March 26, 2012

Ten commandments for a sustainable agriculture in Italy

Orvieto, Umbria, ItalyBarilla Center for Food & Nutrition, Parma, Italy

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 1.2 million hectares of land in Italy is devoted to growing Durum wheat, the main variety used to produce pasta. Comprising around 8% of the agricultural land in Italy and over two-thirds the land area in wheat (FAOStat), durum wheat is a crop that merits attention in terms of sustainable production. One of the objectives of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy is the promotion of sustainable agriculture. In this regard, sustainable agricultural systems are production models able to produce foods that are adequate in quality and quantity, ensure a fair economic remuneration for the farmers and help safeguard the agricultural soil and natural resources. In other words, sustainability means “seeking a long-term maintenance of the agricultural production and soil fertility, while reducing environmental risks related to those very same agronomic practices.”  Sustainable crop management is a key element to achieve sustainable agricultural landscapes.

The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) is a center of multidisciplinary analysis and proposals which aims to explore the major issues related to food and nutrition on a global scale. BCFN has taken these considerations for sustainable agricultural production to heart, releasing the publication New Models for Sustainable Agriculture. The position paper gathers descriptions of the main agricultural models employed all over the world and offers six examples of different landscapes committed to sustainable crop development.

Moreover, Barilla decided to directly undertake research on Italian durum wheat sustainability in four regions, which are sufficiently representative of the rotations in which durum wheat is grown. The results show that the correct application of knowledge and agricultural practices not only improves crop yields and the quality of products, thus allowing an increase in the income generated by crops, but also reduces the environmental impacts (up to 35% less greenhouse gas emissions) due to an increased efficiency of fertilization.

Figure 1. Results of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) analysis of durum wheat for pasta, from field production to cooking.

In light of the results of this study, Barilla developed a list of guiding principles for farmers facing the complex challenges in agricultural landscapes:

  1. Alternate crops: plant durum wheat in a favorable crop rotation. Monoculture and rotations exclusively of cereal crops are, in fact, the cause of high environmental impacts and low profitability.
  2. Work the soil with respect for it: choose the tillage in a flexible manner, using tools and depth of working that are adapted to the specific conditions, climate and cropping system in which durum wheat is inserted, according to the following guidelines.
  3. Use the best variety: choose the variety to be sown in relation to the cultivation area and expectations in terms of productivity and technological quality.
  4. Use only certified and tanned seeds: only certified seed ensures varietal identity (production capacity, technological quality and resistance to adversity) and seed quality (purity, germination).
  5. Sow at the right time: each variety has an ideal time of planting, which can vary according to the cultivation area and weather conditions.
  6. Use the right amount of seeds: choose the density of sowing in relation to the variety, the area, the time of sowing and soil conditions, since planting too thickly prevents the crop from making the best use of resources, promotes the development of diseases and causes enticements.
  7. Restrain weeds in a timely manner: the treatment must be timely and appropriate to the type of weeds present and the environmental conditions and cropping practices.
  8. Dosage of nitrogen according to the needs of the plant: the use of nitrogen fertilizer should be adequate, both in terms of quantities supplied and the periods in which they are used.
  9. Protect the plant from disease: carry out the treatments of defense in relation to conditions of risk and adopt a comprehensive strategy that involves all aspects of cultivation.
  10. Extend sustainability to the farming system: place the cultivation of the durum wheat in the cropping system (rotation) without limiting it to the context of individual crops, but, rather, apply sustainability measures to the overall management of the farm. (© Barilla)

Considerable importance is given to the adoption of favorable crop rotations, the efficient use of resources and the proper use of technical means, in order to reduce environmental impacts and enable optimum production both qualitatively and quantitatively. Having read this concise guide, what do you think would be the result of applying the ten principles to the context of your region? How can they contribute to a landscape approach?

1 Comment

  • Pat Heslop-Harrison
    March 26, 2012 at 3:43am

    Glad to see that following recommendations for variety, planting date, sowing rate, tillage, fertilizer and plant protection lead to the maximum sustainability. But making these recommendations needs a lot of trialling at multiple sites, underpinned by advanced research on genetics and agronomy. Since 1982, in the UK 88% of the improvement in yields has come from genetic improvement, with little evidence that changes in agronomy have improved yields (MacKay et al., Theor Appl Genet 122, 225-238, DOI: http://DX.DOI.ORG/10.1007/s00122-010-1438-y ). Does this mean that more agronomy research should be focussed to sustainability issues?