed under the auspices of the Cooperative Research Centre for Viticulture and released in 2002. It set environmental priorities in the areas of water quality and use in viticulture, winemaking and packaging, use of pesticides, biodiversity, land-use issues, as well as a few others.

Australia’s wine industry then organized the Wine Industry National Environment Committee to manage environmental affairs and make recommendations to the Winemakers Federation of Australia.

“Once WINEC was organized, sustainability took off, and since then, we’ve seen progress,” Hardie said.

Getting everyone to a sustainable level, however, hasn’t been easy, he said.

“The Australian wine industry stewardship program is about protecting the business of ‘Brand Australia’ and supporting every label of wine that goes out of the country,” he explained. “The Australian brand is known for having good value, being a pure product, and having good environmental credentials. It’s important to maintain the ‘clean, green’ image.”

Stewardship

In the last 12 months, great progress has been made, Hardie noted. On the national level, five regional coordinators are interfacing with government and natural resource management groups, a wine and environment newsletter is published to update and educate industry, and each production region has developed water quality and water catchment requirements.

Also, a pilot project is compiling environmental performance reporting from vineyard data and analyzing international marketplace trends by monitoring assurance programs and requirements.

At the vineyard level, a software tool was developed for growers to evaluate environment-related risks and better understand best management protocols. The best management protocol addresses a series of issues, including pest and chemicals, soil and fertilizers, equipment and machinery management, waste management, and biodiversity management.

Water

Hardie’s research center is working to develop sustainable production systems to accommodate regional variations, and for water and vine health.

“Water is a big issue for us,” he said, noting that 60 percent of Australia’s grape production—representing 4,000 growers—is located in the Murray Darling River Basin. “Research is looking at ways to increase water efficiencies. It is also looking at water volume and availability, water cost, water quality, and regional soil regimes.”

In five years, water efficiency has improved in the Murray Darling Basin from 78 percent to 90 percent, the level targeted by industry.

On-site issues of water use efficiency, soil condition, grapevine longevity, and biodiversity also are being addressed through research. For example, scientists are studying the long-term soil impact of using drip irrigation from water that is slightly sodic or salty. Research trials are also measuring copper residues in the soil from years of pesticide application to determine if soil contamination is a problem.

Biodiversity

Biodiversity has been a hard issue for growers to “get their head around,” he said. “There was a lot of skepticism initially, but after taking a business risk approach that recognizes that resilience of an ecosystem depends on the diversity of life forms within it, industry better understood its importance.”

He noted that research is helping growers learn how to sample for beneficial invertebrates, identify them, and compare distribution and abundance of key beneficials. Scientists are working to devise a simple bio-indicator index base for growers to use on their findings.

“We have found marked differences in the number of invertebrates between clean vineyards and those with natural vegetation nearby,” he said, adding that mulch and straw under the vine have shown an increase in the number of beneficial pests. In the future, the effects of management practices on the bio-indicator species will be evaluated.

“We haven’t ignored off-site vineyard impacts from water, phosphorus, nitrogen, and different irrigation regimes,” he said.

“We are finding movement of nutrients off-site and in drainage channels and river systems.” Researchers are working to identify aquatic invertebrate that can be used as bio-indicators.

“In seven years, we’ve come a long way from the very confused system in the 1990s,” he concluded. “There is a significant awakening at the highest level of industry. When the business risk approach is taken, we get the biggest buy-in.”

He added that although a scientific review process established benchmarks for sustainable practices, individual businesses decide what actions they want to address.