Threats to lavender? – Feet on the ground
Threats to lavender? – Feet on the ground
For a few years in Drôme Provençale, a rumor has been circulating: the European Union and its regulations in terms of toxicity threaten the disappearance of lavender fields and the production of essential oils or derived products.
In our collective imagination, however, the lavender field is one of the strong symbols of Provence, visual and olfactory. Who hasn’t been ecstatic in front of these deep blue fields, who hasn’t crumpled a stem of flowers and inhaled this perfume with delight? Who hasn’t tasted lavender honey?
Celebrated by painters and photographers, lavender is also a very important tourist asset: many travelers come to see the flowering of the fields, just like in Japan, the flowering of the cherry trees.
It is also an important ecological asset: very melliferous, it attracts bees and various pollinators en masse. It resists well to aridity and holds the soil in place, including in steep terrain.
A “precious plant”
Already recognized as beneficial among the Egyptians who used it for its antiseptic and fragrant properties during mummifications, cited as a protector against calamities in the Bible and adorning the doors with crosses braided with strands, it was classified by Pliny the Elder (naturalist ) and Dioscorides (doctor and botanist) in the Precious plants. The Greeks and Romans used it for laundry and their baths in particular, hence its name, which comes from the Latin, washLavandula angustifolia Miller wash, or english lavender, named after the Scottish botanist, Philip Miller (1691-1771) who listed it in 1768, is the one distilled for the essential oil.
At first only wild, the harvesting of lavender flowers in Haute Provence and Drôme Provençale was left to women and children. It was only after the war of 14-18 that we began to cultivate it in the fields and that it gradually took off in production. Since 1981, it has acquired the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) of Fine lavender from Haute Provence. It is adapted to dry land and grows in various species between 100 and more than 2,000 meters above sea level. The practice of its culture in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence was included in the inventory of French intangible cultural heritage in 2018.
Why then would it be threatened with extinction? By whom and how?
My little investigation…
To get to the bottom of it, instead of speculating on rumours, I sought information from Mr. Philippe Soguel, owner since 1994 of the Bleu Provence distillery in Nyons in the Drôme. Distiller, he is therefore considered as an essential oil producer.
Mr. Soguel has devoted his professional life to promoting the multiple benefits of lavender and its essential oil. He works with some 100 regional farmers-producers and together they defend organic for its high traceability and quality.
For more than 10 years, Philippe Soguel has defended the production of essential oil with the European Commission and participated in all possible discussions for the development of regulations adapted to his product.
Very competent, he explained to me the real problem with which his federation of producers is confronted. Below are some of its various functions, at national, European and international level. *
The Crux of the Matter: The Definition essential oil
According to the ISO international standard, the definition of the term lavender essential oil is: a product obtained from a natural raw material of vegetable origin by steam distillation. 15 years ago, lavender essential oil was subject to two regulations (REACH and CLP) which launched the great debate on its possible toxicity. It is therefore subject to the same obligations as all chemicals, regardless of their origin.
In this respect, Ph.Soguel specifies that he collaborates very well with the producers of perfumes and synthetic aromas, and that they should not be demonized. “There is room for everyone!” he said smiling. He often works with them and with major brands of cosmetics or perfumes. “There is no conflict of interest between us”.
Indeed, its sector is very small, even if it plays a very important role recognized by other market players.
Ph.Soguel adds that his industry is in favor of the regulations: “We, the producers of essential oils, are in favor of the regulation of our product. This guarantees quality and traceability. This protects us all, producers, industry and consumers.”
He adds: “Besides, I would like to say that the European Commission has always been very benevolent and open to discussion with us. We work together and not in conflict. Nevertheless, we must together find regulations adapted to the specificity of our product.
For example in ecotoxicology, the aim is to establish whether a product presents a risk of “aquatic toxicity”. To do this, the water-product mixture is analyzed. But the essential oil does not mix with water since it is oil and it necessarily remains on the surface. So we are being asked to provide a test result which is absolutely infeasible…. despite all our requests to reputable labs.”
Mr. Soguel qualifies: “We would also like to point out that 1) our production is very, very low in total volume compared to synthetic products, and that 2) we also know that molecules of 100% natural origin (which is our case) already exist in nature and are better managed and degraded by it than purely chemical products. And to conclude: “For these two reasons our real impact in ecotoxicology is really extremely low and this should also be considered.”
Nothing is simple and everything gets complicated …as the late Sempé would say
In 2020, a new request from the European Commission arrived, which provides for certain dangers not to be able to test essential oils as a whole and to assess the dangers on the basis of the constituents. This becomes absurd because recent studies show that the behavior of a constituent taken in isolation is not necessarily the same as when taken in the oily matrix…
This is why essential oils should are tested according to these specificities certified and recognized by the European Commission. Which is not yet the case. This is precisely the subject of the discussions.
Find the mistake…
Finally, I discover that the subjects relating to the evaluation of the safety of essential oils do not depend on the Ministry of Agriculture, but on that of the Environment. And that these two departments do not willingly communicate with each other… far from it. This obviously blocks the progress of regulatory work at the French national level.
Remarkable fact however: more than 100 senators have together signed a Tribune to defend lavender and its production in the Sunday newspaper (see link below). Never seen! And which shows the cultural, emotional, tourist issues, in short, how “hot” this subject is.
Hence the importance of not falling into anti-EU or anti-chemistry conspiratorial caricatures.
No, the lavender fields as such are not threatened with extinction. But which farmers will continue this culture if the local distilleries no longer buy their production from them?
Mr. Soguel, always optimistic and always nuanced, concludes: “The work between the European Commission and us producers is in progress.” He adds: “We are also hoping for new results soon.”
For my part, I hope to have “told you” and allowed you to keep feet on the ground Provençale, just to extend your summer a little….! And I’ll keep you posted on the latest news when it arrives.
*Philippe Soguel, Vice-President of the National Federation of Medicinal Aromatic Perfumed Plants PPAM, Administrator of the Interprofessional Committee of French Essential Oils CIHEF, Administrator of European Essential Oils FEO.
Filmed interview: https://projecteurtv.com/bien-etre/plantes-et-sante/distillerie-bleu-lavande-lavande-lavandin-distillerie-par-philippe-soguel/
***For the curious : we often wonder what is the difference between lavender and lavandin.
Answer: there are 2 kinds of lavender: 1) spike lavenderwhich grows in the plain (from 100 to 700m altitude), with broad leaves, which has a camphor smell and is recommended for massages, care for burns and insect bites, but which is not precisely used in perfumery at because of its camphor smell.
2) true lavender, shorter, the famous narrow leaves of lavenderwhich grows between 700 and more than 2,000 meters above sea level. It is the latter that allows the production of essential oil of fine lavender AOP. Its yield is low but of excellent quality. It is she who is used in perfumery.
3) lavender is a hybrid, first created naturally by pollinators between 1) and 2), then taken over by man in hybridization.
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