Smart Agriculture to mitigate Climate Change: Benefits for Italian AgrifoodBY ANTONIO PICASSO
- 12 September 2023
- Posted by: Competere
- Category: Sustainable Nutrition
The article was published in Italian on Agenda Digitale >>>
When it comes to climate change, agriculture is an often overlooked sector that could make an invaluable contribution to combating it. From energy transition to the decarbonization of energy-intensive industrial sectors, these are all undoubtedly strategic policies to make the economy more environmentally friendly. But isn’t nature the fundamental resource of agriculture? Though a few good practices are in place, imagining a more sustainable primary sector, the path to restoring the balance between humans and nature would certainly be shorter. It is an opportunity, especially for Italian agrifood.
AGRICULTURE IS NOT CAPITALISM’S CINDERELLA
Human impact on the environment is indeed due to exponential population growth and parallel increases in consumption. As mentioned in these columns before, the more we are, the more we eat, and therefore the more we pollute.
However, the speed of climate change is only partially attributable to our presence on Earth. Witnessing atmospheric phenomena of unprecedented magnitude, at least in Europe, we observe with equal concern how the dialectic between scientific solutions and ideological approaches is currently unbridgeable—if not in a critical phase. In addition to being responsible for these facts, humans have a role in planning and intervening to mitigate the damage.
So far, the spotlight has been on how to convert energy and industry into more eco-friendly directions. Think of renewable sources, electric cars, plastic containment, and recycling. Solutions that, on the one hand, seem environmentally friendly but, on the other hand, are economically and short-term benefit-wise unsustainable. In any case, all ESG-compliant projects – to put it in “corporate” terms – revolve around technological innovation. The contribution of digital devices and AI is indispensable if we are to achieve the ambitious goals set by the world’s leading economic players. The United States, Europe, and China are all aiming to create a new alliance between capitalism and the environment. At least on paper.
Over the past two centuries, agriculture has become increasingly less important. Industrialization and urbanization have transformed the identity of the economy and society worldwide. However, while we now talk about green industry and smart cities, it is reasonable to think that the most concrete contribution to ‘restoring nature’ – to borrow the name of the controversial EU legislation on the environment – could come from the Cinderella of the economy. With climate change, there is an increased risk of quantitative and qualitative crop impoverishment. This factor exacerbates the ongoing food emergency. Therefore, if nature can be interpreted as the reference commodity for agriculture, the latter has a functional interest in taking care of it. This is where proactive human involvement is essential for the environment and biodiversity. Precision agriculture is the combination of an ancestral love for the land and the adoption of the most futuristic and courageous technological innovations to respect and enhance it. Let’s see how.
SMART AGRICULTURE: AVAILABLE TOOLS
PALM OIL: A MODEL OF RESILIENCE AND SUSTAINABILITY
Speaking of smart agriculture, we like to bring up the example of the palm oil supply chain, which, once responsible for massive deforestation, has managed to transform itself and become a model of sustainable development thanks to regulations imposed by producing countries and innovative technologies.
Without delving into a detailed analysis, it is enough to remember that palm oil producers were accused of deforestation and labor exploitation for years. Additionally, they were accused of palm oil severely harming health. It was a classic shitstorm, manipulated by ideology and fueled by consumers’ reluctance to seek information. It resulted in a greenwashing campaign by some companies that abandoned palm oil in favor of other vegetable oils, paying a price in terms of market share and outright ostracism. The industry responded to all this by turning to science and technology. Claims of it being an unhealthy product were debunked by reputable nutritionists, whose unquestionable theories received support and endorsement from the FAO, as well as from international and national government institutions.
But let’s focus on the technological aspect. The World Resources Institute (WRI) annually publishes the outlook on anti-deforestation policies adopted by producing countries of agricultural commodities such as cocoa, sugar, soy, livestock, and, among others, palm oil. The 2022 Outlook shows a counter-trend in palm oil compared to the rest of the market. The positive trend has been ongoing for years, but looking at the charts in the report’s current context, if we consider the palm oil-producing countries, especially the top four importers in Europe – Indonesia, Malaysia, Colombia, and Guatemala – we can see the virtuous spiral triggered in part by EU regulations. These regulations have encouraged the adoption of anti-deforestation policies, realized through the foresight of companies themselves, which have embraced sustainability as a challenge to introduce technological innovations and allocate investments for the environment.
As often happens, practice has preceded theory. Sustainability certifications, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), were introduced by stakeholders – both producing countries and their Western customers, import and processing companies – well before the European Union enacted its rightly rigorous sustainability measures. Not least among them is the European Deforestation-free products Regulation (EUDR).
This achievement is based on the application of the most innovative digital and technological projects. From satellite monitoring to the adoption of increasingly sophisticated agricultural machinery. In this regard, Italy boasts a point of merit.
ITALY AT THE CENTER OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE
When it comes to precision agriculture, the Italian mechanical engineering industry is a world leader. According to FederUnacoma, the trade association of agricultural machinery manufacturers, the sector’s Made in Italy turnover reached 15.5 billion euros in 2022, marking a growth of 13.3% over the previous year. The record increase, which is inevitably linked to the favorable trend of price growth, is dictated in structural terms by the increase in demand for a high-quality product that only the Italian industry can provide.
Why this strong point of ours? Tractors, agricultural machinery, and components for agriculture should be seen as the induced activity of the latter, or rather of agrifood, a supply chain with a more than significant share of our GDP. If you have a sector that is a driving force, there must be wingmen to guarantee its excellence.
Italy stopped being an agricultural country less than a century ago, and its productive transformation has been directed not only toward factories but also toward the industrialization of agriculture. Innovation applied to crops is the order of the day in our countryside. And today, after having applied them at home, making Italian agrifood a competitive sector also in terms of sustainability, we have moved on to exporting our best practices. It is no coincidence that, from the model hacienda in Latin America to the small coffee growers in the horn of Africa passing through the palm oil plantations, our brand is a thread of success.
Image credits: courtesy of Agenda Digitale >>>