Agriculture's general purpose is to increase the productivity of natural resources through the combined employment of farming techniques, human work and economic resources.
In particular, farming techniques, meaning cultivations, are used with the purpose to improve the way plants employ natural resources and to control their natural enemies and weather problems that damage them, as well as to help the work of people as to time and effort.
Therefore, the word cultivation means a set of techniques and procedures used in agriculture for the cultivation of a plant and the production of fruit and vegetables.
Usually, cultivations imply large soils and the employment of tools. However, these techniques differ according to the kind of cultivation and, therefore, different kind of cultivations can be done on small soils, employing only the direct work of men. Furthermore, usually cultivations that stay in a field for a short time are less efficient than those that exploit the soil for a longer period of time.
Among the different kind of cultivations there are: traditional farming, biodynamic farming, hydroponics, organic farming and integrated farming.
Traditional farming is a cultivation method for which a lot of technical means, such as fertilizers, agrochemicals and machines, are necessary. In traditional farming the only limit to the employment of chemical products are imposed by respect of the time and the doses suggested on the labels of the products used in agriculture. One-crop cultivation and intensive cultivation are the most recurring and characteristic models used in this farming method.
In traditional farming the farmer’s purpose is basically to try to obtain the maximum output from cultivations, therefore to obtain considerable harvestings quickly. For this reason, all the natural difficulties are tackled employing chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides.
Intensive farming simplifies at most the ecosystem by adopting two main methods: the one-crop cultivation and cultivations without soils. In particular, one-crop cultivation implies the specialization of the fruit and vegetable company or farming company in employing large soils to cultivate one sole crop or one sole vegetable species. This cultivation is done intensively and in a standard way, in order to obtain the maximum output and maximum gain.
The standardisation of this production process is often emphasized by the employments of a limited production of cultivar and by a massive employment of pesticides and insecticides. However, the employment of synthetic chemical products, both to fertilize the soil and to fight attacks of parasites and fungi, produces a lot of negative effects to the very company, such as heavy water and air pollution, biodiversity is spoiled because of one-crop cultivations, and the landscape is flattened out and impoverished.
Furthermore, traditional farming can entail also the finding of remains (that however must be under law limits) in treated fruit and vegetable products. However, nowadays also traditional farming is moving toward a low-impact, and therefore less intensive, production model.
The protected fruit and vegetable sector is more and more attentive to the development of eco-friendly techniques through a continuous scientific research: in this field, hydroponic cultivation plays a primary role.
Hidroponics is a cultivation technique without soil that, instead of soil, uses different substrates, such as for example, expanded clay aggregates, pearlite, vermiculite, coir, mineral wool or zeolite.
In hydroponic cultivations, the plant is watered automatically with a nutritive solution composed of water, fertilizers and other inorganic compounds that are necessary for the mineral nutrition of the plant.
Therefore, hydroponic cultivation allows to cultivate plants in an easy, clean, cheap way and above all without damaging the environment, allowing controlled productions throughout all the year, both as to quality and to hygiene.
It is a very versatile method that allows the employment of materials that are available in loco and are therefore cheap, as they do not require particular equipment (also waste objects can be used, such as common plastic bottles).
The concept of hydroponic cultivation evolved in time: firstly it was conceived to grow plants directly in water, but nowadays, even though this method is still common, the notion of hydroponic cultivation includes any cultivation method of plants without soil used in the fruit and vegetable sector, not only in greenhouses, but also in plain air.
Researches in the fruit and vegetable sector on hydroponic cultivation has continued for more than 70 years, even though cultivation without soil (from the Greek "Idros" meaning water and "Ponos" meaning work, therefore "working water") was known already in Ancient Egypt and in the gardens of the ancient Babylon. The first commercial implementation of hydroponics goes back to the Twenties of the Twentieth century, thanks to the researches of the Californian Gericke: in Gericke's innovative system, the roots of the plants took their nourishment from a perforated base contained in a recipient. This technology was firstly used by the U.S. army during the WWII to provide the troops with fresh vegetables, using 22 hectars of soil cultivated with hydroponic cultivation in some Japanese islands of the Pacific Ocean.
Later, this system did not develop because of the high costs and the kind of material used to build the installations; starting from the Eighties, employing plastic and peat as a substrate, a new push was given to hydroponics, thanks to the continuous research done by the Netherlands, England and Japan.
In hydroponic cultivations the soil is substituted by a physical environment where the parameters are easier to control, promising the protection of roots from atmospheric agents, a function that is guaranteed by an aggregate and basically sterile substrate. The substrate does not have any anchoring function: in fact, the plant does not need to expand the root system, as it finds the needed water and the mineral salts in the nearby. However, in the case of vegetables and fruit cultivated under hydroponic farming, it is important to see that the volume available for each plant is not excessive in relation with the surface: in fact, being the roots submerged, gas exchanges with the atmosphere occur through diffusion in a liquid medium, therefore roots have to be almost in touch with the atmosphere in order to avoid phenomena of root asphyxia of the plant; for this reason, in some hydroponic techniques, the substrate is completely replaced by a thin liquid film in which roots can develop.
Compared to conventional techniques, hydroponic cultivation has many advantages, among which the fact that since the beginning we remove the contact of the plant with pathogen agents of the soil. In general plants cultivated under hydroponic cultivation are more thriving and provide higher productions, because of a better control of the nourishing state (the pH and conductivity can be easily kept under control with specific pH and EC meters, and also capacity, times and production cycles of the plant can be controlled) and a better health state. Apart from guarantee a quicker growth of plants and vegetables, hydroponic cultivation is also eco-friendly, as it permits to save up to 40% of water, compared to the traditional farming, and does not require the employment of pesticides.
Cultivations without soil have obvious advantages in environmental situations where the substrate is not optimal to grow plants, such as, for example, in case of cultivation on rocks or too sandy soils.
Another advantage of this kind of cultivation is the fact that the environment is protected: in fact, the employment of fertilizers in hydroponics is aimed and limited and there is not any leakage in the soil, while weed killers are not used at all.
Hydroponic farming can be easily used by small and big fruit and vegetable companies, and at home too: in fact, in our houses, it is not possible to use big vases or crates of soil, as their weight can be a risk for the building at a structural level; instead, being their weight reduced, hydroponic installations make possible to cultivate vegetables and fruit without any problem both outside and inside, using appropriate LED lamps that stimulate plant growth throughout all the year.
Even though it is a quite simple technique, hydroponic farming requires some precautions, such as a frequent control of the air pump, changing water every fortnightly and attention in the choice and dose of the hydroponic solution used: in fact, in order to grow well, plants need different nutrients during their different phases that have to be granted. Nowadays there are also organic fertilizers that, using an hydroponic installation, allow to obtain a very certified organic product, as the substrate where plants grow is an aggregate and the only variable is the nourishment.
As to quality the fruit and vegetable product deriving from hydroponic farming is uniform in size and characteristics, as well as having constant organoleptic qualities in all the production, as required by retailing and by producers of fruit and vegetables. Today, the fruit and vegetable market not only values the traditional aspect (freshness, taste and savour) of fruit and vegetable products cultivated under hydroponic farming, but also aspects such as the conditions of production (environmental and social responsibility) and the safeness of the product.
There are different categories of hydroponics: they usually differ for the presence and the type of substrate, or according to the watering method used to provide the nourishing solution to the plant (subirrigation or drip irrigation), as well as depending on the employment or not of the recirculating nutritive solution after drainage (open or closed cycle).
Despite the fact that hydroponics is not used a lot yet compared to other kind of protected cultivations, such as organic farming and integrated farming, numerous researches affirm that hydroponic farming will take more and more space in the fruit and vegetable sector, resolving some problems, such as the need to reduce costs of production, the need to improve the production, the increase of environmental pollution linked to intensive agriculture and traditional farming, as well as the lack of natural resources such as water, labor and energy.
Furthermore, fruit and vegetable products cultivated under hydroponic cultivation do not contain remains of chemical substances used for sterilisation of the soil, they are cleaner and they do not differ from the products cultivated in soil from a nutritive point of view.
However, hydroponic cultivation has some negative sides, such as big capital investments for water and fertilizers, that make the hydroponic system less sustainable compared to other cultivation methods; in Italy for example the development of hydroponics is slow and many installations failed because they were installed in inadequate greenhouses as to climate watering system management.
Biodynamic farming is a cultivation method based on the anthroposophyc world vision developed by the Swiss philosopher Rudolf Steiner: it is a concept of the human being and of the world that in the early Twentieth century brought a fertile renewal in the field of medicine, pedagogy, art and science in general, gaining many followers in all the western world.
During all his life Steiner studied different subjects, among which agriculture, holding on the issue a series of 8 conferences in 1924 in Koberwitz, and stating a series of general principles that would have been developed later by his followers, who particularised the biodynamic doctrine (nowadays considered a pseudoscience): central matter of this conference was the health of the soil and the preserving and improvement of its fertility in order to improve the quality of the food that was going to nourish human beings.
The aim of this philosophy was not to leave every responsability to the nature, but to make something more than nature, that is to help nature in order to obtain a more and more fertile soil, for the benefit of future generations, and quality food that nourishes human beings and gives them health: in fact, rather than as a method, it is preferable to talk about biodynamic farming as an orientation for our acting and thinking. Therefore, it is a way of acting that plans sustainable systems for the agricultural production, in particular of food production. These systems respect the earth ecosystem including the idea of organic farming and invite people to consider soil and the life that develops on it as a unique system.
The goals of biodynamic farming, as in traditional farming, consist in keeping soil fertile, plants in good health and in increasing the quality of products. However, biodynamic farming, unlike traditional farming, uses completely natural substances that give life, as in this method chemical and toxic substances are not permitted. In particular, in biodynamic farming each substance is considered a pair of matter and vital force.
The main points treated by Steiner concerned the preparation of a manure of maximum output: composting and using preparations are two fundamental moments in this process, as well as the phases of the moon in agriculture.
In order to improve the quality of the soil, increasing the quantity of humus, and improving at the same time the quality of the harvesting, substances of natural origins especially treated and called "preparations" should be employed. Preparations for compost heaps are added to the heaps of materials that are to be composted, in order to help the decomposition in humus and soil: these preparations are divided in preparations for heaps, obtained starting from couch grass, and spray compost.
All the preparations are used in small quantities, while spray composts are sprayed after being "mixed", that is stirred in a certain way and for a certain period of time.
Biodynamic farming is often described as a method to cultivate without chemical manure and poisons. However, even though these aspects are important, they have a minor role. The main idea instead is that of a method characterized by an aware employment of natural forces, created by observing the vegetable production in nature. There are three major expressions of this natural forces: the release in the soil of nutritive substances for the plant, the inhaling from the atmosphere to the soil through plants and the auto regulation present in any living organism.
Nowadays, biodynamic farming is property of a trademark, owned by Demeter International: it is an association of farmers, whose purpose is to keep the same standards among farmers, through some rules, both in the phase of production and of processing of fruit and vegetable products. To date, each country has its own Demeter association that has to adapt to the standards and protocols ordered by Demeter International: the aim of the trademark is therefore to protect both consumers and producers of biodynamic food. Starting from a global knowledge of the planet and of its connection with the universe, favoured aspects of biodynamic farming, nowadays they are acquiring a certain ecological knowledge.
Biodynamic farming considers the soil as part of the universe and therefore it is subjected to cosmic rules and influences, such as the influence of the sun and the moon.
With Steiner and biodynamics the farm was "redesigned" from an holistic point of view. The farm is no more a lonely entity, dominated by an utilitarian and economic aim, but it is an organized system of long range relations, where the soil is intended as source of life, where the biodynamic company aim is to become an independent biological unity, where there is balance among soil, vegetation, animals and human beings. Therefore, more precisely, we can talk of "organic agriculture", as all the relations (not only material) that lead these factors and natural elements to interact among themselves are considered.
Biodynamic farming, in fact, adopts tools that are generated by the same nature, and with these tools tries to include farming cultivations inside the larger system of life. Biodynamic farming surpasses the mechanistic vision of nature and of its phenomenona, and promotes a new vision based on the correct usage of our senses and our feelings: it employs tools such as crop rotation, a quality fertilization through specific techniques, fertilization through biodynamic preparations, the lunar calendar or the calendar for seeding and the crop operations.
As biodynamic farming and its principles have been hold valid from a scientific point of view and having possible positive effects on problems such as pollution and exploitation of the Earth resources, this cultivation method is more and more employed in the world. Nowadays, biodynamic farming is performed in more than 40 countries all over the world, in all the climatic areas and has been recognized as one of the most sustainable biological existing approaches.
In Italy, the Biodynamic Association was found in 1947 in Milan: its aim is to promote biodynamic farming through a series of events on the national territory, such as expert advices to companies, professional education courses, books and periodicals, awareness and information campaigns on the topic.
Integrated farming or integrated production is a farming system of production with a low environmental impact, which provides for the coordinated and rational employment of all the factors of farming production with the aim to reduce to the minimum the necessity of technical means that have an impact on the environment and on the health of consumers: the fields of application of the principles of the integrated farming are fertilizations, cultivation of the soil, control of weeds and protection of vegetation. In particular, the concept of integrated fight is applied. It consists in the protection of cultivations of fruit and vegetables, by drastically reducing the employment of agrochemicals, taking different precautions.
Integrated farming starts from the awareness that when we intervene in an ecosystem the trophic networks are altered: for this reason biotic and abiotic factors of internal regulation of ecosystems are employed to the own advantage of integratrd farming and all the possible instruments are used, not only chemical means (biological, cultural, biotechnological).
Usually, the integrated approach is used against insects, but it can be extended to the fight against all the dangerous organisms, such as fungi, bacteria, rodents and other parasites. Aim of the integrated farming is to keep the dangerous organism within a threshold beyond which the same organism causes damages: therefore, it is not about eliminating completely all the organisms, but simply in containing their number. However, integrated farming implies the employment of varieties that are more resistant to attacks of insects, the employment of crop rotation and a particular attention to the elimination of infected plants.
Furthermore, integrated farming does not use a lot or does not use at all agrochemicals, and in any case they are not dangerous or harmful for human beings: their only aim is to eliminate some insects and can be easily denatured by the biochemical action of soil and air, with their consequent non-pollution. Agrochemicals are all those synthetic or natural products that are used to fight the major problems of plants, such as infectious diseases, physiopathologies, parasites and phytofagous animals, infesting plants.
However, in integrated farming it is important to know how to foresee useful conditions to the development of parasites, in order to sprinkle plant with specific agrochemicals only in case of an effective danger of infection and not at fixed intervals with precautionary aims.
However, the fight against harmful insects can be done through pheromones, whose aim is to sexually confuse insects, or through autocidal control, such as the sterile insect technique (SIT).
Also the biological fight is particularly used. It is the introduction of another insect that is a natural predator of the harmful insect that has to be controlled. However, it is also important that this insect is not dangerous for the same cultivation of fruit and vegetables.
As well as to the integrated fight, in this cultivation method, attention is given also to fertilization: recurring to mineral fertilization is therefore admitted to keep high the level of fertility and production of cultivation, but it is used in a limited way, and it is preferred to use the cycle of the organic substance that provides the soil with nourishment coming from organic materials, with the aim to prevent phenomena of placer mining and the following pollution of aquifers.
Integrated farming has many advantages compared to traditional farming: it is considered the most evolved way to have a sustainable agriculture, as it optimizes the resources and the available technical means to obtain the quantity of production necessary according to the demand of fruit and vegetable products on the national and international market and produces healthy and safe food, preserving and protecting environmental resources.
Fruit and vegetable products deriving from integrated farming are usually more "clean" compared to those coming from traditional farming and have a lower environmental impact: in fact, laboratory analysis show minimal quantities of residuals of pesticides as chemical treatments, in integrated farming, are reduced on average by 50%.
On the other hand the limits of the integrated farming are major costs of production, the necessity of a qualified technical assistance, and an objective difficulty to certify the fruit and vegetable product obtained under integrated farming.
In fact, even though the integrated farming is recognized and regulated by the European Union, nowadays it is regulated only regionally: it is the certification of a product, based on a voluntary norm (the reference for the integrated farming is DTP 021), with which the fruit and vegetable company chooses voluntarily to assure a product with determined qualified characteristics.
The guarantor is the certifying body that makes the controls both on cultivations and on the final product. In Italy, the first region that created a trademark of guarantee and defence for the farming products produced with techniques of integrated farming was Tuscany, with the trademark "Agriqualità" (created with a regional law N.25 of 1999).
Organic farming is a system of cultivation and a method of production that considers the farming company as a complex agricultural and auto-sustainable ecosystem. Its existence has to be respected and promoted through a set of techniques, whose aim is to obtain high quality food products from a nutritional point of view, by employing products already present in nature, therefore without using synthetic chemical products, respecting the environment where the company and the consumer live.
Organic farming has many different goals: according to IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), its aims are to produce food with high nutritional values, to work with natural methods rather than trying to dominate nature, to avoid all kind of pollution that can derive from farming techniques, by building a "closed system", that has to pay attention to the recycle of organic substances and nutritive elements. Other objectives of the production of fruit and vegetables under organic farming are to preserve the genetic diversity of the agricultural system and of the surrounding environment, to improve the beneficial effects due to the presence of microorganisms, flora and fauna of the area, useful plants and animals, as well as to process agricultural products preserving the biological integrity and the essential qualities of the product in all the processing phases of the fruit and vegetable product.
The production philosophy of an organic company is not oriented to the maximization of production and to the exploitation of the soil, but rather to the quality of the product as well as to the predilection of local plants and to the recovery of typical productions that are dying out.
In Italy and Europe organic farming is regulated by a EU regulation, the Reg. EEC No 2092/91, which defines the technical rules of production, the products allowed to be used to protect plants, to breed animals, to fertilize, to process and preserve products, and rules as to labels of the production that is going to be sold as organic product.
Therefore, the production regulations of organic farming establishe what is necessary to do or is possible to use to certify and sell a fruit and vegetable product as coming from organic farming, with a similar label: it was defined as " global system of farming production (vegetable and animal) that prefers management practices rather than employing factors of external origin".
In organic farming quality is plural as it is related to a better environmental impact, healthiness, absence of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), and the guarantee of the system of control and certification.
Organic products are usually healthier than other, because of the agronomic techniques adopted and in particular for not employing synthetic chemical substances. In fact, it is demonstrated that the nutritive value in organic products is often higher than in traditional products. Organic products are tastier and more nutritive because they are richer in sugars, vitamins and mineral salts, unlike fruit and vegetable products cultivated under traditional farming, which often contain residuals of pesticides and weed killers that were used during the cultivation inside or on their skin.
In fact, compared to traditional farming, organic farming reduces to the minimum the release of residuals in the soil, in the air and in the water, preserves the natural fertility of the soil and defends the complexity of the ecosystem and its biodiversity, consuming in general less energy.
After a slow starting phase, fruit and vegetable products deriving from organic farming are acquiring their space in the food shopping of economically more advanced areas: in fact, consumers show more and more interest in organic productions, giving their answer to food scandals occurred in years and thanks to a higher awareness to the topic of environmental protection and animal protection.
The growing availability of offer, fostered also by supporting politics adopted in many countries of the EU and of the USA, promoted the demand and determined a strong growth of the organic fruit and vegetable sector, that is esteemed to be around 15,000 million euros.
Inside the European Union, the tendency of the last 5 years indicates that Great Britain is the most dynamic fruit and vegetable market, as well as the first area of consumption of organic products (Source: Datamonitor). Organic farming appears in Italy quite late compared to other European countries, but recently there has been a strong increase in the organic fruit and vegetable productions. Nowadays, Italy is the first "organic country" of all the European Union and the fifth in the world as to extent of the organic soil; the Italian organic farming companies are 49,790, on a total of 128,556 of the EU and invest an area of 1,040,377 hectares, compared to the 3,722,336 hectares of the EU (Source: Coldiretti). In particular the organic production of grains, citrus fruit, grapes, olives are ranked first.
Therefore, organic farming, starting as a niche sector, has become a phenomenon of large consumption, conquering new market areas and entering all selling channels: the large scale retail trade and school canteens, direct selling and the shelves of specialized dealers.
Organic farming takes also into consideration important aspects such as the management of the soil, the protection and the defence of the environment, the presence of hedges as shelters for predators that eat parasites of the cultivated plants, the tillage of the soil, done so that the fertility and the structure of the soil is not damaged, avoiding the employment of too heavy machineries that press the soil making it too compact and hard because of the loss of its natural structure and softness.
In organic farming also crop rotation is adopted. It is an agricultural technique that comes with the concept of not cultivating the same type of plant always on the same soil for many years in succession, as each plant takes from the soil always the same nutritive elements and with time the soil becomes overworked. Instead, crop rotation consists in alternating or rotating on the same soil a different cultivation each year.
Another method used in organic farming is companion planting, which consists in the simultaneous cultivation of different type of plants on the same soil. In fact, it has been discovered that some plants, cultivated near one another, stimulate mutual growth and protect each other against diseases and parasites.
As to the control of weeds and the protection of the plant of fruit and vegetables against parasites or diseases it is possible to employ some practices, for example to weed manually or mechanically, avoid to seed plants too crammed, choose varieties that are more resistant to diseases and help, as in the integrated cultivation, the most suitable conditions for reproduction and spreading of natural predators of parasites.
On the package label of fruit and vegetable products cultivated under organic farming there must necessarily be written "product from organic farming" and the related European logo provided for by the EC Regulation 331/2000.
The label is a fundamental communication mean for the consumer in order to know the story of the product: it is full of identification elements, from the codes of the product to the name of the Control Body, and the EU organic logo identification (that according to the EC Regulation No 331/2000 is optional), or also the company logo and other captions related to ingredients, expiring date, etc.
In Italy the Control Bodies in charge of the defence of products from organic farming are private subjects authorized by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Politics. They have the assignment to carry out analysis and inspections in the companies that decide to certify their products as organic. The Control Body has therefore to issue the authorization to print the labels and has to carry out controls also on raw materials.
The type of labels for fruit and vegetable products from organic farming are three:
95% organic products
They are products whose agricultural ingredients must be:
- obtained under organic farming for at least 95%
- for the other 5% formed by products included in the VI Annex part C of the EEC Regulation No 2092/91 and following modifications and integrations (coconuts, dates, pineapples, mango, etc.).
Also ingredients of non-agricultural origin and auxiliary agents for food processing (salt, alcohol, yeast, lecithin, etc) must be present in the positive lists (part A and B of the same Annex).
For this category of organic products, it is possible to use the "FROM ORGANIC FARMING" reference in the selling denomination.
70% organic products
The percentage of ingredients from organic farming origin must be at least 70% and for the remaining 30% the standard of inclusion in the positive lists is still valid.
For these products the reference to the organic farming is not permitted in the selling denomination, but only in the list of ingredients, with a clear reference to those that are actually of organic origin, with also the compulsory caption "X% OF THE AGRICULTURAL INGREDIENTS IS FROM ORGANIC FARMING".
The words "PRODUCT IN CONVERSION TO ORGANIC FARMING" can be used only for product formed by one sole ingredient of organic origin harvested after a period of conversion of at least twelve months. Also in this case the non-agricultural ingredients must be included in the positive list.