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Biodiversity at Work, Adding Value in New Zealand Vineyards
Josephine Howitt, 25 Sep 07

Imagine you're a grape grower, farming in the Canterbury region of New Zealand's pristine South Island. Life's good, but you're out to make a profit and you've got pests eating your fruit.

The environment is your livelihood, and you know that you should look after it. On the other hand, grapes are also your livelihood and you can't afford to miss a season.

How can intangible environmental benefits ever stack up against the money to be made using chemical solutions? The reality of the business world calls for some serious number-crunching.

So if I told you that biological control of pests and diseases in your vineyard would save over NZ $1000 per hectare, would you put the fertilisers and pesticides aside?

In green spheres, ecosystem services make perfect sense. Why pay for something artificial when nature can do it for us? This is what Professor Steve Wratten and his team at Lincoln University in Christchurch are asking viticulturists in the Waipara Valley.

Early settlers in the Canterbury region clear-felled vast tracts of indigenous forests for pasture. In the last decade or so, the landscape has been transformed again as New Zealand's wine industry has flourished. While many of the first farmers saw native vegetation as inferior, today's viticulturists are pioneering a return to the indigenous flora, and reaping the benefits. Planting of native trees is thought to attract birds that do not eat grapes, saving on the cost of pest bird control. Further north in Marlborough, another project is using rare New Zealand falcons to scare off pest birds while providing a vineyard habitat for the falcons.

Shifts towards tree-filled landscapes will also make vineyards more attractive for wine tourism, and native plants can suppress weeds, remove the potent greenhouse gas methane from the air, and mitigate soil erosion too (full report). And a team of scientists is currently undertaking the first chemical analysis of the nectar of native New Zealand plants to determine which will offer the highest energy value for pollinators.

Use of these ecosystem services from native flora could save vineyards from buying oil-based and ecologically adverse fertilisers and pesticides, and presents a unique marketing opportunity at the same time: customers will know that their wine is grown from grapes that droop over the habitat of native lizards and weta. As the trees grow, further evidence will bloom on the environmental and financial outcomes.

Since the government-supported project started with 4 vineyards in September 2005, 44 of the 70 vineyards in the Waipara Valley have committed to the scheme. Researchers hope to get local Maori support as many plants have status as taonga (treasured) species. Sustainable farming is being given a chance in New Zealand's vineyards...and the evidence thus far indicates that the numbers will stack up in its favour.


Image credits:
flickr/tylerryan and
flickr/superciliousness

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