Centro de Conocimiento sobre Agroecología


Case study dilemma and research questions

The case study is Chianti (Tuscany, Italy). Chianti faces the overarching dilemma of how to promote cropping system diversification in a highly specialized and market-oriented winegrowing area while maintaining the profitability of farming through local value chains.

This dilemma has two aspects:

  • Farm level: focused on the adoption and diffusion of agro-ecological practices and more generally on farms models focused on agro-ecological principles. 
  • Territorial level: focused on the actions that a broad range of territorial actors (local institutions, producer associations, value chain actors, other organisations, etc.) have to undertake together with farmers

The farm-level dilemma and research question is how to favour the adoption of farming practices inspired by the principles of agro-ecology, with particular attention to the role of crop diversification. Resolving this dilemma involves identifying:

  • Farming practices that go beyond the input substitution approach and that can provide effective ecosystem services
  • Farm models based on diversified cropping systems and on the valorisation of local products through local value chains

The territorial-level dilemma and research question is how to strengthen and enlarge the Biodistrict activities, in order to improve the profitability, employment and environmental quality of the territory through the introduction of agro-ecological principles in farms management. Resolving this dilemma involves identifying:

  • The role (current and potential) of governance actors in the diffusion of agroecological practices
  • The way how to recover cropping systems other than vineyards, to reduce the economic dependence on a single product (wine), to increase the supply of locally-grown food and ultimately to reduce land abandonment.

Key characteristics and sustainability issues of the farming system

Chianti is a highly specialised and market-oriented winegrowing area of Tuscany (central Italy), where the diffusion of intensive vineyards has affected the resilience of the local farming system. The case study area is around 72000 ha, 40% of which (28,000 ha) is used for agri-food production. Vineyards is the key land use, with ca. 10,000 ha. In the last 20 years, the existing environmental pressures have driven the adoption of organic farming in vineyards. Today, the area under organic farming exceeds 30% of the total agricultural area and some agroecological practices are already widespread in Chianti. Additionally, a grassroots initiative has emerged that endorses the principles of agroecology, i.e. the “Chianti Biodistrict”.
The key sustainability issues are as follows:

  • Environmental impacts on ecosystems and human health, due to the emissions from the application of fertilisers and pesticides and the use of agricultural machinery; 
  • Soil degradation (loss or organic matter, erosion, loss of biodiversity), due to intensive vineyard management and terrace levelling; 
  • Expansion of unmanaged wooded land and woody encroachment into abandoned land, due to the abandonment of marginal agricultural land, especially on terraces and far from farm headquarters;
  • Uncontrolled increase of the populations of wild animals;
  • Vulnerability of most farms to environmental and economic shocks, due to their reliance on a single product, i.e. wine;
  • Depopulation of the most remote areas;
  • Aging of the rural population, with the lack of generational turnover and reduced innovation.

Key actors involved

  • Regione Toscana: RDP Managing Authority
  • Comune San Casciano Val di Pesa: Local municipality
  • Comune Gaiole in Chianti: Local municipality
  • CONFAGRICOLTURA Siena: Local Farmers Association
  • CIA – Confederazione Italiana
  • Agricoltori Firenze e Prato: Local Farmers Association
  • Unione viticoltori Panzano: Municipal wine producers’ association
  • Unione viticoltori Gaiole in Chianti Municipal wine producers’ association
  • Unione viticoltori Castellina in Chianti: Municipal wine producers’ association
  • SPEVIS: Local research and advisory centre for sustainable viticulture
  • Studio Agostoli: Private Consultant (agronomists)
  • Chianti Classico Consortium: Organisation grouping together of the wine producers of DOCG Chianti Classico wine
  • Chianti Biodistrict: Organisation grouping together organic farmers and other local associations
  • PEI-AGRI Operational Group PROSIT (2019-2022) 
  • WWF Radda in Chianti – SIENA: Environmental Organisation
  • Legambiente Toscana: Environmental Organisation

Agro-ecological practices and sustainability trade-offs

To initiate the agroecological transition, a series of practices should be integrated that support the required farm-level and territorial-level changes to address the specific dilemmas.

Farm level practices are: 

  • Composting – The aim is to reduce dependence on external fertilizers, improves soil organic carbon balance, solving the problem associated with the practice of burning residues on field. The farm level analysis allowed to identify a potential conflict with the economic sustainability because of the costs for additional machinery and increasing diesel consumption and labour input.
  • Inter-row green cover – The aim is to increase soil biodiversity and fertility, as well as reducing soil erosion and soil compaction The DST used in the project for the farm level analysis allowed to identify a potential synergy with the economic sustainability of this practice thanks to the increase in the sugar content of grapes compared to traditional management techniques accompanied with a negligible reduction in the yield (favoured by the PDO’s regulation).
  • Pest Monitoring – The aim is to improve the capacity to prevents from pests, particularly important for organic farming systems, by intensifying the installation of pest monitoring networks to detect daily changes in temperature and humidity (weather stations). The farm level analysis allowed to identify a potential synergy with the economic sustainability as it allows reducing costs and increasing yield but this potentiality can only be achieved through a broad collective action.

Territorial-level practices are

  • Recovery of olive groves in marginal areas – The aim is to protect natural and cultural landscapes. The first is important to contrast soil erosion and fire risks. The latter is important to keep the link between agri-food and tourism, being olive groves historical land uses that are part of the cultural identity of Chianti. A potential conflict is seen in the economic sustainability of this practice because of the absence of economic opportunities and of seasonal labour workforce
  • Introduction of arable cropping or horticulture on abandoned land – The aim is to recover abandoned lands to counteract field colonization by herbaceous and shrub species, as well as the expansion of wooded land that contributed increasing the damages caused by wild animals and agro-biodiversity loss. To make abandoned land suitable for agricultural use, a lot of work is required for cleaning and recovering soil fertility. A potential conflict is seen in the economic sustainability of this practice because of the absence of economic opportunities and the work required for cleaning and recovering soil fertility.

Key barriers of implementation to agro-ecological practices

Besides Chianti Biodistrict members, the diffusion of agroecological practices across Chianti requires the removal of key economic, social, technological and knowledge barriers.

Adopting agroecological practices on farm requires investments in new assets, such as e.g. specific infrastructure to forecast pest attacks or the creation of composting sites and the purchase of specific machinery. This is barrier to the adoption of farm-level practices. 

The poor human capital in agriculture is a barrier to the effective diffusion knowledge and know-how, both within the local agricultural community and between the local agricultural community and civil society. Peer-to-peer learning is needed to help the recovery or cropping on marginal land, via, e.g., the diffusion of know-how about the most suitable crop species, cultivation techniques, and possibility to add value to products other than wine via local food chains. 

The greater profitability of vineyards compared to other agricultural land uses is an important barrier to crop diversification, especially on marginal land, where recovering cropping requires investments with uncertain payback periods. A related barrier is the limited development of local food chains for products other than wine.

Reducing land abandonment through crop diversification requires labour and innovative ideas. This is at odds with the general risk aversion of specialised winegrowers. The reduced availability of labour and low generational turnover in agriculture is a barrier to the quick recovery of cropping on abandoned land.

Key actions and strategies to remove barriers

The participatory activities during the UNISECO project allowed to identify a strategy to remove the key barriers to practice adoption at the farm and territorial level. The strategy includes some actions that were prioritised by local actors and the supporting policies. 

Strengthening and empowering existing local initiatives via institutional formalisation
The recent Regional Law on Organic Districts of Tuscany Region is an important instrument that promotes formal cooperation agreements between public and private actors of local agricultural systems, i.e. the law allows the formalisation of “Biodistricts”. Local administrations commit to adopt policies to protect the environment and agrobiodiversity, to promote the diffusion of organic farming and sustainable land use, and to reduce waste. 

Empowering local networks of knowledge about agroecology, involving farmers, advisors and public and private research centres
Local actors call for the establishment of a coordination centre for regional Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System able to consider the different local contexts within a wider network between research, advisors and farmers.

Promoting the coordination among farmers and other local food chain actors to supply locally grown food
Recently, Tuscany Region has proposed a law to encourage the procurement of locally grown food for public school canteens. The proposal involves delivering financial support to pilot projects that guarantee the provision of meals prepared using locally-grown food from short supply chains and the development of information and awareness-raising campaigns, at least for the users of school canteens. 

Promoting generational turnover and cooperation among small and medium farms to reduce the economic burden of investments in new infrastructure and machinery
The measures of the Rural Development Programme that support cooperation actions aimed at encouraging the creation of new models of collective innovation in agri-food. Within that framework, EIP-AGRI Operational Groups are important tools to foster innovation in the technological, strategic, marketing, organisational and social aspects of the production, distribution and consumption of food. Good examples of Operational Groups exist in Chianti neighbourhoods (e.g. PROSIT). The creation of dedicated platforms to share the experiences and findings of Operational Groups and pilot projects may support knowledge building and encourage further cooperation, especially is the platforms remain active after project end.

Key lessons learnt

To reduce farmer aversion towards the adoption of agroecological practices, there is a need for targeted knowledge diffusion.
Green cover, composting and pest monitoring show a moderate diffusion in Chianti. Then the challenge is to boost their adoption by as many farmers as possible in the short-mid-term. Strengthening the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System is the first and fundamental step to ensure the agroecological transition. Proper agroecological training is needed for farm advisors and in formal education courses.

In Chianti, cooperation is of utmost importance to adopt advanced agroecological practices on farm and at the territorial level, as the geographical and pedoclimatic characteristics of the area do not allow the large-scale production of crops other that wine grapes or olive trees. 

  • The Chianti Biodistrict is an example of grassroots initiative towards the agroecological transition of intensive winegrowing areas. The institutional formalization of Biodistricts can drive the adoption of similar initiatives in other areas that need urgently to resolve the dilemma of how to reduce the environmental impacts while ensuring farming viability.
  • Developing public procurement agreements may mediate the creation of new food chains and then drive crop diversification. Procuring food to the public sector, even though locally, require farmer coordination to ensure diversified and continuous food supply. This calls for strengthening grassroots initiatives in agri-food. 

Opportunities from future policy
The "Farm-to-Fork " strategy offers great opportunities for the diffusion of agroecology in Chianti, particularly by supporting small farms and short food chains. The new CAP post-2020 may offer additional opportunities for the development collective actions.



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