Organic farming may have an old fashioned image as being anti-technology.

Another perspective is that organic is just more critically aware of technology. 

This was brought home to me at an event I spoke at in Italy last week. 

A sequence of presenters explained how they’re using open data to work with “agrobiodiverse” producers in their projects.

The terms abound these days — agroecological, agrobiodiverse — but all involve taking some of the principles, processes and practices of organic farming and using them in farming more generally. 

Many of these initiatives also work on certified organic farms too.

The initiative I attended was called Capsella (after the plant) and is about communities of practice — that’s farmers, scientists, SMEs, chefs, distributors and others in the food system — working together as equal partners.

Capsella is about “field, seed and food”. Like other new initiatives, it is about both a bottom up and top down approach. 

Cutting out the jargon, producers in the field and researchers working with high powered data sets come together to make the whole food supply chain more efficient.

Already, there have been “citizen science” projects enrolling tens of thousands of people to provide a data set traditional researchers could only ever dream of.

US-based plant scientist Dr Lynn M Sosnoskie defines citizen science as: “Scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by volunteers in partnership with professional scientists. Citizen science allows researchers, and their network of collaborators, to achieve a research goal that might otherwise be too expensive or time consuming.”

She has used this approach to, as it were, weed out glyphosate resistant weeds in California. Her project involves mobilising a large number of people who happen to work in, or even just access frequently, farm fields. These people collecting seed from mature junglerice plants — the glyphosate resistant weed in question — and then send the seed to her team for evaluation.

This helps with understanding distribution, resistance and control strategies for the weed.

Capsella focuses more on enrolling the farmer into making the food supply chain work more efficiently.

Open data — freely available, accessible information — is developed from scratch in Capsella and also built upon where it already exists.

There are three scenarios in development:

* “field scenario” — use of functional agro-biodiversity in cropping systems;

* “seeds scenario”, which addressing on-farm genetic diversity conservation and informal seed systems;

* “food scenario” — food chain transparency.

What this means is that everyone in the food supply system can use already existing data to work more efficiently. To take the latter food scenario example, this could mean food purchasing patterns, tourism numbers, restaurant visiting, or aggregated social media food preferences as expressed by relevant consumers, being available in easy to use formats by organic food producer’s co-ops.

Partner organisations within Capsella tend to have a specific focus — for e.g. promoting agri-food biodiversity to help strengthen regional foods in the case of the Diversifood project.

Diversifood works from field to fork — to “evaluate the genetic resources of a dozen underutilized and forgotten plant species for organic and low-input agriculture or marginal/specific conditions. Various combinations of underutilized legumes associated with several cereals” are tested.

I visited one such location — a certified organic farm called Floriddia — where 48 test plots grow, partnered with test plots in different parts of Italy for comparison.

Not only are cereal crop trials growing at Floriddia, there is a mill, a bakery and a shop full of their produce — pastas, oils, and legumes.

I walked away with a warm sourdough loaf, secure in the knowledge that something as ancient as local bread can make use of 21st century technology too.


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