Machines and sustainability

Sustainable is the process that achieves the aim of production by minimizing the impact on the environment. In agriculture the reduction of impacts is pursued by reducing energy consumption, giving priority to renewable and sustainable energies, minimizing the negative effects on biodiversity, reducing the surface used to achieve production, reducing the use of agrochemicals. These sub-targets are closely interconnected: by pursuing them, the farm is led to a virtuous circle that pushes it towards new sustainability goals. On the contrary, not operating in this sense introduces, into the production process, a series of disharmonies that over the years lead to an increase of inputs and production costs; that is what happened. Pursuing sustainability is only possible by implementing in the production process a mechanization based on intelligent machines, generated by development processes deeply integrated with agronomy.

In agriculture, the machine is an indispensable means to achieve production exactly because it works on huge extensions, because it requires the management of enormous masses of matter, because it depends on mutability of environmental conditions, because it manages living beings that, by their very nature, are not predictable. These characteristics are not found in any other production process with the same frequency with which they are found in agriculture. If the mechanization has been directed since the sixties to reproduce on the fields, in the stables and in the forests, the repetitiveness, the standardization and the typical homologation of the industrial productive process, debasing the peculiarities of agriculture and environment in which it is applied, today scientific research offers interesting inputs that allow us to develop a mechanization able to enhance (governing and supporting it) the variability. Proceeding in this direction would make it possible to overcome at least some of the obstacles that make it difficult to build sustainable production paths.

Sustainable agriculture calls for more flexibility and imagination in mechanization. We’re (still) anchored in ways, geometries and principles never supported by science, created to meet contingent needs or simple technological limits that are today potentially overcome. Examples of this are the plantation systems of the herbaceous crops that were chosen sixty years ago according to the capacity of the machines of that time, and adopted even today without any agronomic motivation, and while being possible to develop technologies capable of releasing the production processes from these obsolete geometries.

Sustainable agriculture requires machines and equipment less pervasive and less invasive, able to operate in farms with less intensity and more lightness, able to carry out the agronomic task assigned to them, altering the environment in which they operate as little as possible. A concrete example in this sense is provided by processing techniques such as the vertical tillage and the ultra-shallow tillage, that, thanks to innovative equipment, allow a soil management based on cutting-edge agronomic principles oriented towards increasing productivity and significantly reducing the direct and indirect costs generated by processing.

Sustainable agriculture also requires machines able to dose their work according to the needs of each single unit of territory. The smaller the size of this “unit” will be, the greater the variability that can be managed. The possibilities offered by electronics and by mechatronics in this sense are, at least in some cases, incredible and sometimes embarrassing for agronomics, not yet capable to fully exploit the “data” collected in the field and still unable to provide indications for valid feedbacks from an ecological and productive point of view. The aim seems to be to record the production variability, to read the causes, to find modus operandi suitable to minimize the waste due to the variability or to eliminate it when this is a manifestation of a problem generated by the same productive process. In a wider view, however, having machines capable of managing the variability offers the occasion to undertake new roads with greater diversification within the same plot, reducing the distance between the production system and the natural system. All this is not only possible, it is advantageous.

Lorenzo Benvenuti


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