Case: LIFE Programme

Natural Development Group – reducing the environmental impact of pest control in vineyards

Natural Development Group is a company based in Castel Maggiore (Bologna), Italy, focused on continuous innovation in the eco-sustainability of agricultural activities. NDG’s project, NATURA AGRO, was awarded €3.28 million from the LIFE Programme’s 2022 call for Standard Action Projects. The project aims to drive European viticulture towards more efficient, sustainable, toxic-free crop protection, through reducing and even eliminating the use of xenobiotic compounds in plant protection products (PPPs). We spoke to Valerio Borzatta, Project Coordinator, who has been leading chemical development of their proprietary product, Microsap®, which functions as a biomimetic carrier for a new class of environmentally safe PPPs.

Addressing key challenges in viticulture

Viticulture is one of the most profitable activities in the EU, covering a land area of 3.2 million hectares. Winegrowers face two key challenges in making the practice sustainable and environmentally safe, include the misutilization of grape biomass – which is incinerated on-field, resulting in excessive emission of GHGs, and the excessive usage of chemical pesticides in grape production. Winegrowers are dependent on their use as grapevine is susceptible to many fungal diseases, such as Downy Mildew (DM) and Grapevine Trunk Diseases (GTD), which have the potential to cause serious crop damage and substantial economic losses to EU winegrowers. For example, incidence of DM can reduce grape yield by up to 45%.

As the primary treatment of such diseases, Copper (Cu) intensive PPPs are considered the most important antifungal product in organic viticulture. However, the dependence on Cu PPPs is of urgent concern, due to the increasing, toxic accumulation of Cu in soil and water, and its potential assimilation into the fruit, with severe impact on human health.

Valerio says, “For both DM and GTD, there are currently no single environmentally safe commercial formulations that effectively manage these diseases. DM control in grapevine is dependent on Copper formulations such as Bordeaux mixture or other Copper salts, and practically there are no PPPs containing organic fungicides  for treatment of GTD, so that remedial surgery is often recommended.”

Natural Development Group aim to eliminate contamination by grapevine PPPs

To tackle these environmental challenges, NDG has been performing extensive research since 2014, together with partners. They have developed an innovative, Cu-reduced PPP product, produced from NDG’s proprietary Microsap® – a suspension of carbonated hydroxyapatite, combined with natural oil blends.

Valerio explains, “NDG initially started producing fertilizer. During this activity, we studied carbonate hydroxyapatite as a biomimetic carrier, because it is a constituent of the human bones. During these studies, it was shown that presence of carbonated hydroxyapatite can help penetration and distribution of active PPP ingredients on the plants, especially against fungus. We did a lot of experiments using these products in combination with other products, such as Copper, but most importantly, with essential oils. Essential oils are very important, because they are natural, and it is the goal of the European Commission to decrease the amount of organic PPPs, as well as copper, to eliminate contamination and pollution.

“Based on this goal, we did a demonstration of our formulation, combining Microsap® with natural oils. We found that it can control DM and GTD pathogens, and increase the plant’s resistance to abiotic and biotic stresses. This is a central topic in our LIFE project, NATURA AGRO.”

NATURA AGRO: first-of-its-kind sustainable PPPs for effective DM and GTD treatment

In the project NDG partners with University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne (FR), University of Camerino (IT), University of Bologna (IT), National Institute of Agricultural and Veterinary Research (INIAV PT),  Certiquality (IT), Vitepiu (IT), and ENTOPAN (IT) as associated partner . The NATURA AGRO consortium will develop and evaluate four target specific formulations (two each for DM and GTD) by using Microsap® and natural oil blends with very low or no Copper. The target is to achieve Cu reduced formulations with concentrations decreased from current levels of 3.5% to 0% (completely copper free).

Within the project, the partners will also demonstrate the efficacy of these PPPs at a wider scale by conducting a multi-locational trial across living labs and vineyards in Italy, France, and Portugal. As a result, two PPP formulations will be fully developed and qualified for commercial introduction.

Valerio comments on the current state of development at the start of the project:

“For the time being, we have evidence that our experimental formulation with 3.5% Cu – which already represents a 50% reduction in Cu from PPPs in-use, performs well. But the aim is clear: we want to eliminate copper and organic fungicides – such as triazole – from use in viticulture by using natural oils instead. The organic fungicides have also been shown to manifest toxicity in other organisms, including beneficial insects such as bees, while also negatively impacting the soil microbial population.”

Valerio adds, “In our product, the mineral carrier and formulations containing the essential oils are biodegradable, and can gradually release the ingredients into the soil. This increases mineral availability in the soil, giving improved disease resistance and reducing need for additional (organic) fertilizer.”

Removing Copper contamination to enable circular utilization of vineyard biomass

NATURA AGRO also aims for circular approaches to effectively handle vineyard biomass, as a means to significantly cut the GHG emissions associated with typical incineration of pruned biomass on field.

Valerio explains, “As we work towards eliminating Cu in our formulations and replacing organic fungicides with essential oils, we limit contamination of the grapevine. This will allow us to utilize the waste wood of the vineyards as a source of natural products such as resveratrol, which then will go back into the formulation.

“We can take this circularity even further by using extraction with supercritical carbon dioxide to extract these active ingredients without the use of chemical solvents. This makes the process of extracting the natural products such as essential oils much cleaner.”

Collaboration with Catalyze and Project Management support

Catalyze supported NDG with the development of the SAP proposal to the LIFE Programme in an effective and successful collaboration. The Catalyze team thoroughly enjoyed working with Valerio and his team towards NDG’s momentous success.

Commenting on his experience of the collaboration, Valerio says, “The cooperation with Catalyze is excellent, it’s clear. Our consultant was very available and very patient, not only with me but also with other partners. My opinion of Catalyze is that they are very professional, and are very good at communicating from a human point of view – all items and suggestions coming from Catalyze, were very professionally given throughout the process.”

Beyond the partnership towards the successful submission, NDG and Catalyze will continue the collaborative by delivering the project management for the NATURA AGRO project.

“Now we are also collaborating with the Project Management team. I have worked both as a coordinator and partner in past Horizon projects, so I am well aware of the extensive bureaucratic aspects that need attention.

“For this reason I asked for the help of Catalyze, especially at the beginning of the project. So for all administrative and financial aspects. NDG is not a big company, so Catalyze’s support in the management of the project can represent  a big help.”



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