Alain Aubanel has a new worry on top of the wildfires, high energy costs and unreliable supply chains plaguing his part of southeastern France. He fears that the oil derived from the lavender he grows will soon be labeled in Europe with a skull and crossbones.
Mr Aubanel is president of a farmers’ union representing 2,000 lavender growers in the south of France, whose product turns acres of land a hazy purple in summer. It’s a business he says would be at risk if the European Union follows through on proposed changes that would designate lavender oil, widely used to calm nerves and boost bad moods, as a dangerous substance.
Lavender growers have been angry since news of the ongoing regulatory changes broke last year. In the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions of southeastern France, farmers organized petitions, put up signs on their tractors and staged protests in lavender fields, attracting the attention of national politicians.
“Lavender producers are in great difficulty. The impact of regulations can kill them,” said Mr. Aubanel, a third-generation lavender farmer in the mountains south of Grenoble.
“It’s the only crop that allows farmers to live from their work in dry mountain areas,” says Alain Aubanel.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is adopting new rules to regulate substances that can be harmful to humans. One such substance is lavender oil, which some studies have shown disrupts hormonal patterns and contains small amounts of carcinogens.
The controversy around French lavender demonstrates the delicate balance of regulations. The EU and scientists say the rules will protect the planet and the public, but national governments and businesses fear they will harm the economy and consumers.
Mr Aubanel, who called the proposed changes discriminatory, has a simple message for the commission: “Bring back common sense and scientific information.
Small-scale production of lavender oil is vital for many people in Provence, a region of France popular with tourists along the Mediterranean Sea. In this area, the sector directly and indirectly employs 26,000 people, including 1,700 farmers, according to Jean-Michel Arnaud, senator from the region supporting lavender growers.
Oil exports brought in $345 million last year, making it the region’s fifth-largest export commodity, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, an MIT Media Lab data project. Nearly 15,000 hectares of crops used to make essential oils were harvested in 2020 in the Drôme department, where Mr Aubanel’s farm is located, according to the local agriculture ministry.
Lavender essential oil is obtained by steam distillation, where the oils are collected from the surface of the water left after the steam has cooled.
The production of lavender oil is laborious: the flowers are picked, dried and sent to a distillery to extract the oil. An acre of lavender produces an average of about 13 pounds of essential oil, according to the French Ministry of Agriculture.
“It’s the only crop that allows farmers to make a living from their work in dry mountain areas,” said Mr. Aubanel.
Many lavender growers have already been selling at a loss for several years, as overproduction has driven prices down. Wildfires destroyed dozens of acres of lavender in June. “Many producers are financially and psychologically exhausted and are on the verge of leaving [their] jobs because it is no longer possible” to make a profit, declared Mr. Aubanel.
The new rules are being considered as part of an overhaul of EU chemicals regulations. The goal is to create a “toxics-free environment” by increasing regulation of hazardous chemicals and driving innovation for sustainable alternatives. Essential oils could be termed as endocrine disruptors, which disrupt normal hormonal patterns in the body.
“This initiative will help achieve a legitimately higher level of protection for citizens and the environment from hazardous chemicals,” said a commission spokeswoman.
Revisions are expected in the second half of this year, she added.
Existing pictograms on lavender oil packaging warn that the product can be fatal if swallowed or enters the respiratory tract. The oil can also cause skin irritation or an allergic skin reaction and is toxic to aquatic life, according to the European Chemicals Agency.
New research suggests there may be more harmful effects, with one study linking lavender oil to early puberty in girls and another to abnormal breast growth in young boys. Contact with even a small amount of an endocrine disruptor can disrupt homeostasis, the body’s self-regulating process to maintain internal stability, scientists say.
“As soon as you deviate from homeostasis, you are hurting in some way, and if you continue to do so, there will be consequences,” said Josef Köhrle, endocrinologist at the Charité-Berlin Medical University and member of the European Society of Medicine. Endocrinology.
The European Essential Oils Federation, a trade group, disputes the classification of endocrine disruptors, saying new hazard classes need to be built on “sound scientific criteria”. Stricter requirements would disproportionately affect smaller businesses that cannot afford the extra costs, the group argues.
Chemical manufacturers say the additional requirements will increase manufacturing costs which will be passed on to consumers.
“Dealing with the regulations is far too complicated, too difficult to manage and manage properly,” said Michael Hagel, chemist and head of the occupational safety and environmental protection department at Carl Roth GmbH + Co. KG, a German chemist. manufacturing company.
Adding drops of lavender oil to a hot bath “has no effect on your body,” he said.
The European Commission spokeswoman said she was aware of criticism from essential oil producers and considered the socio-economic implications of the revisions.
Concerned about the potential impact on his region, Mr. Arnaud, the senator from Provence, submitted a motion for a resolution to the European Affairs Committee of the French Senate to prevent essential oils from becoming “collateral damage” of changes in regulations. The motion, which was passed in July, calls for further scientific studies of the oils, which Mr Arnaud called “the soul of Provence”.
“Lavender essential oils have been around since ancient Rome and have never caused health problems for humans as long as their use is reasonable,” Arnaud said. He estimated that 70% of Provence’s lavender production could be compromised due to the additional expense small farmers would incur.
In the “worst-case scenario”, synthetic lavender derived from crude oil would overtake the sale of natural oils, Mr Arnaud said.
—Noémie Bisserbe and Muriel Zvellenreuther contributed to this article.
Write to Lucy Papachristou at [email protected]
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. Oil lavender can carry new warning health Europe adding to concerns from farmers french