A Delicate Balance: Ensuring Food Supply and Safeguarding Biodiversity in Italy
Intensive industrial agriculture continues to have a devastating impact on global biodiversity. In 2021, the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) reported that the global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture alone responsible for 86% of the extinction-level threats facing 28,000 species.
While home to the highest numbers and densities of animal and plant species within the European Union plus very high rates of endemism, Italy also faces a conflicting relationship between biodiversity and agriculture – a relationship that is strained by the global ‘cheaper food paradigm’ that drives up humanity's collective demand but pressures already threatened ecosystems with agricultural sprawl.
Food for thought
And crucially, our food system exists in symbiosis with biodiversity – to keep humanity fed, natural ecosystems in turn need to thrive.
Biodiversity, for example, ensures that soil is productive; provides the genetic resources for the crops, livestock, and marine species that land on our plates; and enables crops to be resilient against pests and disease.
Any threat to biodiversity is in turn a threat to humanity's own well-being and longevity.
TECH4ALL partner WWF is helping to reshape Italy's agricultural approach, aiming to give back farming space to nature, increase organic farming systems, and guide how pesticides are used. The European nation's rural ecosystems are home to a wide variety of protected bird species such as the red-backed shrike, passerines, and raptors. Each is endangered as agriculture alters the face of rural landscapes, reducing insect populations and destroying the food sources and nesting sites for chicks.
However, due to a serious lack of data based on traditional manual methods of observation, the conservation of these ecosystems is a constant challenge. For a start, there are too few ornithologists who can recognize a wide variety of species from their songs, and the time each expert can accurately listen to bird calls in one stretch is limited. Then factor in human error and limited financial resources, and it becomes unsurprising that collecting and analyzing data is highly complex and imprecise.
Fortunately, cutting-edge technological solutions can overcome these barriers.
WWF Italy, Rainforest Connection, and Huawei have teamed up for a second time in Italy, with a view to balancing the competing interests of agriculture and conservation. The 12-month project has deployed offline RFCx AudioMoth edge devices to record environmental sounds across eight sites: Valle dello Sporeggio (TN), Bosco di Vanzago (MI), Ghirardi (PR), Ripabianca di Jesi (AN), Calanchi di Atri (TE), Lake Penne (PE), Monte Sant'Elia (TA), and Lake Preola and Gorghi Tondi (TP). Running from the Alps to Sicily, part of each site is a WWF Oasis nature reserve, and the selected areas include apple orchards, vineyards, olive groves, citrus groves, wheat fields, and land intended for the cultivation of cereals and vegetables. Three devices are located in each WWF Oasis nature reserve, and another three are installed in similar environments outside the nature reserves. This approach enables data collected within and outside of the nature reserves to be compared.
One of the agroecological zones
AudioMoth devices can record environmental sounds 24/7, including the vocalizations of endangered animals. The vast amounts of data collected is aggregated to the RFCx Arbimon cloud platform for analysis by an AI model trained to recognize specific sounds. The resulting data insights, which would be impossible to acquire through conventional manual methods, will be used to study the biodiversity characteristics and trends in agroecosystems, including the relationship between different farming practices and nature conservation. These insights can in turn help to guide future best practices.
Installing an AudioMoth device in one of the selected sites
To date, 48 AudioMoth devices have been deployed, collecting 120,000 audio recordings that represent 2,000 hours of sound.
Hours of sound
The 15 staff and volunteers in the field include four ornithologists, who have trained the AI system to identify a wide range of species. This means that the team can investigate, with extreme precision, the presence of various species in organically farmed rural environments protected within the WWF Oasis.
These results can be compared with the similar neighboring environments, where biodiversity could be limited by other factors.