Alain Obanel suffers from a new concern about the wildfires, rising energy costs and unreliable supply chains that have plagued his part of southeastern France. He fears that the oil derived from the lavender he grows will soon be called in Europe skull and crossbones.
Mr. Aubanel is president of a farmers’ union representing 2,000 lavender growers in southern France, whose produce turns acres of land a misty purple in summer. It’s a business that he says will be threatened if the European Union follows proposed changes that would designate lavender oil, widely used to calm nerves and boost bad moods, as a dangerous substance.
Lavender growers have been exhausted since news of the pending regulatory changes came out 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 their lavender fields, attracting the attention of national politicians.
Lavender producers are in big trouble. “The regulatory effect can kill them,” said Mr. Obanel, a third-generation lavender farmer in the mountains south of Grenoble.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, is adopting new rules to regulate substances that may be harmful to humans. One such substance is lavender oil, which some studies have shown to disrupt hormone patterns and contain small amounts of carcinogens.
The French lavender debate illustrates the delicate balancing act of regulation. The European Union and scientists say the rules will protect the planet and the public, but governments and national companies fear they will hurt the economy and consumers.
Mr. O’Bannell, who called the planned changes discriminatory, has a simple message for the committee: “Restore common sense and scientific information.”
Small-scale lavender oil production is a lifeline for many in Provence, a region of France popular with tourists along the Mediterranean. In the field, the sector directly and indirectly employs 26,000 people, including 1,700 farmers, according to Jean-Michel Arnaud, a senator from the region who supports 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, a MIT Media Lab data project. Nearly 15,000 acres of crops used to make essential oils were harvested in 2020 in the Drome department, home of Mr. Obanel’s farm, according to the local Department of Agriculture.
Lavender oil production is laborious: the flowers are picked, dried and sent to a distillery to extract the oil. On average, one acre of lavender yields about 13 pounds of the essential oil, according to the French Ministry of Agriculture.
“It is the only crop that allows farmers to make a living from their work in the dry mountainous regions,” Obanel said.
Many lavender growers were already selling at a loss for several years, as overproduction caused prices to fall. Wildfires destroyed dozens of acres of lavender in June. Many producers are financially and psychologically exhausted and are about to leave [their] Jobs because it is no longer possible to “take a profit,” Mr. Obanel said.
The new rules are under consideration as part of an overhaul of EU chemicals regulations. The goal is to create a “toxic-free environment” by increasing regulations on hazardous chemicals and promoting innovation for sustainable alternatives. Essential oils can be described as endocrine disruptors, which disrupt the body’s natural hormonal patterns.
“This initiative will help achieve a higher legal level of protection for citizens and the environment against hazardous chemicals,” a commission spokeswoman said.
She added that the reviews are expected in the second half of this year.
The illustrations on lavender oil packages warn that the product can be fatal if swallowed or enters the airways. The oil can also cause skin irritation or an allergic reaction to the skin and is toxic to aquatic life, according to the European Chemicals Agency.
New research suggests there may be more adverse effects, with one study linking lavender oil to early puberty in girls and another to abnormal breast development in young boys. Scientists say that contact with even a small amount of an endocrine disruptor can upset homeostasis, the body’s self-regulatory process to maintain internal stability.
said Josef Kohrl, an endocrinologist at the Charité University of Medicine in Berlin and a member of the European Society of Endocrinology.
The European Essential Oils Federation, a trade group, is skeptical of the classification of endocrine disruptors, saying the new risk categories should be based on “strong scientific criteria”. The group argues that more stringent requirements will disproportionately affect smaller companies that cannot afford the additional costs.
Chemical manufacturers say the additional requirements will raise manufacturing costs that will be passed on to consumers.
Michael Hagel, Chemist and Head of Occupational Safety and Environmental Protection at Carl Roth GmbH + Co. manufacturing company.
Adding drops of lavender oil to a warm bath “has no effect on your body,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the European Commission said she was aware of criticism from primary oil producers and was taking into account the social and economic implications of the reviews.
Concerned about the potential impact on his region, Mr Arnault, a senator from Provence, has submitted a proposal for a resolution to the French Senate’s European Affairs Committee to protect essential oils from becoming “collateral damage” of regulatory changes. The proposal, approved in July, calls for additional scientific studies on the oils, which Mr. Arnault called “the spirit of Provence”.
“Essential oils from lavender have been around since ancient Rome and have not caused health problems for humans as long as their use is reasonable,” said Mr. Arnault. It was estimated that 70% of lavender production in Provence could be jeopardized by the additional expenses that would be incurred by small farmers.
In a “worst-case scenario,” Arnault said, synthetic lavender derived from crude oil will outperform sales of natural oils.
– Noemi Biserby and Muriel Zwillenreuther contributed to this article.
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