the project where nature and agriculture coexist

Once outside the city limits of Milan, the landscape quickly changes to vast expanses of rice, corn and wheat fields. Agro-industrial farms in Lombardy, the epicenter of intensive agriculture in Italy, have replaced the family farms that dominated these lands in the 1960s. Today, 80% of EU agricultural funds granted to Italy go to 20% of companies. Almost all of them are here in Lombardy.

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

It is here that in 1995, the engineer Giuseppe Natta, son of the chemist Giulio Natta (Nobel Prize with the German Karl Ziegler for the invention of polymers), embarked on a unique project aimed at promoting coast biodiversity and agriculture. Among the first beneficiaries of a European program funding the creation of protected areas, the Natta family has received €500,000 each year since the mid-1990s to support its initiatives in favor of biodiversity.

“We saw that reintroducing nature to agricultural areas could become a profession,” explains 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 their biodiversity initiatives.

As trees and plants grew and dragonflies returned to wetlands, soils became more fertile and natural defenses 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 work instead.

“What has been done here is to create hedges, wetlands, swamps, forests that can potentially regenerate biodiversity, so these natural spaces allow us to reduce the phytosanitary products used”, explains marketing manager Vittorio della Monica. “Because there is wildlife-generated control that is able to tackle pest insects.”

The biodiversity park covers 1,200 hectares and is home to over two million trees and plants. The Giullo Natta Innovation Center, a field research center opened in 2018, supports start-ups focused on sustainable agriculture and the circular economy.

There is no dividing line between the natural oasis and the agricultural fields. The grove is separated by a small channel where the frogs hide at noon, next to it is a field of rice plants. You don’t see any pumps or motors, but 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 over two million trees and plants.

However, the project is by no means an organic romance. Pesticides are used, but only in moderation. Della Monica says, “Pesticides are not the absolute evil. The evil of the world is intensive agriculture, working the land, the problem is the use of pesticides.

A more technical explanation comes from Adriano Ravasio, the chief agronomist of Simbiosi, the technological solutions branch of the innovation center: “We use fewer pesticides, but growing rice organically seems risky, because you don’t have not the certainty of productivity that farmers need.

In the meantime, innovative pesticide-limiting practices continue to be developed, as it is thought crickets and geese are put into the rice fields after harvest to eat weeds and help reduce herbicide use.

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

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

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