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Environment, scientists contest the WWF on agricultural impacts

Exclusive: the president of the National Agricultural Academy speaks

Cantelli Forti: "Troubled to acknowledge that an international body of this magnitude has produced a very limited document because it is one-sided, scientifically incorrect because it is full of scandalous tones and dangerous because it is easy to exploit and generate provocation all over the world".

On the occasion of Earth Day, the WWF targeted the world system of food production and consumption, which "alone causes 80% of species and habitats extinction globally". Yet globally, according to the UN, these impacts represent 24% of the total. Furthermore, in Europe the impacts of the food system are much more contained, at 10.3%, according to what is reported in the official document of the Commission on the Farm to Fork project, and in Italy we are even at 7.6% (see the latest Ispra report). EFA News asked prof. Giorgio Cantelli Forti, president of the National Academy of Agriculture, an ancient and prestigious institution that brings together the best of Italian science in the agri-food field.

Prof. Cantelli Forti, How do you explain so much fury for a sector which, moreover, must guarantee the satisfaction of a primary need for human existence?

In current communication, the dominant fashion is increasingly biased towards rigid one-sided assertions. Perhaps it attracts people's attention, but certainly dangerous drifts of opinion are generated that create damage and encourage speculation. The balance between nature and human life, increasingly linked to ongoing progress, must be constantly monitored and only an independent, constant and holistic scientific approach can provide real data from which to draw the intervention methods. Affirmations (or edicts!) Based on% that make absolutely little to understand, do not propose solutions and terrify the less educated. We know nature is not benign and man has always had to "create" to defend himself. The environmentalist or naturalist positions, in addition to frightening, provide nothing to solve the problems if not to feed rigid denialist ideologies. And then?

Est modus in rebus the ancients said! In every human action there is always a risk-benefit ratio to be evaluated in order to make a consequent correct decision with the acceptance of the risk. If more food is to be produced on a large scale to feed the world's population growth, it is obvious that it will have repercussions on the balance between land use, water availability and energy consumption, but if you don't want to the more following this path and choosing alternative methods (let's get out of the vague: which ones?), who can guarantee that less pollution will be produced? Humanity will still have to find an alternative to survive, but what will happen if it is not possible? When I read the WWF document, as a scientific researcher, I was troubled to realize that an international body of this magnitude has produced a very limited document because it is one-sided, scientifically incorrect because it is full of scandalous tones and dangerous because it is easy to exploit and ungenerate provocation around the world. The WWF does not plan solutions to satisfy humanity's demand for food and above all it does not describe possible alternatives to agricultural production which, at the moment, if put into crisis, would open a dramatic scenario. Are we sure that only agricultural production and industrial activities are a source of pollution? Who creates a real problem for the environment? Only man or does nature also pollute? We talk about the environment as proposed by the WWF, so I will give an example by examining volcanology. The eruption of a volcano disperses enormous concentrations of chemicals and radioactive substances into the environment. As a toxicologist I remember that in the USA on March 27, 1980 the volcanic eruption of Mount Saint Helens began in the State of Washington and in the vicinity of the State of Oregon, causing environmental pollution that was estimated to be comparable to the sum of the pollution that the city of Los Angeles produces in a thousand and two hundred years.

It was a natural process that, however, acutely upset the environment far more severely and for a long time than any food production system will ever do. Everything that the WWF writes, therefore, can be discussed if it is placed in antithesis with real situations, otherwise, I repeat, it becomes an abstract utopia of a purely harmful, misleading and expensive political position. More optimistically we must consider that the progress of the Exact Sciences has created a wide articulation of agricultural, chemical, physical, environmental, biological, medical disciplines which, if interconnected in a multidisciplinary approach, have the potential to produce scientific results on which to reflect and draw. also operational decisions.

WWF says "The Planet cannot handle the current system of food production and consumption". It seems like a return to the neo-Malthusian vision of the Club of Rome, whose catastrophic predictions of the 1970s have been widely disproved.

This is a very abstract and speculative version of the problem, to which I could answer in an equally paradoxical way, namely that the Planet will not be able to withstand the removal of oxygen from the air caused by our breathing because we will be too many. Let's not joke! Biodiversity is part of the culture and action of the agricultural world and, precisely on the control of CO2 emissions and its fixation, numerous researches and studies are currently underway in agriculture to contribute to its equilibrium through cultures and plantations. I can recall as an example the European project “Tree Talker or talking tree” which is participated and supported by the National Academy of Agriculture. In practice, in the “ Scientific-didactic chestnut grove of Granaglione”, created in an enlightened manner at the beginning of this century by the Cassa di Risparmio Foundation in Bologna on the Bolognese Apennines, a scientific group of international significance carries out advanced environmental research. Applied on the trunk of each tree, a small and sophisticated device operates through specific sensors measuring the diametric growth of the tree, estimating how much water the plant transpires, how much it takes from the soil, indicating the amount of CO2 absorbed, evaluating the color of the leaves and making it clear if particular pathologies are in progress. In addition, it measures the position of the plant and sees if it is prone to tilt excessively and then risk falling. The data is transmitted via satellite in real time and allows prompt intervention in the indicated place. The findings also make it possible to measure the management and fixation of CO2. In particular, the study is giving excellent results and demonstrates that if the chestnut grove, like any other natural element, is preserved as an agricultural plant and not as a wild forest, in addition to the production of chestnut flour and beer, it has the ability to absorb and fix CO2 in an incredible way bringing countless benefits to the environment. In fact, the correct management of the aforementioned chestnut wood has shown, in twenty years of monitoring, an increase in the stock of carbon in the soil and the progressive improvement of microbial respiration has greatly reduced the emission of CO 2 . On the other hand, other results show that a corn field or an organized orchard can be many times more purifying for the environment than an equivalent forest surface and therefore it will be appropriate to start thinking differently. The basic problem therefore lies in the correct management of primary resources. So I wonder if the transformations proposed by the WWF are in step with the development of a modern society? With scientific research, the risk-benefit ratios must be assessed for the appropriate choices in favor of the community and I conclude by stating that the WWF should also produce certain information and not just proclamations.

Agriculture and biodiversity: the agricultural system is accused of having destroyed 80% of the planet's biodiversity. Should we go back to a pre-agricultural world?

The word "biodiversity" is often used in an abstract way and as a useful icon to inculcate alarmist concepts without cultural insights. I believe that the term "biodiversity" and the term "natural" have become, at the mass-media level, imaginative tools to define the content of an indefinite static and untouchable environment or the chaos that occurs in an inviolate tropical forest. If, on the other hand, by "biodiversity" we mean 1. The biological differentiation between individuals of the same species, in relation to environmental conditions, and 2. The coexistence in the same ecosystem of different animal and plant species that creates a balance thanks to their mutual relations, then we must admit that it is Agriculture that preserves biodiversity through the work and intelligence of man who, organizing the environment, maintains and uses the plant and animal varieties linked to the place.

Obviously it is important to evaluate the working method and the rules that are followed. A well fertilized agricultural field to ensure an organic cycle with the right amount of nitrogen to be supplied to the soil or a grassed pasture, maintained and nourished properly, are useful for agriculture and certainly also for the environment. Sometimes we talk about the cultivation of agricultural fields and food production using natural techniques. It does not seem to me that noteworthy results have been obtained to date, however, as every human activity must be studied and evaluated over the years with rigorous and clear procedures because each method must be accepted as part of a global effort aimed at improving and optimizing the Agriculture both as a productive sector and for the role it plays in protecting the environment.

There is talk of agroecology as a new scientific discipline necessary for sustainable agriculture: what is your opinion?

The scientific method always provides new knowledge which are the "truths" at the moment and never absolute truths. The results obtained from knowledge in progress and in transformation require the utmost seriousness in drawing weighted conclusions and the scientific world avoids proclamations on single results in order not to create serious speculative and ethical problems. The advancement of knowledge has always opened important and fruitful paths that are sometimes consolidated in new scientific disciplines if they are differentiated and characterized by rigorous achievements.

Agroecology is certainly a new discipline of great interest that is theoretical at the moment, since, in order to have autonomy and exist as a scientific sector, it will have to demonstrate with its own research method that it possesses autonomy and experimental solidity that ensures contributions for the man and the environment. In other words, agroecology can become a new discipline, guaranteeing original scientific certainties and not just theorizing. It's necessary? On paper I believe so, and it is now up to the scientists of matter to characterize it in an individual and well differentiated profile mainly through an original and indisputable research path. Surgery, for example, has evolved and characterized over centuries of manual work and its progress towards maximum precision today sees the most delicate interventions that are performed with the assistance of special robots.

The biological struggle aimed at the protection of plant production is still in its infancy and requires extensive studies to evaluate the risks deriving from organisms that are introduced into new environments. I remember the case of Bacillus turingensis which was used in new apple plants to defend the roots attacked by Melolontha Melolontha which, as a side effect, favored the development in the environment of Aspergillus flavus producer of the powerful carcinogen Aflatoxin B1. In other words, even more toxic and harmful effects have been created for the environment and our health. Each alternate, before emphasis and use, must be verified that it is a real improvement evolution.

WWF wants to "drastically reduce the consumption of animal proteins". But wouldn't converting millions of hectares of pasture into arable land for soybean and other crop production risk further destroying biodiversity?

Do we reduce the consumption of meat to replace it with vegetable proteins? I think this is a serious mistake for future generations. From a nutritional point of view, red meat contains the necessary amount of all essential amino acids for humans, while some are partially in fish and even less in vegetables, and it is also the main dietary source of highly bioavailable iron and vitamins. B12. For organic development and health it is essential to have a healthy and balanced diet that guarantees the right amount of animal and organic proteins. It is also possible to reduce the consumption of animal proteins in favor of vegetable ones, however what about gluten which is the main vegetable protein source of our diet? In a scandalous way, gluten has long been demonized by a speculative campaign that makes it believe it is toxic even for those who are not allergic and / or intolerant (over 90% of the population). So why do we grow soy and encourage its consumption as a source of vegetable protein? An easy scandal could be created on the risks from phytoestrogens that oriental populations have due to the almost exclusive use of soy as a protein source and the incidence of intestinal polyps (adenomatosis). In summary I want to say that riding environmentalist ideas is very easy, and if you are convincing and supported by mass media systems it is easy to create dramatic situations for the economy, the environment and people's health. In its genesis, man was born a hunter and then became a farmer, but this does not mean that he must upset his diet by following only fashions and uncontrolled proclamations.

The data from the latest Ispra report show that global emissions in the agricultural sector have been decreasing in Italy for years. What steps can be taken to make the system even more virtuous?

Let's cherish our agriculture by protecting the areas suited to this. The environmental future of our country also lies in the extraordinary food excellence that must be defended against counterfeiting: we must encourage this indispensable economic source of Italy that favors the biodiversity of our agricultural products. Agriculture has an indispensable tool for maintaining the environmental balance from gases and pollutants generated by cities and industrial activities as I have illustrated above with a very topical example which is represented by the project favored by the National Academy of Agriculture and the Foundation of the Cassa di Risparmio di Bologna, a project that uses Tree talkers as a scientific means of data collection. And also to give more weight to the concept of suitability of the soils in order to adapt the cultivation needs to the most suitable soils, reducing the use of chemical fertilizers, and at the same time increasing the storage of carbon as indicated by the new CAP.

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EFA News - European Food Agency
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