Can dialogue be the change you wish to see in the world?

Local experts have solutions to help vintners and farmers phase out the use Roundup as a weedkiller. This is the uplifting take-away Brian Lilla, producer of “Children of the Vine,” hopes viewers have after Tuesday’s screening of his documentary at the Rialto in Sebastopol.|

An estimated 200 people gathered at Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol on Tuesday night for a documentary that sounds an ominous note about the pervasive use of the herbicide Roundup, the main ingredient of which was used in more than half of vineyards in Sonoma County in 2018.

Brian Lilla was hoping for that big turnout, and for local grape growers to be inspired by the organic farming methods a panel of experts proposed afterward as alternatives to using Roundup.

Lilla’s documentary, “Children of the Vine,” outlines the ill effects of the popular weedkiller and its main ingredient, glyphosate, including ongoing and settled lawsuits over ties to cancers. Napa and Sonoma counties are highly toxic because of Roundup, Lilla said. In 2015, the International Agency for the Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have been linked to exposure to glyphosate. And a study released in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals how pervasive glyphosate is in our environment. The research involved 2,310 people, a representative group of Americans, and found glyphosate in the urine of more than 80%.

In 2018, Sonoma County grape growers treated 55% of the vineyard acreage in the county with nearly 48,000 pounds of glyphosate, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Napa grape growers were close behind, spraying roughly 43% of the vineyard acreage in that county with nearly 33,000 pounds of glyphosate.

While the documentary and statistics are deeply disturbing, the panelists who spoke after the screening said they’re optimistic vintners and farmers will shift away from using Roundup as they learn more about organic, biodynamic and regenerative farming methods that don’t use synthetic chemicals.

“Regenerative farming goes a bit further by getting carbon and microbiology back in the ground, where it has become scarce due to the conventional farming techniques of the post-WWII era,” said panelist Darek Trowbridge, founder and president of Fulton’s Old World Winery.

Aside from being a winemaker, Trowbridge is also the founder of Soil Carbon Management, a company that helps farmers sequester carbon back into the soil.

“I believe in the type of farming that Darek Trowbridge is pioneering at Old World Winery,” said panelist Megan Kaun, co-founder and director of Sonoma Safe Ag Safe Schools, which advocates for nontoxic land management. “His focus is on soil health and uses a method of increasing soil organic matter. ... I don’t think that just switching to organic pesticides is going to be the complete solution. The solution will need to literally start at the ground up.”

Trowbridge encouraged people to speak with their pocketbooks.

“I want to stress not to attack farmers but to first vote for change with their dollars, supporting organic, biodynamic and regenerative foods and beverages at their local stores,” he said. “I believe once word gets out, people will make choices against the use of Roundup in their purchases, which is what has happened in the growth of the organic food industry.”

Trowbridge said he hopes people contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture to urge more funding for organic farming practices and healthy soil initiatives.

Investing in organic food, Estes said, is worth the investment.

“It’s important to inspire the next generation of farmers,” she said. “We need to pay more for our food because we’re going to protect our children and our world.”

In the documentary, Lilla explains that he approached Bayer, which bought Roundup creator Monsanto in 2018, several times to get the company’s response. But Bayer never responded to his questions about Roundup and glyphosate.

The Press Democrat also emailed questions to Bayer about its use of Roundup and its reaction to “Children of the Vine.” Here’s the reply from Bayer:

“Farmers around the world rely on glyphosate-based products not only for effective weed control, but also to minimize tillage farming practices, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, preserve more land for native habitats and provide enough food to meet the needs of a growing population worldwide. These herbicides are among the most thoroughly studied products of their kind. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the other leading independent regulatory authorities around the world have repeatedly concluded that glyphosate-based products can be used safely as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. These conclusions are based on an extensive body of science spanning more than 40 years, including more than 800 safety studies overall submitted to regulators. These authorities include the U.S. EPA, European Food Safety Authority, European Chemicals Agency, as well as German, Australian, Korean, Canadian, New Zealand and Japanese regulatory authorities and the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues.

“When it comes to pesticide residues and human exposure, there is no reliable scientific evidence that glyphosate use results in levels of residue that pose health problems for consumers. Regulatory authorities have strict rules and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets daily exposure limits for pesticide residues on foods that are at least 100 times below levels shown to have no negative effect in safety studies.”

“This response comes across as a blanket statement that contradicts many of the credible studies that have taken place in recent years,” Lilla said of Bayer’s comments. “Bayer is scrambling with all the fallout regarding Roundup.”

Lilla is taking his call-to-action documentary on the road and is planning about 20 screenings this year, with experts on hand to discuss with audiences ways to phase out Roundup use. His national campaign is becoming global, he said, with requests for screenings from Japan, England and Nova Scotia.

“The best change happens with (in-person) dialogue at theaters, not on phones, not online,” Lilla said. “That’s what grange halls were and are, for farmers to talk about concerns in farming with their community. I kind of feel like this is a grange-hall experience.”

Lilla said he remains upbeat because of viticulturists who are proving vineyards don’t need Roundup or any glyphosate-based products to grow world-class wine grapes.

“Organic viticulturists’ willingness to share their knowledge with conventional viticulturists is an open initiation to begin the process of shifting away from Roundup,” he said.

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at or 707-521-5310.

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