English

Farming without soil

News stories about growing crops without soil lead us to a series of reflections. Many consider this so-called “vertical farming” the future of food production. In Paris there is a 15,000 square metre production area on the roof of one of the fair pavilions in the Défense quarter, whose aim is to produce 100s of kilos of fruit and vegetables using aeroponics, a soilless technique where the plants are fed with liquid nutrients. It is the biggest rooftop  aeroponic farm in the world.

As “classical” agronomists, we are somewhat puzzled by this type of project. We have nothing against it, but we do wonder if it is possible to put control of all the parameters of Nature in the hands of human beings. Here’s an example: a few years ago in Piedmont,  pesticide residues were found in 91.5% of sampling points for surface water and in 65.9% of those in deep water. In addition, both surface and deep water in the region register the presence of, among others, the herbicides Atrazine (and its metabolites), Terbutilazine (and metabolites), Glyphosate (and metabolites), Metolaclor, and so on, and on. The use of atrazine has been banned since 1994, and since 1990 in Piedmont: after 30 years it is still there, in both surface water and in aquifers. As recently as 2016, DDT (which has been banned in Italy for 42 years) was found in both underground and surface water samples in Piedmont in quantities that breached European limits.

In the past we were bad, but now we’re good: aeroponic food production will be controlled by computers using AI. This means there will be no possibility of mistakes and the correct feed will be given at the moment when the plants need it … and what about root exudates which are the vital essence for bacteria, fungi, micro and macro fauna? They will be washed away and expelled.

In this way the belief is perpetuated that the only thing that matters is the production of the plant. So let’s open the windows and look outside: we see rivers bursting their banks, bridges collapsing, landslips and landslides, cities under water … No! in these conditions we cannot consider ourselves “good”. So let’s carry on defending the soil which, as our cover image shows, is the fulcrum on which the Italian and European recovery pivots.

And why not go and visit that pavilion at the Défense: observe the plants, touch them, stroke them, and maybe they will realize that you at least understand the importance of the soil.