Since 2010, the Barilla Company has implemented a project that is aimed to increase both the environmental and economic sustainability of durum wheat cultivation. The project introduced an integrated approach to durum wheat production through an accurate planning of crop rotations and the use of a Decision Support System. Results show that efficient agronomic practices are both environmentally friendly and advantageous for farmers, as they increase valuable production and net income, while reducing direct costs and CO2 emissions.
Barilla has identified land degradation as one of top priorities for the next years and strategic to mitigate business risks. Land degradation leads to fertility and organic matter loss, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, increased use of fertilizers and carbon emissions. This environmental issue affects the company’s strategy since land degradation can have direct and substantial impacts on the cost of the structure and business profitability, while also posing risks along the whole value chain. Moreover, given the cost and complexity of soil recovery – which increases very rapidly with the level of damage – it is essential to promote agricultural practices aimed at maintaining the quality of soil services and securing the ecosystem services (ES) it provides.
Barilla is the largest pasta producer in the world and the largest user of durum wheat semolina. The need to secure sufficient quantity of high-quality durum wheat can be considered as a key driver in the decision to engage in the Barilla Sustainable Farming (BSF) programme.
The BSF project is related to a business management issue as it built upon the establishment of cultivation contracts at favourable conditions for suppliers, so as to constantly ensure supplies of high quality wheat and also to preserve soil functions and ES, consistently with an integrated multi-year approach to sustainable and efficient soil management. This approach is innovative as it takes into account a perspective that is usually neglected: that of the soil.
The main drivers that guided Barilla to adopt this new strategical thinking have been both internal and external.
The first mainly regarded the need to improve production and soil efficiency through optimization of operations and inputs - farmers producing in a more efficient way, while increasing their revenues and also reducing environmental impacts - and the need to reduce the business risks related to soil degradation.
Regarding the latter, the adoption of the BSF programme has mainly been motivated by the need to reduce the environmental impact of pasta. Since 2008, the Barilla Company has adopted Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) which have demonstrated that durum wheat cultivation is responsible for over 80% of the ecological footprint of pasta and for almost the entirety of its water footprint.
In particular, the implementation of BSF consisted of three phases:
- evaluation of environmental impacts of durum wheat cultivation and the overall agriculture efficiency through the use of economic, social and environmental sustainability indicators. The results of the assessment were reported in a Handbook for sustainable cultivation of durum wheat, which provides practical suggestions to farmers, including crop rotation, soil tillage, the choice and amount of seeds, the control of weed species and protection from disease etc.
- evaluation of the capability of an accurate planning of crop rotations, best practices and the use of a Decision Support System (DSS) developed by HortaS.r.l, granoduro.netTM, to increase the sustainability of the cultivation process by providing information on weather patterns, soil conditions and varietal characteristics in order to optimise seeding, fertilization, weed control and disease management. Crops were divided into groups (favorable, neutral, unfavorable), depending on their influence on durum wheat cultivation. For each rotation, a comparison was made between the cultivation of durum wheat with and without the use of the DSS. In 2011-2012 the project was extended to about 15 farms to demonstrate that an accurate planning of crop rotations and the use of granoduro.netTM would help become more sustainable, both environmentally and economically. In 2012-2013 the sample was supplemented with about 100 farms. In 2013-2014 over 800 farms have been involved in the programme and about 17,400 hectares of agricultural land;
- evaluation, through focus groups and other primary data collection methods, of the farmers’ perception of the programme. This step has revealed that both the DSS and granoduro.netTMhas allowed farmers to identify the right time for interventions on the crop, the exact quantities and types of treatments required and also tailored to the specific local crop needs.
The challenge taken up through the adoption of the BSF programme is an integral part of the “Good for you, good for the planet” strategy of the Company. The approach put forward by the programme has been influenced by the country of application: Italy. As a matter of fact, the approach has been particularly efficacious in providing farmers in the South of Italy with the means for upgrading agricultural practices and unlocking their potential for improvement. This is particularly important especially as, at the national level, sustainable agricultural practices implying a reduced use of inputs show conflicts of interest with agricultural chemical manufacturing industries. In the North of Italy the potential for efficiency improvement is more limited, as the regions have high productivity. The application context has also influenced the approach due to the fact that in South and Central Italy the diffusion of sharecropping has led to the lack of long-term investments from those who cultivate land, which resulted into land degradation and erosion. Finally, the limited regional planning has also played a role in choosing to promote this new integrated approach to durum wheat cultivation.
The BSF programme has also offered a meaningful opportunity to activate internal and external stakeholder engagement processes. Internally, the business functions directly involved in the different phases were mainly buyers, the sustainability and R&D units. Other stakeholders involved playing different roles were:
- HortaS.r.L, a spin-off of the University of Piacenza - research and experimentation
- Farmers and Farmer Organizations – target of the intervention
- Farmers associations – engagement of farmers
- Local authorities (such as the Emilia Romagna region) – support to the diffusion of the programme at the regional level
Results show that by rotating durum wheat with a crop defined as “favourable”, contributes in reducing significantly greenhouse gas emissions (up to - 36% equivalent to -0,21 t CO2-eq/t grain) as well as production costs (up to - 31% equivalent to -57€/t) compared to rotation with an “unfavourable” crop. A favourable previous crop contributes also in obtaining a significantly higher yield (up to +20% equivalent to +1,3 t/ha) compared to an unfavourable one. The use of granoduro.netTM contributes in further reducing carbon footprint (-10%) and to decrease direct production costs up to -10%, mainly thanks to the optimization of pesticides and fertilizers management. The project has also benefited the Company in terms of safe and high quality durum wheat supply security. The implementation of the BSF project has shown that economic (more revenues for farmers), environmental (reduced use of inputs and soil quality enhancement, ES conservation and enhancement) and social sustainability (financial and technical support to farmers) can be pursued and achieved simultaneously.
The BSF project has demonstrated the importance of adopting an integrated approach in order to implement sustainable cropping systems. It has been shown that environmentally friendly practices are also economically advantageous because they increase the efficiency of agronomic input usage as well as yields. The project has also highlighted the importance of technical instruments to assist farmers and its potential in reducing production costs and the related environmental impacts. In 2013, the project has also been extended to other Countries (e.g. Greece), in collaboration with local partners, such as national research centres and farmers associations. Furthermore, Barilla is developing horizontal agreements with other operators of the Italian agro-food system. These agreements ensure outlets to all crops in rotation, therefore supporting farmers in developing multi-year sustainable crop rotation systems. This project has shown that, by tacking the “perspective of the soil”, more efficient and sustainable approaches to agricultural production can be achieved.