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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 July 2007, 08:38 GMT 09:38 UK
SA wine farm tackles climate change
By Tim Mansel
BBC News, Western Cape, South Africa

Backsberg wine estate, Western Cape, South Africa
Backsberg is South Africa's first carbon neutral wine estate
It is lunchtime on the Backsberg wine estate, a few kilometres from Stellenbosch in South Africa's Western Cape, and all is quiet in the bottling plant.

Michael Back, the owner, sighs in frustration. "This just shows you the reality of trying to address climate change. Everybody is on lunch, but the lights are still on," he says.

Michael Back has made headlines and history in South Africa by becoming the first wine farmer there - and only the third in the world - to be recognised as carbon neutral.

"We are rather pleased with ourselves at having managed to do that," he says.

"When you see all the issues of the environment all over the newspapers, you start to look at your own place.

"As landowners we are custodians of that land for a very short period of time. We need to leave the land and environment in a better place than in which we found it."

Prized trees

In order to obtain the precious "Carbon Neutral Approved" sticker that now adorns all Backsberg bottles, Michael had to submit to a carbon audit - carried out in January this year - which measured the farm's carbon footprint and recommended ways to offset his emissions.

If we want to maintain our position on the shelves in the next five to 10 years, we're all going to have to monitor our activities in the environment
Michael Back
Backsberg wine estate

The result was a "village greening" project in nearby Klapmuts, a poor community with high unemployment, which provides seasonal labour for the surrounding vineyards.

In some of the small gardens in front of the one-storey breezeblock houses, slender saplings of acacia and willow droop in the winter rain.

Trees are much prized in a region with scorching summers for the shade they provide - and more than 900 have been planted in Klapmuts as part of Mr Back's offset programme.

The project has been overseen by the environmental organisation, Trees For Africa, which also provides his certification.

"People took the trees on a voluntary basis," he explains.

"So hopefully the people who took them are going to look after them. We ourselves go round the village regularly making sure that all the trees are still alive, because if we lose too many then our offset won't be in balance."

Mounting pressure

For all his environmental awareness Michael Back is a businessman, and his carbon neutrality programme is designed to keep his business in good shape.

Michael Back of Backsberg wine estate, Western Cape, South Africa
We have to find ways in which environmental care can be commercialised so that it actually creates employment
Michael Back

Some 40% of the wine bottled on the farm goes for export, as does all the fruit he grows - citrus, blueberries, figs and pomegranates.

He is aware that carbon emissions have become a big issue in those European markets on which he relies.

"I think that we are on top of the curve, but it's absolutely crucial that we can demonstrate that we are carbon neutral," he says.

"More and more the retailers are going to be pressurised by their customers, and as this pressure mounts, the pressure is going to be sent back down the line to suppliers.

"If we want to maintain our position on the shelves in the next five to 10 years, we're all going to have to monitor our activities in the environment."

He says every single operation on the farm is now up for review to see if they can save energy.

As we tour the winery Mr Back points up at two square holes that have been sawn in the ceiling. "We used to have neon tubes up there - now we just have natural light."

Other new projects depend on technology from a previous era. Michael describes with enthusiasm a method of washing barrels using a "hot water donkey".

"Basically you use waste wood to make hot water, instead of electricity. We're going back to something we had probably 50 or 75 years ago."

Huge issue

Projects in development include a methane digester which will use as fuel the litter from Michael's poultry sheds.

"We're planning to build a small pilot plant in October or November," he says.

Backsberg wine estate sign, Western Cape, South Africa
South Africa's wine industry is following Mr Back's lead
"We'll burn the litter, which gives off methane gas, which we can then burn to make heat, for example. We see this is a very important component of our energy replacement."

On top of the 10% of the farm that has already been set aside for non-cultivation - to allow indigenous species of shrub to be preserved - Michael is planning to reserve another 10% for growing eucalyptus trees, as renewable forms of energy.

In terms of carbon neutrality Michael Back might be even further ahead of the curve than he realises.

In a recent survey conducted among British wine drinkers by Wine Intelligence, people were more interested in whether wine was organic or Fair Trade. No-one expressed a strong view about carbon neutrality and wine.

Still, it seems that the rest of South Africa's wine industry is gearing up to follow Michael Back's pioneering lead.

Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa, which markets South African wine overseas, says the question now is how to move the whole industry towards being carbon neutral.

"At the end of the day you've got to do what your customers want and that's something the customers are asking of us," she says.

'Better for all'

But Su Birch also sounds a note of caution. Unemployment in South Africa is high and jobs are precious.

One way of reducing carbon emissions would be to export wine in bulk and have it bottled overseas.

"That would be creating jobs over there and losing them in South Africa, where they are desperately needed," she says.

"This shouldn't be a one-dimensional issue, because there are other issues here around the welfare of people who work in the wine industry. The societal implications, I think, should be as important as the environmental ones."

Michael Back agrees: "We have to find ways in which environmental care can be commercialised so that it actually creates employment, and shows that living in a cleaner environment is better for all."

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