Gemini Delle Vedove, Senior Researcher in Agronomy and Lecturer in Organic Farming at the University of Udine (UNIUD), is leading the Smart Protein project work on protein-crop production in Europe, using regenerative organic farming systems. Learn more about his cutting-edge work in this interview.
What is the role of your organisation within the Smart Protein project?
Gemini Delle Vedove: UNIUD is leading the Smart Protein work on protein-crop production in Europe, using regenerative organic farming systems (Work Package 1). We are responsible for on-farm demonstrations in order to introduce sustainable agricultural practices for protein crops in organic cropping systems.
Work Package 1 is engaged in three main tasks:
1. Cultivar validation and optimisation of high-protein crop-production systems, led by Gabriela Alandia Robles from the University of Copenhagen.
2. Integrating protein crops into agricultural systems and large-scale production, led by UNIUD, which aims to demonstrate a set of regenerative practices in organic farms (eg, intercropping, mechanical weeding, nutrient management, reduced soil tillage). These practices are first tested at experimental plot scale and will be further locally adapted at field scale with farmers.
3. Produce sufficient quantities of the most suitable protein crops, led by UNIUD, with the data gathered from on-farm activity used to produce sustainability indicators related to supporting, regulating, and provisioning agricultural ecosystem services. This data will also be part of a Standard Operating Procedure for successful regenerative organic protein-crop production in the European regions.
Why did you decide to join the Smart Protein project?
Gemini Delle Vedove: The Smart Protein project is a challenging project and is in line with the Farm-to-Fork strategy that is supported by on-going Horizon Europe funding programme for research and innovation. The Smart Protein project is also aligned with my competences and current research topics related to organic farming and regenerative practices.
What benefits will this project bring to your organisation and to Europe and European citizens in general?
Gemini Delle Vedove: The project gives high visibility to UNIUD’s research and agronomic competences, offering the possibility to create internal networks with the other research groups in UNIUD’s Food, Animal and Environmental Sciences Department. Another important positive externality is the expected increase in the share of EU agricultural land for protein crops (currently around 2% of EU arable land). We hope that the production of protein crops will foster a more sustainable diet, with economic benefits for farmers, citizens, and industries.
What are the main challenges faced in the process?
Gemini Delle Vedove: The diversity of farming conditions (pedo-climatic, farm size, researchers’ and farmers’ knowledge/experience) are challenges that the Smart Protein project faces in advancing from Technology Readiness Level 5 (technology development) to 6 (technology demonstration) at farm scale. There are also very few previous examples of projects that are focused on organically grown protein crops. And then there are challenges related to yield instability and to the economic competitiveness of protein crops. Yield instability could be overcome if we can find the best genotypes and agricultural practice for each agricultural situation in various EU regions. This is the aim and challenge of the activities of Work Package 1: to provide reliable data and increase knowledge about organic protein crops
What results from the project are you and your team most excited about?
Gemini Delle Vedove: The results collected up to now confirm the variability of protein crops’ yields(which is not a positive result from the perspective of farmers). Despite this, we observe high interest in our activities from organic farmers as they are willing to improve their knowledge and farm revenue, and recognise the positive effects of protein crops introduced via more diversified crop rotation. This fact spurs us to give our best in our research and development work. Some new research activity that is exciting for us is the use of spectral responses to the classify of protein crops and derive real-time information on their physiological status and growth.