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The future of agriculture: innovation, sustainability, cooperation

  • Rome
  • 13 June 2024

        The agro-food sector – ever central and strategic to public policies due to its pivotal contribution to the health and well-being of citizens – is finding itself faced with increasingly complex problems that call for global action: not only the rising world population, climate change, droughts, deforestation and resulting soil depletion but also geopolitical instability.

        With regard to this latter, the conflict in Ukraine – traditionally known as the “breadbasket” of Europe – has triggered a chain reaction across European agriculture. First and foremost, it has raised governments’ attention to food security, in terms of both product quality and the search for new raw materials. Moreover, fast-tracking Ukrainian exports and support for the country’s economy have generated market distortions that have damaged European farmers, particularly in Eastern Europe.

        This redefinition of EU agenda priorities with regard to import markets has led to a shift in interest southward, to the Mediterranean and elsewhere. This is true not only at national level – notably the Italian government’s introduction of the Mattei Plan – but also at the level of agricultural enterprises that have launched cooperation projects and entrepreneurial initiatives on the African continent in compliance with ESG-focused practices. Examples include Demo Farms: agricultural hubs for production and research where innovative and sustainable farming practices are tested in partnership with research centers and universities. Thanks to their educational and informative purposes, these infrastructures – created by major Italian agricultural actors and consortiums – are exporting know-how and becoming a key factor in the development of small and medium-sized local farms.

        Indeed, availability of innovative technologies must go hand in hand with the knowledge of how to use them; the success of cooperative initiatives depends, on the one hand, on activating and optimizing the bottom-up development of human capital in support of small and medium-sized African business owners; on the other, considering the agro-food sector’s vast potential in Africa, it is essential to implement strategies for attracting young people to careers in this increasingly high-tech sector.  Additionally, the existing synergies between the top-down innovation coming out of research institutions and the bottom-up contributions of farmers themselves are capable of fostering sustainable agricultural growth and improved food and nutritional security in African countries.

        The theme of technology in agriculture – be it precision, digital or bio technology, robotics and automation, blockchains and so forth – is essential also to the European and Italian agroindustry. Indeed, the development of innovative solutions is the keystone of the energy transition that Europe set in motion with its Green Deal, the pursuit of which is in the interests of everyone, especially the future generations. If the aims of the transition are clear and everyone is in agreement, what needs then to be discussed are the ways by which to achieve the prescribed goals without the cost of that process falling upon the shoulders of an agricultural sector already suffering the effects of the economic crisis. The new European Commission will have to consider this, not least ahead of the upcoming revision of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) by the end 2027.

        What’s more, the agro-food sector must be defended not only for its economic importance but also for its capacity to galvanize communities and create local development on the strength of its agroecological values and territorial traditions. Those traditions are what makes those places what they are and that underlie the success of the Italian agro-food industry; an industry that, unable to rely on scale economy strength, has leveraged the strength of local economies of scope to generate growth and become the sector of excellence it is today. Although no single development model is suitable to every situation, Italy’s experience with agricultural cooperation is a valid example that could be shared with rural African communities.

        Finally, we must not forget the ultimate actor in the “earth to table” progression: the consumer. Thanks to innovation and the One Health approach – which recognizes the close link between human, animal and environmental health – never before have we had so much safe, affordable food on our tables. Yet, the perception of the end consumer seems to go in the opposite direction; resolving what is a problem of communication and information must involve all the actors along the value chain: growers, processors, preservers and sellers of food, as well as researchers and – above all – policy makers. As they are doing in other spheres, digital technologies could facilitate this by permitting traceability and transparency; the related issue of possible additional costs – which consumers may potentially balk at having to bear – could be resolved through public policies that incentivize those new technologies. Such support could generate virtuous circles, increasing consumer trust, encouraging the spread of innovation along the value chain and helping the sector become part of the digital transition.