With the effects of climate change being felt around the world and the global Race To Zero gaining momentum ahead of the COP 26 climate change conference taking place next month in Scotland, we decided to take a look at how one South African carbon neutral winery is forging a sustainable future.
Backsberg pioneering the future
Leading the way, Backsberg became South Africa’s first certified carbon neutral winery in 2006, In 2011, the winery was one of only three in the world to gain Carbon Neutral status by sequestrating its carbon emissions.
Proprietor, Michael Back joined the family business in 1976 and is passionate about the environment. He believes that each generation is the custodian of the land during their time on earth: “Care for the environment means care and concern for succeeding generations. As custodians of the land, it is our duty to understand and recognise potential threats, and to militate against them for the benefit of the next generation.”
The estate is also accredited with the well-recognised Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trading Association (WIETA) and the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) initiative.
By reserving 10% of his land for non-development and preservation of endangered fynbos biome, Beck’s progressive take on wine farming has rescued several plant species from extinction. As such, Backsberg is one of nearly 40 WWF-SA Conservation Champions who place great emphasis on a sustainable future for all.
But what does it mean to be carbon neutral?
Don’t Waste Group CEO, Jeremy Droyman explains what it is like to be carbon neutral (or operate at Net Zero). For this to happen, the amount of greenhouse gas an operation produces must be balanced out by the amount removed from the atmosphere.
Why does it matter?
The earth warms up as global concentrations of greenhouse gasses increase beyond natural levels. One of the main causes of this climate change is human activity. This includes increased burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity, running cars and power manufacturing and industry.
There’s also deforestation and increasingly intensive agriculture. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 25% since 1958 and approximately 40% since the Industrial Revolution.
How Backsberg is achieving carbon neutrality
1. Energy saving
Backsburg’s focus to date has been on saving energy across all departments. The introduction of the Lyre trellising system has been particularly successful. It allows for greater air circulation, maximum sun exposure and greater canopy space. This leads to superior yields from the same land. The system also reduced driving kilometres per hectare by 35%, resulting in lower fuel usage and less soil compaction.
Other initiatives include painting roofs and improving roof insulation. They’re also focusing on using the smallest tractors and utility vehicles available. The next step will be energy generation through PV cells and biofuel combustion.
2. Water Efficiency
South Africa is a water-scarce country and experts predict that our climate will become more arid as global temperatures rise. Staying ahead of the curve, Backsburg winery in 2018 completed a major pipeline and pump installation to capture and redirect all run-off water to one of several dams.
Mulch is also applied regularly to vineyards. This improves soil health and water holding capacity through reduced evaporation. In addition, all irrigation water applied is measured and monitored so as to neither over nor under irrigate.
3. Biomass Development
Tree planting is as crucial in the absorption of greenhouse gasses as it is vital in developing more conservation-oriented practices. This is achieved by becoming more energy efficient for long-term sustainability.
Backsberg has planted thousands of trees over the last decade, substantially increasing the biomass stand on the property. The estate is now in a position to use some of the timber to make their own vineyard poles, extend the mulching programme and use their own timber in construction.
Creating biodiversity is pivotal in a mono-crop environment. Growing the same crop on the same plot of land year after year depletes the soil of nutrients, thus making the soil less productive over time.
In addition, the practice reduces organic matter in the soil which could cause significant erosion. To mitigate this, Backsberg has established two conservation areas and created fynbos corridors for wildlife to migrate freely. Small puddles and wetlands created on the farm improve birdlife. Additionally, planting certain types of trees and shrubs host and encourage a healthy bee population.
5. Carbon auditing
In order to understand the magnitude of the sequestration solutions required to reduce its carbon footprint and maintain its sought-after status as being carbon neutral, Backsberg voluntarily undergoes regular comprehensive scientific carbon audits.
In the interest of credibility, these audits are done by an independent third party, Promethium Carbon, which specialises in the field. The scope of the audit includes all activities from overall energy consumption to CO2 emitted during fermentation. The extent of auditing enables Backsberg to deliver a range of carbon-neutral fruit and wine to domestic and international clients.
Aiming towards moving the winery off of the national electricity grid, Backsberg is looking into the implementation of a biofuel generator that will run on grape and plant waste. They have also recently started a vineyard biomass development trial. Furthermore, they are in the process of vegan certifying the Tread Lightly range.
In 2018 Backsberg planted drought-resistant Marselan vines with the first commercial harvest expected for 2022. In 2019 the winery engaged in a high-density vine trial, paired with the use of ultraviolet light technology to control mildew. A queen bee pollination programme and a mulching programme further add to the farm’s carbon-neutral operations.
Pushing the limits of cutting-edge agricultural science, the farm is also engaged in collaborative activities with the University of Stellenbosch in various trials. Included in these are a windbreak trial, eucalyptus species/density and coppicing trial and investing in the long-term impact of the use of cellular effluent water for vineyard irrigation.