The Organic Agronomist: Angelo Bo
Angelo Bo is an Agronomist specialised in organic Olive farming and based in Tuscany. He talks to us about why organic farming has a higher gear.
You’ve been an agronomist, specialised in Olive groves throughout your career. Can you talk me through how you arrived at this – what inspired you to work with olive trees?
Born in Liguria, I was brought up amongst the olive groves. Olive trees have always fascinated me. They are both rustic and complex, evergreen and faced with new challenges every year. In territories where olive trees are at the limits of their possibilities, such as central Italy, it’s hugely complex to achieve success, but that also gives great satisfaction when you arrive at a product that so strongly speaks of its origin, the biodiversity and the microclimate in which it was born.
Then after a year of work, being able to harvest the olives and pass them through to the mill to press in to olive oil creates a wave of strong emotions for me, connecting the earth to an ancient plant that recalls rural ancient history. Helping olive growers to paint this landscape that the world admires fills me with pride.
You specialise in organic olive cultivation. For people that might not know much about this, what are the main benefits you can visibly see farming organically?
Since establishing my business, organic agriculture fascinated me and I’ve deepened my knowledge through studies since university. Organic agriculture has a higher gear, for us technicians and olive growers it is more stimulations as it poses very interesting challenges, you don’t just work with prescribed recipes, you have to interpret the signs that the plant and environment shows us.
I would like to clarify something here: many argue that organic farming is a return to the past where starvation was caused by famine, but there is no truth in this. Organic agriculture shouldn’t be confused with natural agriculture where you just harvest what nature gives you, it’s a technique that uses ancient knowledge and modern tools to produce with the lightest possible imprint on the environment. To get an understanding of this, we only have to think of the extracts of plants and algae that have a biostimulating, anti-stress function and in some cases they can offer disease resistance.
The benefits of organic olive growing are many, and yet not all of them are so obvious.
A decidedly less heavy production footprint on the environment is a key benefit. To get this right, you begin with a philosophical approach to study the interaction of plant, soil and environment. Not everything natural is ‘good’ however, nature produces very powerful toxins, and certain useful substances in excessive quantities can become harmful. So we know we need to use fewer products, introduce less into the environment and lessen our impact on the ecosystem.
Using fewer chemicals creates a safer environment for people who work the olive groves.
Using fewer products means lower levels of ‘residues’ in olives and therefore in their oil.
Olive growing and in particular organic olive growing fixes CO2 by reducing its presence in the air.
The search for biodiversity leads to a more complex and beautiful landscape. Take for example industrialized olive farming where, to reduce costs, huge olive tree plantations are planted with nothing else in site for miles. Compare this to less forced groves where there are blooms of grasses and wild flowers – this helps us a lot by hosting useful insects. Having greater respect for the environment, protecting bees and insects is useful not only for olive growers, but for all of us.
Being able to build a working system for organically farmed olives has enormous advantages for each of us, given that the world is the same for everyone.
What is your view of organic olive farming with respect to the changing climate?
Organic olive growing has a double interface with climate change.
– It suffers from it, in fact it has become more complicated to study the cultivation of olive trees, to understand what is happening to the plant, because climatic conditions change so drastically from one moment ot the next that we are faced with completely new situations as in late March / early April 2020 which was extremely dry inhibiting germination and flowering. In recent years, we have had more noticeable attacks from insects such as the olive fly that survive milder winters and bounce back in greater numbers during the spring/summer.
– But olive growing can make a huge contribution, because the complex ecosystem of the olive grove (if managed organically) is more stable, more responsive. If for example your soil is rich in organic matter, with high organic fertility, it drains water better when it rains a lot and retains water for the roots during dry patches. Having greater biodiversity in the olive grove, with an array of grasses and plants brings huge advantages because antagonistic insects live on wild plants (they eat insects that are harmful to olive trees) so we can see that a broader biodiversity helps to reduce the necessity for insecticides and fungicides.
Are some olive cultivars better suited to organic farming than others?
In Italy alone, we have over 400 classified olive cultivars, which have been selected over the centuries by parents, grandparents and ancestors in search of the plants that are best suited to specific territories, soils, microclimates. In organic olive growing, when we design a new grove, the cultivar helps us a lot because choosing the most suitable one for that location gives us many advantages over the years to come. So in response, there isn’t a cultivar that is best suited to organic farming but respecting organic farming allows me to choose the best cultivar to fit the specific soil and microclimate.
What are the major risks for organic olive farming in Italy at the moment?
Well, Italy has a huge bureaucratic problem, weighing it down and slowing down many initiatives. It robs us all of time that we could be dedicating to studying, bettering ourselves and focusing on the production of organic olive growing; the organic certification is very rigorous and has improved hugely, but this mania for bureaucratizing everything risks shifting our focus away from the real problems.
From a cultivation point of view, the continuous arrival of ‘alien’ insects and pathogens certainly requires us to pay greater attention to the importation of materials that can function as vectors. Xylella, an Asian bug is an example of this making it much harder to manage olive groves in general, especially organically.
We also have to solve various issues regarding production numbers – the costs of production are very high for tiny organic olive growers and so they may need to collaborate with others to share various overheads. And certainly the coronavirus will present challenges for us to open and maintain export markets. We have to see this as a chance to change and live the future in a different way. To do this, however, we must think about the price of food without the distortion of the neo-liberal economic system where money is king and take a more sustainable view of the economy. This would allow us to revalue all of the numbers throughout the supply chain considering environmental, ethical and social aspects. For example, low pricing policies have a tendency to lead to under-remuneration, which we have repeatedly seen encourages fraudulent or illegal activities. There is a distortion in perception of low prices that the consumer has become accustomed to perceive as ‘normal’, devaluing the real work behind a product. We need a greater pact of trust and mutual satisfaction with consumers, with buyers and with our way of producing to help build a better world.