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Palmer & you

Gilles Bouef

Biologist
Bordeaux
The title seems oversimple in view of his CV. Researcher for 20 years at the National Centre for the Exploitation of the Oceans, director of the Oceanographic Observatory of Banyuls-sur-Mer, president of the National Museum of Natural History ...

... visiting professor at the Collège de France, scientific advisor to the Minister of Ecology, Ségolène Royale, president of the scientific council of the French Agency for Biodiversity... Gilles Bœuf’s career path is simply dizzying. And yet, looking back at it all today from his home in Brittany at the western tip of France, this erstwhile child of the Pays de la Loire region insists he always knew where he was headed: “at the age of 8, I knew that I would be a researcher in biology”. Only the turbulent 2000s would finally sow some seeds of doubt...

How did you become interested in biodiversity?

Through reading. In 2001, I came across an article by Stephen R. Palumbi published in the American journal Science. According to this biologist from Stanford University, the biggest driver of change on Earth is the human race. I was stunned. Having spent my life studying living beings and their relationship(s) with their environment – or, in a word, biodiversity – how had I overlooked such a major subject? Just imagine: since 1860, the human population has increased sevenfold and agricultural yields have increased tenfold; there are 23 billion chickens on Earth now for 8 billion inhabitants, and food represents 15% of household expenditures compared to 50% 50 years ago! The agricultural boom, over-consumption, low costs, the frenetic pace of urbanisation... today, all of this is affecting our daily lives. Based on this observation, my views began to change. As did my work. The specific interrelationships between humans and the living world have been the focus of my life ever since.

Indeed, how would you describe your daily life today?

As a young retiree I read, I research, I publish... about the days to come, our relationship with the ocean, the treatment of animals, and about teaching life and earth sciences. I also work as a consultant. During the lockdown, I trained more than 200 business leaders from all walks of life in the culture of impact: how do you run your business while preserving the environment? In reality, it’s about how to prosper, educate your family, cultivate your friends, and create jobs without... destroying the place you live in, or that of others! In the same spirit, as a member of the board of directors of the Hermès, Icade and Engie foundations, I help these companies to manage their businesses in a more reasoned manner. All of which offers proof, if any were needed, of the vast scope of the action that is necessary today, at every level of society.

 

But closer to my realm of expertise, it allowed me to appreciate the remarkable socio-ecosystem of the vineyard, which encompasses a mind-blowing level of genetic diversity. Hundreds of millions of bacteria, protists, fungi, plants, animals... at least in the best of cases, like at Château Palmer.

And how does wine fit into all this?

It’s a passion! First of all as an educated and moderate consumer, especially of white Burgundies. I am a lover of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. But also, to a certain extent, as a winemaker! The Oceanographic Observatory of Banyuls-sur-Mer where I was director from 1999 to 2006 owns 14 hectares of vines in AOC Collioure and Banyuls. At the time, we even had our own winery. In short, experience enough to take measure of the pugnacity of the vigneron’s world, especially when you’re dealing with such rugged terroirs. It’s frankly inspiring! But closer to my realm of expertise, it allowed me to appreciate the remarkable socio-ecosystem of the vineyard, which encompasses a mind-blowing level of genetic diversity. Hundreds of millions of bacteria, protists, fungi, plants, animals... at least in the best of cases, like at Château Palmer.

What a setting! I would never have imagined that one day I’d step foot on such an estate, let alone be invited, and then to taste five of its wines: Alter Ego 2009, Château Palmer 2005 and 1995, Historical 2018 and finally the sweet Vin de Paille. It was a moment suspended in time, glorious... a part. For humans have wreaked havoc in viticulture as elsewhere, prioritising quantity over quality, at the price of a dramatic impoverishment of the soil. It is imperative we take action. How? By banning pesticides – alternative solutions exist now –, by returning to a certain humility in the management of our vines, by favouring measured consumption, with pleasure and at reasonable prices... That’s just the beginning; there are also less obvious factors to consider. For example, take the role of women. They naturally promote biodiversity, being particularly attuned – more than men – to the living world. I am convinced of this. A word to the wise!