Alain Aubanel has a new concern about the fires, 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 branded in Europe with a skull and crossbones.
Mr. Aubanel is president of a farmers’ union representing 2,000 lavender growers in southern France, whose product turns acres of land a hazy purple in summer. It’s a business it says will be under threat if the European Union follows through on proposed changes that would label lavender oil, which is widely used to calm nerves and boost mood, as a dangerous substance.
Lavender growers have been up in arms since news of the pending regulation changes broke last year. In the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions of southeastern France, farmers staged petitions, plastered signs on their tractors and staged demonstrations in lavender fields, gaining the attention of national politicians.
“Lavender producers are in big trouble. The regulatory impact could kill them,” said Mr. Aubanel, a third-generation lavender grower in the mountains south of Grenoble.
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 show disrupts hormone patterns and contains small amounts of carcinogens.
The controversy surrounding French lavender demonstrates the delicate balancing act 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 planned changes discriminatory, has a simple message for the commission: “Bring back common sense and scientific information.”
Small-scale lavender oil production is the lifeblood for many in Provence, a region of France popular with tourists along the Mediterranean. In this sector, the sector employs 26,000 people directly and indirectly, including 1,700 farmers, according to Jean-Michel Arnaud, a senator from the region who supports lavender farmers.
Oil exports brought in $345 million last year, making it the region’s fifth-largest export, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, a data project of the MIT Media Lab. Almost 15,000 hectares of crops used to produce essential oils were harvested in 2020 in the Drôme department, where Mr Aubanel’s farm is located, according to the local agriculture ministry.
The production of lavender oil is painstaking: The flowers are picked, dried and sent to a distillery to extract the oil. One hectare of lavender produces an average of about 13 kilograms of essential oil, according to the French Ministry of Agriculture.
“It is the only crop that allows farmers to live off their work in dry mountain areas,” Mr Aubanel said.
Many lavender producers have already been selling at a loss for several years as overproduction has caused prices to fall. Fires destroyed dozens of acres of lavender in June. “Many producers are financially and psychologically exhausted and are going to leave [their] jobs because it is no longer possible” to make a profit, Mr Aubanel said.
The new rules are being considered as part of the review of the EU Chemicals Regulation. The goal is to create a “toxic-free environment” by increasing regulations on hazardous chemicals and boosting innovation for sustainable alternatives. Essential oils could be classified as endocrine disruptors, which disrupt the body’s normal hormonal patterns.
“This initiative will help achieve a legitimately higher level of protection for citizens and the environment from dangerous chemicals,” a Commission spokesman said.
The revisions are expected in the second half of this year, he added.
Existing pictograms on lavender oil packaging warn that the product can be fatal if swallowed or enters the airways. 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 development 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.
“The moment you deviate from homeostasis, you are doing harm in a way, and if you continue to do this, there will be consequences,” said Josef Köhrle, an endocrinologist at the Charité-Berlin University of Medicine and a member of the European Society of Endocrinology.
The European Essential Oils Federation, a trade group, disputes the classification of endocrine disruptors, saying new risk classes must be based on “solid scientific criteria.” Stricter requirements would disproportionately affect smaller companies that cannot afford additional costs, the group argues.
Chemical makers say the additional requirements will increase production costs that will be passed on to consumers.
“Dealing with the regulation is very complex, very difficult to handle and handle properly,” said Michael Hagel, chemist and head of occupational safety and environmental protection at Carl Roth GmbH + Co. KG, German chemical manufacturing company.
Adding drops of lavender oil to a warm bath “doesn’t have any effect on your body,” she said.
The spokeswoman for the European Commission said it was aware of criticism from essential oil producers and was taking into account the socio-economic impact of the revisions.
Concerned about the potential impact in his region, Mr Arnaud, the senator from Provence, submitted a motion for a resolution to the European Affairs Committee of the French Senate to protect essential oils from becoming “collateral damage” of the regulation changes. The proposal, which was approved in July, calls for additional scientific studies on the oils, which Mr Arnaud called the “soul of Provence”.
“Lavender essential oils have been around since ancient Rome and have never caused human health problems as long as they are used sensibly,” Mr Arnaud said. He estimated that 70% of Provence’s lavender production could be at risk due to the additional costs small farmers would incur.
In a “worst-case scenario”, synthetic lavender derived from crude oil would outsell natural oils, Mr Arnaud said.
—Noemie Bisserbe and Muriel Zvellenreuther contributed to this article.
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