Helping Italy's Biodiversity Thrive with Best Practices in Agriculture
Intensive industrial agriculture has 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 responsible for 86% of the extinction-level threats facing 28,000 species.
Moreover, 80% of global deforestation, 60% of fresh water usage, and 23% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to the impact of agriculture's massive footprint.
Food for thought
While home to the highest numbers and densities of animal and plant species within the EU plus high rates of endemism, Italy faces a conflicting relationship between biodiversity and agriculture. But to keep humanity fed, natural ecosystems in turn need to thrive. For example, biodiversity keeps soil productive; provides crops, livestock, and marine species with genetic resources; and helps ensure crops are resilient against pests and disease.
Italy’s rural ecosystems are home to a wide variety of protected bird species, including the red-backed shrike, passerines, and raptors. Each is endangered as agriculture alters the face of rural landscapes, reducing insect populations and destroying food sources and nesting sites for chicks. Moreover, the uncontrolled spread of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides are deleterious to human health.
Partners committed to change
TECH4ALL partner WWF Italy is helping to reshape Italy's agricultural approach. The organization is aiming to give back farming space to nature, increase organic farming systems, and guide how pesticides are used. With this in mind and aligned with WWF’s Food4Future campaign, WWF Italy, Rainforest Connection (RFCx), and Huawei reunited to launch the second phase of the Nature Guardian project in 2022 to compare the effects of organic and conventional farming methods and guide best practices in farming.
Running from the Alps to Sicily, 16 agroecosystems were selected for the study, with an even split between organic and conventional farming sites. These ecosystems included apple orchards, vineyards, olive groves, citrus groves, wheat fields, and land intended for the cultivation of cereals and vegetables.
The power of listening
The 12-month project deployed 48 offline RFCx Edge AudioMoth devices across the 16 sites, which spanned seven regions in Italy, to collect animal vocalizations. The collected data was analyzed by AI on the RFCx Arbimon cloud platform, which was trained to recognize specific species. After analysis, the data revealed the distributions, numbers, and behaviors of target species based on their calls. The species of interest were mainly avifauna – birds are particularly indicative of biodiversity health in rural landscapes and their songs are easily recordable by the AudioMoth devices.
In total, the project generated 500,000 audio recordings, which added up to more than 8,000 hours of audio data.
Installing an AudioMoth device in one of the selected sites
audio recordings collected
- Ecosystems employing organic farming methods had on average nearly 10% more species than those using pesticide-dependent conventional methods.
- The animal species detected in sites managed with organic practices were more varied and behaviorally more active.
- The results indicate that organic agriculture creates a more stable, safe, and natural habitat for animals that encourages expected behavioral patterns.
- The project’s Arbimon cloud AI analytics platform, developed by project partner Rainforest Connection, identified 57 of the 63 target bird species on which the platform’s algorithm had been trained, with 8,420 individual validated species identifications.
The project demonstrates how technology and partnerships can provide vastly deeper insights into a given ecosystem than would be otherwise possible using manual methods, making a strong case for organic farming.
Based on the findings of this project, WWF Italy produced the report Nature Guardians: Bioacoustic Surveys for Sustainable Agriculture.
Click the link to read about Phase One of the Italy Nature Guardian project, which focused on biodiversity monitoring and threat prevention: Protecting an Oasis of Biodiversity.