The Diversity Ark Certification provides agricultural companies with the necessary analytical knowledge of the characteristics of their agro-ecosystem in order to identify the correct management of their land. It is a virtuous path of study and monitoring of the cultivated area with the aim of preserving and improving the agro-ecological balance. This useful knowledge about the soil, insects, plants and biodiversity is used to preserve and improve the presence of nature, a presence that helps us to intervene less where the balance is present. The results of the analysis allow an in-depth assessment of the vitality and potential of the agro-ecosystem. As a consequence, this allows the improvement of the agronomic management specifically aimed at the naturalness and excellence of the productions. Thinking of a virtuous path, part of the proceeds deriving from the Diversity Ark activity will be destined for development, training and awareness projects on agro-ecological issues.
Sampling, biological and chemical-physical analysis of the soil to measure the quantity and vitality of microorganisms. The results provide a measure of the state of health of the soil and its productive capacity.
- Chemical-physical analysis of soils;
- Microbial biomass: measures the quantity of soil microorganisms;
- Metabolic quotient: evaluates the metabolic efficiency of microorganisms;
- IBF: synthetic soil fertility index.
Soil quality is essential to obtaining more sustainable productions and plants less prone to imbalances that would require other agricultural inputs (phytosanitary products, mineral fertilizers, etc.). Knowing the characteristics of the soil is one of the objectives that Diversity Ark sets itself in order to help farmers make informed choices. This is directly dependent on the monitoring of biodiversity in the soil which begins in spring: between April and May a soil sample is taken, using standard methods, to obtain chemical-physical and biological data.
The results are elaborated in a report that Diversity Ark professionals will deliver to the company, including both chemical, physical and biological analysis. The report will be accompanied by comments that will allow the farmer to take the most appropriate agronomic initiatives to improve or maintain soil fertility.
To define the fertility of a soil we use the IBF, synthetic index of biological fertility. The aim is to evaluate soil fertility conditions ranging from the condition of “fatigue – alarm” (score < 6) to “High” fertility condition (score >25). The parameters used are: Organic matter (%), Basal respiration, Cumulative Respiration, Microbial Carbon, Metabolic Quotient and Mineralization Quotient. For each parameter, 5 ranges of values have been established, to which a different score is assigned; the algebraic sum of the scores for each parameter gives rise to the biological fertility scale (Benedetti et al., 2006; Benedetti and Mocali, 2008).
The scientific and innovative approach of these analyses stand out, makes the “control” a unique opportunity to know the fertility of the soil and strongly characterizes the purpose of the Diversity Ark Certification.
Determination of the variety and quantity of insects, pollinators and the prey/predator ratio to understand the effects of agronomic management on the state of the agro-ecosystem.
- Biodiversity: number of morpho-species;
- Number of pollinators: development of pollination diversity;
- Biocontrol index: predatory prey ratio (carnivores/herbivores).
The agricultural ecosystem develops itself thanks to the relationships between natural components, environmental and biotic factors, plant cultivation and animal breeding. From this derives the heterogeneity of the different rural territories. The agro-ecosystem is also the “place” where environmental management choices stand out, which cannot evade or enslave natural cycles indefinitely. It is important to manage agricultural, zootechnical and forestry activities not only in compliance with the agricultural company commitments and limits, but also to the conservation of the natural capital from which the company’s products originate. Sustainable agriculture is agriculture that can have important functions for land management, biodiversity and the landscape.
Biodiversity is an entity given by the union of several factors: species, communities, ecosystems, landscape. Cultivating biodiversity helps to conserve and encourage the diversity of plants and animals, fundamental elements of sustainable agriculture that help maintain and/or increase the functionality of the ecosystems. Understanding the biodiversity (existing and potential) in a cultivated area is an important step towards understanding the complex of interactions between flora and fauna and the natural balance of this environment. A system with high biodiversity tends to be more resilient against change. The more complex the system, the better it is able to adapt to the changes that occur in its dynamics. The indiscriminate use of chemistry is not sustainable in the long term; negative side effects can, in fact, translate into loss of biodiversity and disruption of complex biological balances which, once compromised, cannot always be restored in the short term.
Arthropods represent the richest taxonomic group in species, they are very mobile animals and have fast life cycles. These characteristics make them excellent indicators for measuring the faunal biodiversity of the cultivated areas. The diversity of arthropods found in a cultivated area increases «eco-systemic processes», which can in turn improve the cultivated area in several ways:
- They protect and enhance species diversity;
- They attract many species (including predators) and reduce the need for pesticides;
- Alternative sources of food and shelter for «positive» organisms (more habitats and corridors, hedges, shelter strips);
- Increase competition from dominant herbaceous species (reducing the use of herbicides);
- Improves soil health and structure by optimizing nutrient cycling (by incorporating natural fertilizers and compost).
The arthropods influence the populations of yeasts found on the fruit or in its vicinity. Insects can host different types of molds and bacteria, which can be deposited on the fruit when visited by insects, altering the populations of yeasts in it. Fungicides used in cultivated areas have a negative effect on the native yeasts, just as insecticides affect the health of the yeast-bearing insects. It is very important to ensure the presence of groups of plants that create niches for natural predators by guaranteeing:
- increased shading;
- a regular intake of nectar and pollen;
- a water resource for the arthropods useful for crops.
If there is vegetation (spontaneous or planted), there is a significant increase in arthropods useful for crops. This result can be achieved with the creation of an Insectarium that attracts a wide range of beneficial insects with the ability to guarantee “ecosystem services”, including the improvement of arthropod activity. In order to provide the necessary habitat for arthropods, plant groups must meet the following needs of beneficial insects:
- Shade – shading is necessary for arthropods to survive the winter or to dig the ground near crops during the growing season;
- Nectar – its presence increases the energy resource provided by carbohydrates;
- Alternative prey items – an increased prey resource can be useful for maintaining useful insect populations;
- Pollen – proteins are necessary for egg production and a high source of high quality pollen is a guarantee.
These elements increase the longevity of beneficial insects and their ability to reproduce.
Hedges are lines or groups of trees, perennial grasses, grasses, etc. and they are a perfect example of the above:
- They are multi-layered, meaning structures that develop vertically over several layers, each of which can provide different niches for different animals;
- They are habitats for beneficial insects, pollinators and other wildlife;
- They prevent erosion from soil run-off, floating and wind erosion;
- They serve as wind barriers, stabilize waterways, provide a barrier against pesticides, noise, odors and dust;
- They function as living boundaries and dividing lines;
- They serve to increase biodiversity (and increase the aesthetics of the cultivated area).
Description of the floristic biodiversity and its relationships with the agronomic activities and the natural environment in which the cultivated area is inserted.
- Biodiversity: number of species;
- Naturalness: presence of species of natural environments (woods, meadows, pastures);
- Floristic pollution: presence of non-native species;
- Historical conservation: evaluate the presence of archaeophytes (species of ancient introduction linked to crops).
Very often the spontaneous plants that grow inside the cultivated area have been little considered or often seen as an obstacle to agronomic activity. The vision of the vineyard as an agro-ecosystem has changed this point of view over time, giving weight and foundation to floral biodiversity, which can be seen as a real management tool. The presence of numerous different plants tends to limit the development of the most aggressive weed species, which are often the greatest inconvenience to agronomic activities. Substantially, the presence in the cultivated area of a balanced floristic composition, i.e. characterized by a high number of species, allows easier control of the weeds themselves: this depends above all on the reduction of the competitive power of a single species, as it is hindered and limited by the rest of the vegetation. Moreover, an agricultural area with high biodiversity has a much stronger self-healing power having many organisms that can withstand a stochastic disturbance and therefore bring the system back to its optimal balance more quickly. Directly linked to the balance of the agro-ecosystem, it should be underlined the close connection between floristic and entomological biodiversity, which allows a better resistance of the cultivated area against the entry of pathogens.
Although it is part of the anthropic systems, a cultivated area can still be permeable to plant species found in environments ecologically less disturbed by man. The presence of plants found in highly natural habitats such as woods, hay meadows, pastures, etc., indicates that the agronomic activities are carried out with a low environmental impact. Excessive organic inputs and frequent passages of agricultural vehicles would not allow the presence of these species: their abundant presence underlines a correct respect for the soil. The importance of these traits is also connected to the landscape in which the land itself is inserted, making it more connected with its surroundings and contributing to its functioning as an ecological corridor.
Man has always, more or less accidentally, favored the movement of plant species between different territories, even very distant from each other. These shifts have produced many benefits, for example on our diet.
It happens, however, that some species capable of causing serious problems to the territory and to the community are introduced: in this case we are dealing with plants, or other species, defined as invasive allochthonous (Invasive Alien Species). Any plant species in its original environment is limited in diffusion by the relationship with the other organisms that have developed with it in that specific area; however, if introduced in other favorable areas, it can autonomously proliferate undisturbed. The consequences of these invasions are of a productive, health, naturalistic and landscaping order and, ultimately, economic.
If abundant in a soil, it is these species that often hinder the work of the farmer who must take actions to keep them under control given their speed of diffusion. These are large-sized plants that spread in environments with low biodiversity and a high input of nitrogenous substances. The presence of alien species “pollutes” the autochthonous flora, intimately connected with the place where it has differentiated over hundreds of thousands of years and which therefore defines the landscape.
As a practical example, the archophytes are adventitious species introduced in the European continent in very ancient times. These are plants that have accompanied man since the dawn of agriculture. Their place of origin is the Aral-Caspian steppe and Iran, where wheat and barley first spread. Man has involuntarily spread them together with crops and they have been a permanent part of the Italian and European flora for 2,000 – 2,500 years. They are above all species with an annual cycle, often of small size. Compared to neophytes they do not affect the natural environments of a territory as they are intimately connected to man’s work in the fields (obligatory companions). With the new industrial cultivation techniques, these species are increasingly rarefying and some of them are even becoming extinct from the territory. Cultivated areas, if properly managed, can give refuge to these species, which in turn enrich their biodiversity without being invasive.
Evaluation of the cultivated area based on 10 soil indicators, studied and tested to describe in a synthetic but complete way its characteristics with respect to management and the agro-ecological context. It also allows the agricultural company to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the plot and of the company management.
The Diversity Ark Certification uses a practical and scientific methodology to evaluate the quality and degree of naturalness of the cultivated areas using indicators chosen, applied and interpreted jointly by farmers and researchers and summarized in the “10 indicators evaluation report”.
Diversity Ark aims to aggregate the aspirations of farmers with those of researchers. On the one hand, the need for stable production without depending on external inputs, thus reducing production costs, maintaining and/or enhancing the farm’s natural resources, such as soil, water and biodiversity; on the other hand, the design of agro-ecosystems that show high resilience to pests and diseases, good recovery and nutrient retention capacities and high levels of biodiversity. In summary, a cultivated area rich in biodiversity, which increases soil fertility, the protection of plants, insects and productivity, is defined as sustainable and healthy.
We have selected qualitative indicators of soil and crop health that are relevant to farmers and to the specific geographic areas. This series of sustainability indicators allows us to evaluate the condition of the agro-ecosystems.
The selected indicators share common characteristics:
- derive from measurements and analyses, according to the scientific method;
- are relatively accurate and easy to interpret;
- are practical for making new management decisions;
- are sensitive enough to reflect changes in the environment, and the effects of crop and soil management practices;
- possess the ability to integrate the properties of the soil with flora and insects, encouraging virtuous approaches (reduction in the use of plastic and increase in hedges, woods, meadows, etc.).
Once all the measurements made are based on the same indicators, the results are comparable and it is thus possible to follow the evolution of the same agro-ecosystem along a timeline, or to make comparisons between farms in various transition phases. Furthermore, once the indicators have been applied, each farmer can visualize the conditions of his farm, noting which soil or plant indicators are sufficient or deficient compared to the pre-established threshold. When the methodology is applied to several companies simultaneously, it is possible to visualize which crops have low or high sustainability values. This is useful as it helps to understand why some farms have better ecological performance than others. It also helps to stimulate a reflection on management changes that can improve the functioning of farms with values below the threshold. The farms with an overall value below the threshold are able to identify with precision where corrective measures need to be taken to improve the values of the indicators in question.
The 10 indicators report allows agricultural companies to prioritize the agro-ecological interventions needed to correct soil, crop and ecosystem deficiencies. Thanks to the guidelines provided by the indicators, agricultural companies can think of emulating the processes and practices that emerge from the agro-ecosystem of companies with higher final evaluations. This can be done by using techniques within their reach, which optimize the same key processes that operate in best valued companies.
Today, how to evaluate the sustainability of the agro-ecosystem is a major challenge for many farmers and researchers. There are few methodologies that allow farmers to use indicators to quickly observe the state of their agro-ecosystems. The Diversity Ark Certification aspires to provide such tools, allowing them to make management decisions aimed at improving the indicators that are malfunctioning, and thus improve the functions of the agro-ecosystem and the farm system.
Specific training with dedicated experts to deepen agro-ecological topics and suggest effective communication of the certification results to the consumer.
Among the requirements of the Diversity Ark Certification, there is the participation in at least 2 training events each year. This training will be organized by Diversity Ark, directly or through external services, mainly using specific platforms dedicated to distance learning. The training events will be held in Italian and possibly subtitled in English in the case of international users.
The events will take place live or deferred with dedicated recordings that can be used by the participants within a pre-established time frame. The minimum duration of each training event will be 2 hours.
In the case of pre-registered webinars, companies will have their login credentials with which they can select the desired event, follow it and participate in the short final test which will be submitted only in the case of registered events.
The company may also present courses, webinars or in-depth events not organized by Diversity Ark (or by an appointed individual) as valid training for the purposes of certification, provided they are pertinent to environmental, agro-ecological and biodiversity themes. Authorization and verification on the contents of external training events by Diversity Ark must be asked in advance. Events not previously authorized will not be recognized as valid. In any case, the acceptance of such events or in-depth studies for the purposes of compulsory training will be at the sole discretion of Diversity Ark and/or the Certification Body.
The Certification Body will verify the effective participation in the courses by checking the final test, or the attendance register and the certificate in the case of webinars or events not organized by Diversity Ark.
The agricultural company will have until the year following the certification year to regularize the training obligations. A special register will be created to record every agricultural company’s participation.
All standardized sampling, laboratory analysis and evaluation methods are consolidated and scientifically validated. The samplings and the results are processed and analyzed by highly qualified and specialized agronomists, botanists and entomologists.