People and the land

Rampant planting of prosecco vines is leading to unhealthy monoculture. Mionetto Wines

The relationship of people to the land is a hot topic these days, and not before time.

Just what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to do with the land that they ‘own’ is a vexed one.

Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine that has conquered the world (leading to, among other things, a dispute with Australian wineries exploiting its name on Australian wine bottles) is so successful that it’s dividing communities in northern Italy. Rampant planting of prosecco vines is leading to unhealthy monoculture, with vineyards impinging on populated areas with attendant risks posed by chemical sprays, and so on. Prosecco madness is threatening the Italian environment and people’s health. This article in The Guardian details the issues.

The unhealthy cultivation of just one plant over a large area encourages diseases and pests which must, in turn, be controlled with heavy-handed measures.

Monoculture vineyards are a problem in many places. New Zealand’s Marlborough is a classic example. They work against biodiversity. The unhealthy cultivation of just one plant over a large area encourages diseases and pests which must, in turn, be controlled with heavy-handed measures.

A new book that I’m currently reading, The Winter Road by Kate Holden, explores in great detail the relationship of white Australians to the land they ‘own’. As a farmer’s son myself, I was gripped by the recent story of the northern NSW landowner who murdered a government inspector who was trying to stop him ravaging the land, clearing native bush, killing the creatures that lived there and wrecking their habitat.

One of the many threads Holden unpicks is the attitude of the early white settlers and their claim that the land was uninhabited (‘terra nullius’) and so they could do with it whatever they chose. Including massacring the original inhabitants, who they didn’t even regard as human. This is a horrific story in itself, but Holden suggests the attitudes of the early settlers persist in some of today’s landowners.

It’s not that these people, like the story’s protagonist Ian Turnbull, don’t love and cherish their land, they do, and they care for it according to their own standards, but they are also businessmen who need to make a living. They need to make the land produce. They have to pay their mortgage instalments, and they want to set up a prosperous future for their children and grandchildren.

We now know that land clearing on a large scale affects the climate.

The idea that early white settlers could simply march onto ‘unoccupied’ land and ‘squat’ there, had its roots in the 17th-century British philosopher John Locke. His idea that anybody who works the land, who changes the natural state of land with his labour, turns it into something different, thereby making it his property, was used by the white settlers to justify their possession of the Australian continent. And the dispossession of the Aboriginal people—one of the most dreadful things humans have done to fellow humans anywhere on the planet.

Back to prosecco.

It’s ironic that at a time when agriculturalists are more aware than ever of the damage human activity is doing to the environment, on whose health we all depend, land clearing, chemical spraying, unhealthy monocultures and many other forms of mechanised, large-scale agriculture are still inflicting great harm. Organic, biodynamic and other forms of more sustainable viticulture are very much in the news. They are front-of-mind for more and more wine producers and the trend will only continue.

We now know that land clearing on a large scale, whether to plant vines, cereal crops like Turnbull’s, palm oil trees in the Amazon basin or anything else, affects the climate.

It’s hard not to sympathise with those objecting to broad-scale vineyards in Italy. Does the world really need that much more prosecco?

The Winter Road, by Kate Holden, published by Black Inc, 2021.


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