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Varietal mixtures of wheat, agrobiodiversity and resilience

Agrobiodiversity and resilience. Research on varietal mixtures of wheat proves to be the new frontier of eco-agriculture, under the banner of BiographyFood security and health for Italy and the Mediterranean, the planet and its inhabitants.

Agrobiodiversity, food security and health

Agrobiodiversity - that is, the set of all the components of biological diversity that are relevant for agriculture and the agro-ecosystem - plays a fundamental role for the so-called food security. That is to say the security of food supplies on the planet.

La food security is seriously threatened by climate changes, desertification and other anthropogenic factors. Last but not least, the drastic reduction of cultivated plant species, where only 9 crops today represent 66% of global agricultural production (FAO, 2019).

The reduction the number of species and varieties cultivated is, among other things, directly related to the growing spread of a wide range of diseases in the human body. The homologation of diets - with a reduction in the varieties of micronutrients and phytocomplexes - are indeed attributed to various pathologies, linked (in primis) to the immune system and inflammation. (1) With greater occurrence in cases of consumption of ultraprocessed foods HFSS (High in Fats, Sugar and Sodium).

Agrobiodiversity, climate change and varietal mixtures

Food systems and agricultural today they do not lend themselves to coping with the impact of climate change, precisely because of the great uniformity that characterizes them. The models that predict the variables associated with climate change, moreover, are far from agreeing. And it is nearly impossible to develop reliable genetic improvement programs, both conventional and molecular.

An effective strategy to allow our crops to evolve and progressively adapt to climate change - ensuring stable yields and products of appreciable nutritional quality - it is instead that of cultivating varietal mixtures. Genetic improvement thus moves from research stations to farmers' fields. Which are effectively involved in the entire decision-making process, applying the so-called participatory genetic improvement (PDB, Participatory Plant Breeding).

Another technique that makes it possible to bring diversity back into the fields, making use where necessary also of collaboration with institutions, is that of evolutionary genetic improvement (EPB, Evolutionary Plant Breeding). (2) Which consists in the use of mixtures and evolutionary populations:

- the mixtures derive from the mixtures of different varieties of the same species. Which, once planted, can be crossed in a natural way and gradually adapt to the pedoclimatic characteristics,

- evolutionary populations intraspecifics derive from mixtures that include varieties, crosses and populations of the same species.

Mixtures and low organic farming input

Cereal farming for decades it has suffered from the lack of varieties that are actually suitable for cultivation with the organic method. The versatility and resilience of the mixtures - documented by extensive scientific literature - allows the establishment of agricultural activities even in so-called marginal areas or in any case subject to extreme climatic conditions.

In Italy we are thus starting to cultivate the first varietal mixtures of wheat, adopting practices of sustainable agriculture. Finding out how their great adaptability allows to reduce them to a minimum input (o technical means) in agriculture.

The broad genetic basis of the varietal blends allows them to adapt, ensuring a presence of plants that tends to be constant in different soil and climatic conditions. The mixtures therefore guarantee a significant stability - even in marginal soils - which exceeds, in terms of yield under the same conditions, that of monocultures. (3)

Wheat mixtures and yield increases. Scientific study

The meta-analysis 'Unfolding the potential of wheat cultivar mixtures: A meta-analysis perspective and identification of knowledge gaps'considers about 120 scientific papers on wheat mixtures. Under the same conditions, the total yield of wheat blends - compared to the single varieties - records an average increase of 3,5% (with peaks of 6,2%, in the presence of significant biotic stress).

The mixtures they are therefore even more effective in crops that do not involve the use of pesticides. Furthermore, the uneven height of the plants maximizes photosynthetic efficiency and reduces evaporation. (4) And their competitiveness with weeds is better. (5)

Mixtures of wheat, the great gift of the Mediterranean

ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) is a non-profit organization, engaged since 1977 in agricultural research, which aspires to improve the livelihood of communities in the arid areas of the planet (North Africa, Middle East, Central Asia). Thanks to its large germplasm bank, ICARDA had established populations of durum wheat (with 700 varieties F2) and soft wheat (with 2000 varieties between F2, F3 and F4) in Aleppo (Syria). (6)

The precious work conducted in Syria made it possible to create populations capable of providing farmers with the widest possible genetic material, able to adapt to different environments, soils and agronomic techniques. Including crops under low organic farming input. Thanks to Prof. Salvatore Ceccarelli, the three evolutionary populations of ICARDA arrived in Italy in 2010. (7) And a small quantity of seed (23 kg) was supplied to three farmers in as many regions, as part of the SOLIBAM European project. (8)

From Syria to Sicily, one of the three small lots was entrusted to the company Frumentarie lands located in Aidone (EN). Its owner, Giuseppe Li Rosi, was one of the first farmers to invest in this genetic improvement technique. As well as the first in Sicily to register 3 local varieties of wheat in the 'Conservation variety'of the National Register of varieties of agricultural and vegetable species.

Varietal mixtures, the legislative framework

'Heterogeneous material' is the definition attributed in 2014 by the European Commission to mixtures. Which cannot be qualified as a 'variety', in the absence of the uniformity, distinctiveness and stability requirements established by the European legislation on seeds. Indeed, these are populations (Composite Cross Population, CCP) of which Italy - thanks to the work carried out in the fields in recent years - has been able to declare in Brussels its interest in authorizing the sale. Albeit, initially, in a phase of temporary experimentation.

Of the 8 populations of cereals temporarily authorized for sale as seeds, one is precisely the 'SOLIBAM soft Li Rosi' wheat population. The MIPAAF and the CREA-DC (Defense and Certification) are now defining the procedures on the controls in the field, the certification of the quantities admitted for sale for each population, the phytosanitary controls. In view of the issue of the marketing tag and authorization (by way of derogation) for the sale by multiplier farmers. (9)

Mixtures of wheat, the Sicilian renaissance of organic cereal cultivation

In Sicily, several farmers who adhere to the Simenza Association cultivate evolutionary populations of wheat in an organic regime. Wheat is marketed at a price that recognizes the dignity of work, in a logic of fairness and sustainability of the supply chain.

Flours that derive from it are suitable for quality bakery, gastronomy and pastry '100% Made in Italy'.

'If you control oil, you control nations, if you control food, you control peoples(Henry Kissinger)

From the socio-economic point of view, the mixtures of wheat can really express the renaissance of Sicilian cereal cultivation. Offering farmers the significant opportunity to free themselves from the excessive power of Corporation which dominate the global market for seeds and technical means of cultivation.

# Égalité!

Paolo Caruso and Dario Dongo


(1) Von Hertzen L., Hanski I., Haahtela T. (2011). natural immunity. Biodiversity loss and inflammatory diseases are two global megatrends that might be related. EMBO Rep. 2011 Oct 28; 12 (11): 1089-93. doi: 10.1038 / embor.2011.195. See also previous articles on:

- microbiome, gut and health,

- hepatic steatosis,

(2) Suneson CA (1956). An Evolutionary Plant Breeding Method. Agron. Jour. 48: 188–190

(3) Borg J., Kiær LP, Lecarpentier C., Goldringer I., Gauffreteau A., Saint-Jean S., Barot S., Enjalbert J. (2018). Unfolding the potential of wheat cultivar mixtures: A meta-analysis perspective and identification of knowledge gaps. Field Crops Research 221 (2018) 298–313

(4) Adu-Gyamfi, P., Mahmood, T., Trethowan, R., 2015. Can wheat varietal mixtures buffer the impacts of water deficit? Crop Pasture Sci. 66, 757

Faraji, J., 2011. Wheat cultivar blends: a step forward to sustainable agriculture. Afr. J. Agric. 6, 6780–6789

(5) AHEE Kaut, HE Mason, A Navabi, JT O'Donovan, D Spaner. (2008). Organic and conventional management of mixtures of wheat and spring cereals. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 28 (3), 363-371, 2008

(6) F2, F3, etc. they are the generations that follow one another after the sowing of F1 (first reproduction). In practice, after the sowing of F1, a part of the collected seed is re-sown to give life to the second generation (F2), and so on

(7) Ceccarelli S. (2016). Mix peasants, mix. What is participatory breeding and how is it done. Ed. Pentagora 2016, EAN: 9788898187393

(8) The SOLIBEM project was co-financed by the European Commission, within the VII Framework Program, from 2010 to 2014. V. Bettina Bussi, Riccardo Bocci, Salvatore Ceccarelli, Matteo Petitti, Stefano Benedettelli. The frontier of genetic improvement of cereals for organic agriculture: the heterogeneous material. Rural seeds,

(9) The European community has extended the temporary authorization for the sale of heterogeneous material, by way of derogation from current legislation, until 2021. The new regulation on organic farming allows in any case to cultivate different populations with this method.

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