‘Pesticides aren’t the absolute evil’: the project where nature and agriculture coexist

Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni

Once outside the city limits of Milan, the landscape soon morphs into vast expanses of rice, maize and wheat fields. Agribusiness operations in Lombardy – the epicentre of intensive agriculture in Italy – have replaced the family farms that dominated these lands in the 1960s. Today, 80 per cent of EU agricultural funds awarded to Italy go to 20 per cent of the companies. Almost all of them are found here in Lombardy.

But there is an unlikely neighbour among the monoculture plantations. The first surprise on arriving in Giussago, a village 20km from Milan, is the sight of herons above, tall trees, ponds, swamps and reeds all soon appear.

It was here in 1995 that engineer Giuseppe Natta, son of the chemist Giulio Natta (a Nobel Prize winner together with the German Karl Ziegler, for inventing polymers), embarked on a unique project to promote biodiversity and agriculture side-by-side. Among the first beneficiaries of an EU scheme funding the creation of protected areas, since the mid-90s the Natta family has received €500,000 each year to support its biodiversity initiatives.

“We saw that the reintroduction of nature in agricultural areas could become a job,” says agronomist Alberto Massa Saluzzo, who has worked on the project since its inception. “Europe paid us to see the heron fly, the Maltese knight [bird] return to these lands, the frogs, even the deer.”

The Natta family receives €500,000 of EU money each year to support its biodiversity initiatives.

As the trees and plants grew and dragonflies returned to wetlands, soils became more fertile and natural defences formed. Boll weevils are a persistent enemy of Carnaroli rice crops and farmers often deploy insecticides to protect their yields. But here, an abundance of predatory insects do the job instead.

“What has been done here is to create hedges, wetlands, swamps, forests that can potentially regenerate the biodiversity, so these natural areas allow us to reduce the plant protection products used,” marketing manager Vittorio della Monica says. “Because there is control generated by the fauna that is able to prey on harmful insects.”

The biodiversity park covers 1,200 hectares and is home to more than two million trees and plants. The Giullo Natta Innovation Centre, a research facility in the grounds that opened in 2018, supports start-ups focused on sustainable agriculture and the circular economy.

There is no dividing line between the natural oasis and agricultural fields. The grove is separated by a small canal where frogs hide at noon, next to it lies a field of rice seedlings. No pumps and motors are to be seen, instead when the water level needs to be raised, the canal is flooded and the water is used to irrigate the fields.

The park covers 1,200 hectares and is home to rice crops and more than two million trees and plants.

The project is by no means an organic idyll, though. Pesticides are used, but only in moderation. Della Monica says: “Pesticides are not the absolute evil. The evil of the world is intensive farming, the working of the land, the problem is how pesticides are used.”

A more technical explanation comes from Adriano Ravasio, the head agronomist at Simbiosi, the technology solutions arms of the innovation centre: “We make a reduced use of pesticides, but rice farming with the organic method seems risky, because you don’t have the certainty of productivity which farmers need.”

In the meantime, innovative pesticide-limiting practices continue to be developed as crickets are being thought of and geese are being put in rice fields after harvesting to eat the weeds and help reduce herbicide use.

“Farmers need to do the maths and realise that by diversifying their business, they can earn more than by selling an agricultural product, perhaps devalued in the global market,” Ravasio says. “And meanwhile they make their land more fertile for their future.”

A short film on the Giussago biodiversity park. Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni.