Sustainable agriculture, cultivating the future

Sustainable agriculture, cultivating the future


A little over 10,000 years ago, what was probably the most important episode in human history unfolded as man began to farm. Today, we are witnessing a new agricultural revolution. Sustainable agriculture offers a response both to our burgeoning world population and climate change and also respects the planet’s natural resources (water, land and biodiversity).  

Social sustainability is as important as environmental sustainability: a sustainable agri-food and agri-industry sector aims to ensure human health, improve the quality of life of producers, foster the development of a solidarity economy, protect human rights, and promote social fairness. Parallel to this, however, there is also a growing focus on the ethical treatment of animals.  

Sustainable agriculture: definition and principles

According to the definition coined by the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, the goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. 

To help us understand the importance of melding sustainability and agricultural activities, the FAO (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization) has outlined five principles of sustainable agriculture:

  • Increase productivity, employment and value addition in food systems by changing agricultural practices and processes to ensure food supplies whilst simultaneously reducing water and energy consumption
  • Protect and enhance natural resources: foster environmental conservation by reducing pollution of water sources, the destruction of habitats and ecosystems and soil degradation
  • Improve livelihoods and foster inclusive economic growth
  • Enhance the resilience of people, communities and ecosystems: transform production models to minimise the impact on agriculture resulting from climate change-related extreme events and market price volatility
  • Adapt governance to new challenges: provide a legal framework that will strike a balance between public and private sectors, providing incentives and ensuring fairness and transparency.  

In 2018, the FAO further expanded on the theme in its “Transforming Food and Agriculture to Achieve the SDGs” document to encourage an integrated approach to sustainable agriculture in reference to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 20 actions recommended in the report range from recycling and reuse to resilience to extreme events, including protecting biodiversity and the rights of farmers.

Technological innovation and agriculture 4.0

Technological innovation has a fundamental role to play in achieving sustainability. Smart agriculture or agriculture 4.0 is the new frontier and involves applying industry 4.0 innovations to the sector: digitalisation, geolocation, connection to the internet and the Internet of Things.

These tools are of particular use in precision agriculture, which finely calibrates techniques and substances used according to the features of specific terrain (in terms of soil types, water resources, crops and environmental risks) and real time monitoring of weather conditions. This efficient management can optimise production whilst minimising waste and impact on the planet.

Sustainable agriculture ‘Made in Italy’

Italy is playing a leading role in sustainable agriculture. As far back as 1988, WWF Italia launched the pioneering “Campagna per la Campagna” (Campaign for the Countryside) programme which brought together communications, training and educational projects to raise public awareness of the need for a serious change of direction in terms of the sustainability of agricultural management, with a particular focus on organic agriculture.

According to the most recent Symbola-Coldiretti report on the Green Economy, Italian agriculture is now the greenest in Europe. Data from 2017, in particular, reveals that Italy:

  • Is the only country in the world with 296 EU-recognised geographical indications (GI) for its food products as well as 37 for liquors and 526 for wines
  • Tops the world in terms of food safety, with the smallest number of agri-food products found to contain irregular chemical residues
  • Is the only country to have provided a system certified by an integrated public body for sustainable pesticide management, with stricter standards than those provided for under obligatory integrated pest management legislation
  • Has the second largest area of agricultural land used for organic farming in the EU with a total of 75,873 farms certified organic
  • Is the world’s second largest exporter of organic products after the US

Smart agriculture, renewable and circular

Italy is at the cutting-edge too in terms of major agriculture 4.0 projects. The ANBI (National Association for Land Reclamation and Irrigation) has focused on technological innovation for sustainable water management: a subject that has always been pivotal in agriculture but which is now becoming increasingly relevant because of periods of drought caused by climate change. For instance, the Irriframe smart irrigation system, which uses software designed and developed in Italy, evaluates several different parameters before sending information to the farmer’s computer or smartphone on how, when and how much to irrigate. The system reduces water consumption by up to 25% and thus, aside from improving environmental sustainability, also helps deliver savings and boost farmers’ competitiveness on the market.

Another exemplary case of innovative technologies comes from Bonifiche Ferraresi, Italy’s largest agricultural company with 5,500 hectares of farm land in the province of Ferrara, Aretino and the Arborea area in Sardinia. In 2017 in partnership with Enel, it launched the Smart Agriculture project, an integrated initiative that included the installation of over 5,000 square metres of solar panels on the roofs of animal barns and a rice mill, the use of drones, sensors and remote control systems for precision agriculture, and electric vehicles for workers to move around the production areas. One of the most advanced technologies adopted was Enel’s Vehicle to Grid (V2G) system that allows vehicles to feed power back into the grid, essentially turning them into mobile batteries. In 2017, the project was named Best in Class at the Sodalitas Social Awards, Italy’s most prestigious awards for businesses and organisations transitioning to a sustainable future.  

In recent years, there have also been many new creative initiatives concerning the circular economy. The Chiesa Virginio agricultural company in Mantua has designed a special facility for extracting a natural bio-resin from tomato skins that can then be used to make a lacquer for tin containers and nail varnish. Another similar project is “Melovita”, a startup launched by a group of young Veneto farmers to use pomegranate waste. Ellagic acid, a powerful antioxidant used by cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, is extracted from the peel. Biopolymers are also extracted to make bio plastic that is then used by the growers themselves for packaging. This means that the pomegranate peel becomes the fruit’s container, a perfect example of circularity. Orange Fiber, on the other hand, is an Italian company that has patented the world’s first fabric made from by-products of citrus fruit processing and which fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo has used to create an entire clothing collection.

In Calabria, on the other hand, Pasqualina Tripodi, AKA Pasly, is making “agri-jewellery” from materials supplied by the farm, such as olive kernels, pine cones, berries, dried sprigs, beeswax and leftover copper. Agriculture and design: two of Italy’s areas of excellence are coming together in the name of creativity. And demonstrating that ‘Made in Italy’ sustainability is always on the lookout for new inspiration.