The dichotomy between sustainability and productivity

The announced forthcoming reduced availability of some of the main agricultural commodities, also known as soft commodities, is generating tense situations on the markets. This is because soft commodities include those agricultural products that can be easily stored or at least preserved over time, suitable for wide and easy marketing, such as, for example, products and its derivatives from cereal crops, oil and proteins, from some root and tuber crops (potatoes), from colonial crops such as tea, coffee and cocoa, as well as some livestock products such as meat and dairy products.

Today, 65% of the food constituting the human diet comes from vegetable commodities and 25% from those of animal origin, but it must be stressed that a significant part of animal feed is made up of vegetable commodities. International trade in these commodities makes it possible to balance the areas in the world where food produced is not enough (for example, the European Union) with those where more is produced (for example, the USA, China, Brazil, Russia and Argentina). In reality, the division is not so clear-cut: countries such as China, for example, have a surplus of vaccine products and strong shortages of soy. However, it is clear that the current exit from the world market of some producing countries is generating concerns that reverberate on prices and could trigger food crises that could become dramatic especially if the current geopolitical tensions were to be added to problems induced by unusual climatic events.

All this has generated in our country and in the European Union the right awareness that we need to produce more, but also the crazy idea that to achieve this goal we must give up the environmental sustainability of agricultural production processes. Like to jump out of the frying pan into the fire. In short, many parties have called for the suppression of those agricultural policy measures aimed at stimulating an improvement in sustainability as they are considered antithetical to the increase in agricultural production and in particular of cereals and oilseeds.

The real problem is that these requests are (at least) partly justified by the Italian and European agricultural policy because they have pushed agriculture towards an environmental sustainability that can only be accessible to a limited territory (whose extension, in any case, cannot go beyond the borders of the EU). Moreover, all this works only when other territories, obviously outside the EU, can compensate for the lower production induced by these “sustainable” measures. This in itself is not only incorrect, but it becomes a perplexing fact when the countries from which we are supplied to cover the lower production adopt cultivation techniques that the EU itself does not consider sustainable or has even abolished or banned on its territories. All this represents an ecological and intellectual short-circuit that should be remedied as soon as possible.

Progress towards full sustainability of a production process requires first of all that the soil and its biodiversity are enhanced and protected, that water is enhanced and protected, that nutrient cycles are completed, that energy consumption (direct and indirect) is reduced, that the carbon balance is improved by reducing emissions and increasing carbon sink, that the productive performance of crops is not reduced, that second harvests are introduced whenever the environment allows it, that the soil is always covered with living vegetation (areas with water availability) or crop residue (areas with reduced water availability).

However, this is still not enough. To overcome the challenge of sustainability, we cannot have enemies, only allies. Therefore, it is extremely necessary to sweep away taboos, a priori denials, witch hunts, and instead fund and implement genetic research (especially public and above all vegetable) allowing the study, development and application of extraordinary techniques such as recombinant DNA and crisp/cas9 with the aim of improving resistance to pathogens and salinity, reducing nitrogen requirements, improving productivity per unit of input.

In this virtuous process there is another ally that cannot be ignored and that is mechanization. Mechanization already offers the means to take the path to sustainability by offering techniques and machines capable of conservatively managing the soil, reducing or avoiding trampling, optimizing the use of resources, and supporting the farmer’s choices. All it takes is belief and investment.

Ecosystem-based agriculture is not difficult and is full of satisfaction.

Lorenzo Benvenuti



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