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Low environmental impact cultivation, circular agro-industrial supply chains, redevelopment of marginal areas To offer a new income opportunity to farmers in Tuscany with land that is less - or no longer - productive, the Italian Operational Group GO CARD is promoting the creation and development of an agro-industrial supply chain based on the cultivation of cardoon (thistle). “Both the cardoon seeds (for oil used in the biobased industry) and the biomass (to obtain cellulose and hemicellulose) can be processed and become sources of income” says Fabrizio Filippi, from the regional farm organisation Coldiretti Toscana.
In the Tuscany region a significant amount of land, traditionally used for winter cereals and forage production, is facing progressive abandonment as a consequence of grain price volatility and yield losses caused by wildlife or pedo-climatic constraints. Assessing the potential for novel crops and new markets is very important to counter this trend, as abandonment may increase the risk of soil erosion, loss of fertility and fires. Cardoon is a resource-efficient perennial crop which can adapt to a range of pedo-climatic conditions and gives good yields even on degraded and poor soils and under low-input management systems. Therefore growing it for the biobased industry may be a great opportunity for farmers, rural economy development and land preservation.
In terms of circular economy, cardoon can provide several products as well as oil and cellulose. For example, once the oil has been extracted from the seeds, the residual cake can be used as a high protein meal for animal feeding as a partial substitute for soy. Furthermore, other active molecules can be used for nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products, and residues from processing can then be used to produce energy, fertilisers and animal bedding.
“A low environmental impact crop, such as the cardoon, can be a solution to the challenges we are facing in the agricultural sector. Investing in a circular bioeconomy, restructuring the agricultural sector and redevelopment of the territory are advantages from the environmental, landscape and socio-economic points of view.” Simone Ciampoli, representative of Impresa Verde Toscana, leader of the project, and continues “The cultivation of cardoons, alongside traditional crops, contributes to the diversification of companies, increasing the yields of the land, reducing costs and optimising revenues, creating a system economy that involves both agriculture and industry.”
The Operational Group GO-CARD aims to verify the economic sustainability and environmental potential of the cardoon supply chain, evaluating whether this cultivation is a valid and realistic alternative for the recovery of marginal land in Tuscany. GO-CARD involves partners from the agricultural and industrial sectors to research and business support organisations with the objective of assessing the potential of cardoon as a feedstock for the biobased industry. It actively involves a number of farms in Tuscany, both organic and conventional, through the cultivation of pilot fields, to develop the most suitable ways to manage the crop.
Between 2018 and 2019, about 15 hectares were planted in two areas of the Tuscany region and it was observed that the early sowing in spring is more suited than autumn for the establishment of the crop even in mountain areas. Indeed, during autumn the occurrence of suited condition for sowing is strongly reduced by a high frequency of rainfalls and by the competition for time with the sowing of winter cereals and winter meadows. Moreover, delaying the sowing in autumn exposes the young plants to the risk of irreversible damage caused by frosts. Thus, sowing in April can better fit with crop requirements and farmers schedule.
At the same time, the project began testing feeding test of beef cattle with cardoon meal. Since June 2019, 16 animals have been fed an experimental diet based on the replacement of 50% of soybean meal with cardoon flour. Compared to the 16 heads of the control group, which continue to be fed in the traditional way with soybean meal, the cattle being tested grow regularly, appear healthy, and show that they appreciate thistle flour. On observation, there are no differences between the two groups in terms of production performances. Clinical analyses will be carried out shortly to evaluate differences in meat properties and quality. Further investigations will concern the nutraceutical effects on animals and the quality of derived products due to the presence of active substances in the cardoon flour.
GO-CARD is also experimenting the of the use residual lignocellulosic biomass of the cardoon to supply local biomass and hybrid biomass-geothermal power plants. Furthermore, they are looking into the potential for the production of cardoon monofloral honey and the are carrying out a full sustainability and economic-environmental analyses of the cardoon crop in the region and it will transfer results through dissemination and training actions.
“In May 2019, a group of Tuscan farmers, in addition to the project partners, took part in a visit to Sardinia where the integrated agricultural-industrial supply chain based on the cardoon's production and transformation is already a solid reality.” says Angelo Corsetti of Centro Assistenza Imprese Coldiretti Toscana, partner of the project for training activities addressed to farmers. “Through this collaborative project, we hope to develop a circular economy in the region. We want to reduce the abandonment of agricultural activity and provide new income opportunities by innovating in agriculture.”