Towards precision agriculture

How technology could reduce the use of fertilisers, pesticides and energy while improving product quality

Like in politics, there are also maximalists and reformists in agriculture when it comes to sustainability and security. For the former, the system just collapses, it doesn’t change. For the latter, however, the system can be improved, albeit a piece at a time. The maximalists in agriculture are naturally organic producers (who we hope will forgive us the slightly rough and ready definition), who do not use synthetic fertilisers and pesticides at all. Organic and biodynamic, we all know them. But who are the reformists?
They are for example the fifteen producers who took part in the Magis project (www.magisvino.it), whose wines recently received the first sustainability certification awarded so far in Italy. We call them this (and hope they will forgive us too) because, although they use synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, they try to use the bare minimum necessary. It seems simple (“why didn’t anyone think of that before?”) but in fact it isn’t at all.
Take pesticides. The vines need to be protected against parasites as otherwise there won’t be enough grapes or they will be of poor quality. And good wine takes shape in the vineyard, not the cellar. If the vine is overtreated, there is a risk of leaving more residues in the wine than are permitted by law. However, if it is undertreated, there is a risk that the wine will be contaminated with ochratoxins, highly toxic, near-indestructible substances produced by some of the fungi that attack the grapes. Avoiding or minimising both contaminations is possible, but it’s very difficult. Finding the right balance is a classic problem that can be overcome by selecting the most effective, safe products for each individual situation and optimising their use, taking into consideration protection against all parasites together so that there is no need to duplicate treatments. To do this, however, you need the best scientific knowledge available, and most importantly day-to-day monitoring of what’s happening in the field.
To use fertilisers effectively, meanwhile, you need to know about the condition of the vegetation of each plant – something that changes in each vineyard from one area to the next – so that you can provide them with just the amount of food that they need. But how do you work this out?
To do it successfully, the businesses that have obtained certification for their wines follow special protocols produced by the oenologists of the University of Milan, the engineers of the Universities of Turin and Florence, the biologists of the CNR’s Institute of Food Production Sciences and the Italian Oenotechnical Oenologists Association, and specialist businesses in the sector, which have then monitored these protocols at every stage. The project’s scientific director is Professor Attilio Scienza of the University of Milan.
The method is known as precision agriculture, the subject of our video, but the project’s secret is revealed by its name. Magis is a Latin word meaning “more”, “better and better”, and alludes to the fact that the production protocol is not a series of static requirements, like those of a procedural guideline, but is intended to improve year on year. In fact, for the first time the businesses that are participating in the project (but that are competitors on the market) are sharing a large database containing all the data on exactly what happens in the vineyard and all the operations carried out. The data are available to the researchers, who can use them to understand how to improve further. Amongst other things, in this way, the entire production process is traced in every detail as transparently as possible. At the end of the process, of course, the wine is analysed by an independent certification body.

Over the next few seasons, in addition to fertilisers and pesticides, the project will also look at the carbon footprint and monitor soil quality.

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Another 140 businesses all over Italy are already at work to produce their own wine with sustainability certification. Why is there so much enthusiasm for Magis and the other sustainability projects that have not yet achieved certification? Because of a passion for doing work in the best way possible, of course, but also because the less that’s done in the field, the less it costs. It also meets the needs of markets that are very aware of sustainability and safety, such as Northern Europe and America.

Who will win? The maximalists or the reformists? We will see. In any case, competition has never been more valuable.

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