June 6, 2023

Alain Aubanel has fresh concerns about wildfires, high energy costs and unreliable supply chains plaguing southeastern France. He worries that the oil from the lavender he grows will soon be labeled as a skull and crossbones in Europe.

Mr. Aubanel is president of the farmers’ union representing 2,000 lavender growers in southern France, whose product turns acres of land a hazy purple in summer. He said the business would be threatened if the EU implements proposed changes to designate lavender oil, which is widely used to calm nerves and lift moods, as a dangerous substance.

Lavender growers have been arming themselves since news of the regulatory change broke last year. In the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions in southeastern France, farmers organizing petitions, sticking slogans on tractors and protesting in lavender fields have caught the attention of national politicians.

“Lavender producers are in big trouble. Regulatory influence could 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 work in arid mountains for a living,” says grower Alain Aubanel.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is adopting new rules to regulate substances that may be harmful to humans. One such substance is lavender oil, which some studies have shown disrupts hormone patterns and contains small amounts of carcinogens.

The controversy surrounding French lavender demonstrates the delicately balancing act of regulation. The EU and scientists say the rules will protect the planet and the public, but governments and businesses fear they will hurt economies and consumers.

Mr O’Barnell, who called the planned changes discriminatory, had a simple message to the committee: “Bring back common sense and scientific information.”

Small-scale lavender oil production is the lifeblood of many in Provence, a French region popular with tourists on the Mediterranean coast. The region directly and indirectly employs 26,000 people, including 1,700 farmers, according to Senator Jean-Michel Arnaud, who supports lavender growers in the region.

Oil exports brought in $345 million last year, making it the fifth-largest export commodity in the region, according to the MIT Media Lab Data Project Economic Complexity Observatory. In 2020, nearly 15,000 acres of crops used to make essential oils were harvested at the Drôme division, where Mr. Aubanel’s farm is located, according to the local agriculture ministry.

Lavender essential oil is obtained by steam distillation, in which the oil is collected on the surface of the water left after the steam cools.

Producing lavender oil is laborious: the flowers are picked, dried and sent to distilleries 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 work in arid mountains for a living,” Mr O’Barnell said.

Many lavender growers have been selling at a loss for years as overproduction has driven prices down. Wildfires destroyed dozens of acres of lavender in June. “Many producers are exhausted financially and psychologically and are leaving [their] Mr O’Barnell said because it was “no longer possible” to be profitable.

New rules are being considered as part of EU chemicals regulation reform. The aim is to create a “toxic-free environment” by increasing regulation of hazardous chemicals and promoting innovation in sustainable alternatives. Essential oils can be called endocrine disruptors, which disrupt the body’s normal hormone patterns.

“This move will help achieve a legally higher level of protection for citizens and the environment from hazardous chemicals,” a spokesman for the committee said.

She added that revisions are expected in the second half of the year.

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 allergic skin reactions and is toxic to aquatic life, according to the European Chemicals Agency.

New research suggests there may be more harmful effects, with one linking lavender oil to earlier puberty in girls and another linking lavender oil to abnormal breast growth in young boys. Scientists say that exposure to even small amounts of endocrine disruptors can disrupt homeostasis, the body’s self-regulating process to maintain internal stability.

“Once you deviate from homeostasis, you do harm in one way, and if you keep doing it, there are consequences,” says Josef Köhrle, an endocrinologist at the Charité School of Medicine in Berlin and member of the European Cancer Society. ) Say. Endocrinology.

Essential oils can be labeled as endocrine disruptors, which affect the body’s normal hormone patterns.

The European Essential Oils Federation, a trade group, disputed the classification of endocrine disruptors, saying the new hazard category must be based on “solid scientific standards”. The group argues that the stricter requirements will disproportionately affect smaller companies that cannot afford the additional costs.

Chemical makers say the additional requirements will push up manufacturing costs that will be passed on to consumers.

“Disposal regulations are too complex, too difficult to handle and get right,” says Michael Hagel, a chemist and head of occupational safety and environmental protection at the German chemical company Carl Roth GmbH + Co. KG. manufacturer.

Adding a few drops of lavender oil to a warm bath “has no effect on your body,” he says.

A spokesman for the European Commission said it was aware of the criticism from essential oil producers and was considering the socioeconomic impact of the revisions.

The village of Chamaloc, where Alain Aubanel’s farm and winery are located.

Senator Arnaud from Provence, concerned about the potential impact on his region, submitted a motion to the French Senate European Affairs Committee for a resolution to protect essential oils from the “collateral damage” of regulatory changes. The bill, passed in July, calls for additional scientific research on the oils, which Mr Arnault calls “the soul of Provence”.

“Lavender essential oil has been around since ancient Rome, and as long as it is used wisely, it has never caused a health problem to humans,” Mr Arnold said. He estimates that 70 percent of Provence’s lavender production could be at risk due to additional costs for small farmers.

Mr Arnaud said that in a “worst-case scenario”, sales of synthetic lavender derived from crude oil would exceed sales of natural oils.

write to Lucy Papachristou (Lucy Papachristou@wsj.com)

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