Italy and France together for agro-industrial development

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Agroindustrial is one of the sector that most contributes to the positive imagine of the “made in Italy”. Together with the metalworking and textile-manufacturer, it is one of the principal sectors in terms of turnover - exceeding 180 billion of euro, 12% of the national GDP – amount of companies and occupation, with almost two million people employed. Agro-industrial research, however, does not benefit of much funding from our government. In order to incentivize this sector, Cariplo Foundation started in 2011 a close collaboration with the French Agropolis Fondation. These two Foundations, involved in scientific research promotion and support all along, have decided to share economic, human and instrumental resources for improving agriculture science researches.

“The cooperation arose during a European Foundation Centre meeting, thanks to Agropolis”, explains Carlo Mango, Director of the Scientific Research Area for Cariplo Foundation.  I was exposing the results of a research program called AGER, which we developed with 13 other Italian foundations for funding researches in fruit and vegetable, cereal, wine and zoo-technical sectors. Agropolis representatives found our program very interesting and then we started developing ideas for a possible synergy”.

The first communal action was the launch, in 2012, of the grant FIRST (French Italian Rice Science Technology partnership). More than one billion people depend on rice cultivation for their sustenance. This cereal is grown in 122 countries spanning over the five continents and its cultivation represents the main occupation for millions of impoverished people in developing countries.

The two Foundations dedicated a 2 million euro budget in order to foster research programs for developing instruments that could guarantee the nutrition of a continuously growing world population. FIRST is currently funding 4 multi-years research projects out of eight presented. The researchers involved will try to find a way for increasing rice production by better use of soil, water and man-power, always looking for more efficient and sustainable solutions from an environmental point of view, but protecting at the same time the nutritional qualities of the product. The team coordinated by Pietro Piffanelli (Technological Park of Padano) and Nourollah Ahmadi (Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement) are conducting genomic researches for identifying and developing rice varieties that can resist environmental stresses.

A better understanding of molecular relations among pathogens resistance is part of the targets Jean-Benoit Morel (Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement) and Alberto Spada (University of Milan) will aim to achieve. The research groups of Santiago Lopez-Ridaura (Istitut National de la Recherche Agronomique) and Stefano Bocchi, by means of IT instruments, will try identifying innovative and more sustainable systems for rice production. Europe grows only 5% of rice at a worldwide level, and Italy is the biggest producer.

“One of FIRST’s mission is “democratization” of knowledge. We want, in fact, to share the know-how and the obtained results with researchers and producers of developing countries” Mango underlined. In order to achieve this goal, the grant supports projects among Italian, French and developing countries’ researchers. The knowledge about Asian and African rice species evolution – expected to be provided by Stéphane Jouannic (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement) e da Martin Kater (Università degli Studi di Milano) and their team – will be make available for breeding programs in western Africa and Vietnam. A very important phase is the proposals evaluation. “Decisions should not be influenced in any way by ideological prejudices or personal feelings, merit must be the only evaluation parameter”, Mango explained.

For this reason, the Joined Monitoring Committee – instituted between the two Foundations – chose a selection system based on rigour, competence and absence of conflict of interest. Every project is sent to two auditors (no Italian or French scientists) who assess it based on evaluation parameters developed by the Scientific Committee (constituted by agro-industrial disciplines experts). The Scientific Committee members then meet for a study session, which allows a comparative evaluation and the application of common assessment criteria, protects transparency and reduces the influence of conflict of interest. At the end of the study session, they draft a ranking that will be ratified by the Foundations’ governing bodies. Awarding merit, however, is not the only target: the grant, in fact, requires recruiting young researchers and exchanging staff among the involved centres.

Merit and youngsters involvement are also fundamental points for the grant CERES, that just closed its call. “We received 16 proposals for a total of 94 groups among French, Italian and emerging or developing countries. The budget will be 2 million of euro for this grant too (co-shared between Cariplo and Agropolis at 50%)”, describes the Cariplo Research Area’s Director. Aim of CERES will be developing strategies for improving cereal production, with particular attention to sustainable development and environmental resources safeguard. Besides most widespread cultivations at a global level, the researchers will also consider the less common ones that play an important social and economic role for agriculture and food-producing systems of developing countries. “Just like rice, cereals represent the primary nutrition source. With this grant we would like to investigate how climatic changes are influencing the cereal production, but above all we would like to develop strategies that can improve the food safety levels of the products we eat every day”, states Mango.

The cooperation between the two Foundation focuses on extremely topical themes. Only few days ago the Food World Day was celebrated, centred on food system sustainability. According to the last data collected by the research program CGIAR-CCAFS on climatic changes, agriculture and food safety, the food complete cycle (from production to consumption) emits from 9.8 to 16.9 billion tons of CO2 per year, almost one third of global emissions. Preserving biodiversity and protecting quality will be the central theme also for Expo 2015. Cariplo and Agropolis Foundations are working in this direction, trying to identify better control and innovation instruments that can guarantee availability of nutritional and healthy food.

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