Combined usage of Bioregional model and AI brings new jobs in rural areas, leads to healthy food and ultimately to reduction of NCD diseases
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Stefano Gonnelli was born in Livorno, on the Tuscan Mediterranean coast of Italy and got a MS Degree in Electronic Engineering at the University of Pisa, specializing in Bioengineering. Among other assignments, he has been working for 7 years at the European Space Agency, in The Netherlands and 5 years at Reuters, Milan, Italy.
In 2006 he bought a winemaking farm in Valdera and obtained the organic certification in 2010 and the biodynamic certification in 2012.
He has always been passionate to find a match between agriculture and sustainable technology.
From 2010, as a member of VinNatur (international association of natural wine growers), he collaborated on field research activities with universities and research institutes, on agricultural methods that would allow to continuously reduce the impact on environment and men’s health.
In summer 2018 he attended the Permaculture Design Course and then started a new project in Valdera, not far from the winery, where he and his partner started experimenting agroforestry techniques applied to reforestation, vineyards and olive groves.
In fall 2019 he founded the committee promoting the creation of the Bio-district Valdera, an association of local consumers, farms, processors, restaurants, agritourismi, tour operators and local institutions to join the world-wide Bio-district network.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
View of Valdera from the badlands in Volterra
Birds eye view of Volterra
Pappa al Pomodoro
A birds eye view of Valdera
map of Valdera
From a strictly geographical point of view, the Valdera indicates the valley along the river Era (Pisa, Tuscany, Italy), from its origins near Volterra to its entry into the Arno river at Pontedera.
The valley is oriented north-south and surrounded by gentle hills and badlands eastward and by higher, mountainous hills westwards.
Geologically, the entire valley was covered by the sea until the Pliocene era and that explains the sedimentary rocks on the eastern hills while the western ones have a much older formation.
Valdera has been inhabited since the Neolithic period though its major archaeological remains are those related to the Etruscan civilization which established in Volterra one of their main cities.
Climate is typical of central Italy, with hot and dry summers (up to 40 C° in July and Augustt) and mild winters (from 2-12 C° In January and early February)
Yearly rainfalls range from 600 to 800 mm and mainly concentrated around April/May and October/November.
Topology, geology and climate shape the local main crops: bottom of the valley is mainly cultivated with wheat, sunflower and other grains; central and eastern hills are mainly cultivated with grapes and olive trees while the cooler western hills are cultivated with fruit trees, olives trees and, on the higher slopes, chestnut trees.
In Valdera, traditional Tuscan food harmonizes two inseparable principles - simplicity and quality. Tuscan cuisine is based on the so-called "cucina povera," the peasant traditions that arose out of necessity during hard times. Those recipes are partly vegetarian and seasonal: examples are the summer Pappa al Pomodoro and Panzanella (both based on dry cooked bread, tomatoes and fresh basil) and the winter Ribollita (a soup with sautéed bread, black cabbage and beans).
There are also some famous meat recipes like Fiorentina stake and Peposo (beef meat stewed in wine and black pepper).
Cakes include the obiquitous Tiramisù and Castagnaccio (a cake made with chestnut flour).
Typical products include: Chianti Wine, Tuscan EVO oil, Pecorino Sheep-Cheese, Truffles, Cherries and Chestnuts.
Even today people prefer to stay close to their roots and keep cooking traditional recipes though the economic crisis also changed cooking habits.
In terms of economy Valdera is certainly a composite territory reproducing on a small scale the complexity of the Tuscany region: the northern part is more urbanized and based on manufacturing factories; it provides a rich range of services (schools, hospitals, commercial and leisure services) and act as a transportation hub to main Tuscan cities.
The southern Valdera is much less developed, less accessible, and definitely rural.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Marginalization of rural areas
During the Italian industrial boom, Pontedera grew up as a manufacturing district and people started leaving the countryside to get a job in the city. Rural areas started suffering from depopulation and aging.
Starting from 2007 the economic crisis hit badly the manufacturing districts leading to considerable jobs losses. The direct consequence has been the continuous decrease of the families’ average purchasing power, thus reducing the market size for local farms. The number of farms has halved and the overall cultivable area has decreased by 17%.
Decreased profit for small farms
The decrease of the families’ average purchasing power led to the proliferation of large-scale retailers and hard discounts which created a strong and unequal competition to local farmers. The average quality of food consumed locally in Valdera has decreased and small farmers either went bankrupt or had to reduce production costs, in several cases either exploiting immigration labor or compromising on quality for soil, plants, animals and food.
Increase of NCD diseases
In Valdera Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) are believed to be responsible for approximately 90% of the total deaths recorded: cardiovascular diseases (40%), tumors (30%), chronic respiratory diseases (5 %) and diabetes (4%).
It is estimated that the costs of NCDs is approximately 70-80% of the total health care budget.
Rapid spread of chronic diseases is correlated to changes in our diets and changes in the way we grow food (monoculture and increasing usage of toxic chemicals).
Valdera also has one of the Italian highest consumption pro-capita of psychopharmaceuticals and psychotropic drugs.
Increased impacts of extreme climatic events
The LAMMA report indicates that in the last two decades Tuscany experienced a growing number of unprecedent extreme climatic events such an increase of average temperature by almost 1 degree in almost all seasons; doubling of summer heat waves; longer draughts periods followed by years of heavy rains and floods.
Climatic adversities will have a direct impact on farming activities and, when feasible, would require heavy investments to apply preventive measures.
It is also expected that climate change will cause massive immigration from neighboring coastal cities of Pisa and Livorno.
A high bureaucratization of farming and breeding procedures, with norms imposed by both EU, Italian authorities and by certification authorities implies both higher production costs and sometimes unmanageable formality for small farmers.
In Valdera, there are two of the largest landfills in Tuscany receiving almost 50% of all Tuscan unsorted regional waste. Valdera also has the highest concentration of sludge spreading in agriculture. Sludge contains some useful organic substances but also contain high percentages of toxic substances because of obsolete waste treatment plants collecting both urban and industrial waste water.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Valdera will be transformed into a Bio-district - an association of local stakeholders (investors, consumers, farms, processors, preparators, tour operators and institutions) sharing the same values and will join the world-wide Bio-district network, a highly distributed network of ethical economies and food-production entities.
The Bio-district will facilitate the creation of resilient human settlements within its territory and - thanks to AI and Blockchain technology - will have easy access to a fair-trade world-wide market of quality food.
This is how the above model will help Valdera solving its issues (see cascading effect picture):
Private and public ethical investment funds (or foundation)
will create small resilient human settlements which will
- Boost re-population of rural areas by hosting immigrants from coastal cities, as a direct consequence of climate and / or economic crisis
- Create new jobs in agriculture, trade, crafting and IT
Endorsing Agroforestry and Polyculture
will increase biodiversity, produce healthy soil and food and provide culture differentiation with the following effects:
- Provide Economic and food supply resilience towards climate change adversities,
- Mitigate incidence of NCDs
- Reduce need for waste disposal and sludge fertilization
Right to access healthy food
people within the Bio-district will have broad access to healthy food (self-grown in settlements or imported at fair price from other Bio-districts) which will
- decrease incidence of NCD diseases
- boost families’ consumption thus improving small farms profitability
Change in diet
valorizing typical local vegetarian “cucina povera” recipes will help reducing meat consumption and reduce health pathologies. Moreover forage and pastures fields can be converted to Agroforestry (see above benefits)
all settlements will endorse zero-waste policy and adopt modern waste water treatment techniques which will drastically mitigate the issue of waste management. Sludge fertilization will not be viable any more.
will be used to sell surplus over the Bio-district network. That will improve profitability of small farms will increase families’ purchasing power by:
- Disintermediating the food supply chain
- Providing farmers with a much broader and easily accessible market
- Consumers can always avail of the best possible price for the best possible food quality
- Blockchain will create a trusted market network thanks ro full traceability of the food production process thus reducing need for bureaucracy and decreasing production costs
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Through ethical investment fund (or foundation), new settlements will be established.
Houses will be built (or restored) at building cost and therefore will be rented out at an affordable price for settlers.
Uninhabited rural hamlets can be repopulated by involving landlords in the Bio-district long-term investment strategy.
Housing will follow bio-climatic concepts and settlements will be independent in terms of food production, heating & energy, water supply.
New jobs will initially come from the house building itself, including the necessary consulting teams who will help setting up the strategic goals for each settlement.
Afterwards new jobs will emerge from essential services to be exchanged within the Bio-district settlements: some families will be dedicated to food production and then there will be need for doctors, teachers, maintenance staff, food process staff, IT experts etc...
Settlers will be encouraged to take up more than one job and formal and informal economies will co-exist to exchange services and goods.
Small settlements will favor people's participation to all aspects of life, taking care about self, kin and the community as well as taking care of the Earth.
Everyone will be involved in the decision process and will be actively involved in projects (especially around the food supply chain process) to bring additional income and benefits to the community.
AI and blockchain advances will guarantee world-wide market access to small farmers: surplus food will be sold anywhere in the world, at a fair price, maximizing the benefits and minimizing externalities (e.g. transportation, pollution, CO2 production etc.).
A healthier lifestyle and community participation will attract economic and climate change immigrants and will create a prosper environment where community can experience genuine progress, and be respectful to the environment.
- Also see picture about Bio-District Valdera Roadmap.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Bio-District Valdera Roadmap
Centralized, decentralized and distributed systems
Syntropic garden, the beginning
Cheering at the end of a working day
cycling through the Tuscan hills
Syntropic farming scheme
Children learning how to grow food
Design of a new settlement
Distributed economies and ecologies
Human beings are the most successful and wide spread animal on Planet Earth and one of the main reasons for this success was his capability to adapt to different local conditions throughout the history of migrations and civilizations.
Diversity and adaptation were the key success factors for homo sapiens, therefore we believe that going forward, the huge challenges in front of us, will require a highly interconnected system of local economies and ecologies, including a distributed food system.
By its nature only a distributed system can rapidly adapt to local changes in culture, climate, policy, economy, social needs. Therefore, it represents the best choice in terms of Resilience, Equity and Interconnectivity.
The new distributed food system will co-exist with the current one and it will be a network of what we call Bio-districts.
A Bio-district (or Bioregion) is an association of food stakeholders (consumers, people, farms, companies, communities, institutions etc..) sharing the same ethics and values of Renewability, Resilience, Equity, Diversity, Healthfulness, Interconnectedness.
Each Bio-district can exist and survive in complete isolation but thanks to the full interconnectivity with the other Bio-districts it will achieve maximum benefits.
Within the Bio-district and the Bio-district network, capital is invested in ethical activities in which depletion of natural resources, production of waste, labor exploitation, human disease, deforestation etc. are all seen as externalities and therefore a cost rather than a gain.
As such, within the Bio-district network, the GDP indicator is replaced by alternative indicators of real progress like the Genuine Progress Indicator.
In every Bio-district people will live in existing villages as well as new settlements.
Bio-district will act as the anchor institution, setting strategic goals such as settlements locations, productions and food processes, and will provide services such as real-estate, IT, agronomy & environmental consulting, and marketing support.
The Bio-district Valdera will have many more settlements than what we have today. A settlement can be built from scratch or can be established by re-populating existing abandoned or semi-abandoned hamlets (e.g. the Rivalto or Miemo)
Every new settlement will have between 50 and 300 people. That number will allow maximum participation to the community activity, will minimize risks of disruption, and will also allow for job specialization.
In the settlements few families will be dedicated to food self-production and some other families will be dedicated to income crops.
There will be private properties as well as shared spaces (e.g. food process laboratories), land and durable goods (e.g. tractors).
Within a settlement the informal economy can be used (e.g. food in exchange for services or goods) but externally the formal economy will still be used.
At the end of the initial start-up phase, thanks to the consulting support from experts provided by the Bio-district, each settlement will have achieved self-sufficiency in terms of food, energy, heating and waste management, which, together with housing are the essential services for life.
Financing the settlements
Prior to the creation of a new settlement a SWOT analysis is conducted and then an ethical investment trust (or foundation) is established.
The trust will either:
1. Collect capital funds from public or private investors
2. Collect abandoned or semi-abandoned real estates (land and houses) from land lords
and in return will distribute shares. Shares will be distributed to investors and, partly, to settlers who will then use the interests gained to invest in new activities, projects, goods and/or maintenance.
The trust will primarily finance housing, food related projects (e.g vertical integration) including creation of private businesses and non-profit food cooperatives.
The shares will gain profit based on land/houses rents and on food commercial activities and projects.
Food Self-production and surplus production
The ability to ensure food supplies in times of crisis is a national and local security issue and, depending on the risk that imports will be cut off due to conflict or political tensions, Bio-districts will want to invest in their domestic agricultural capacity.
Approximately 64% of the Valdera area is cultivable and therefore it has the capacity to produce enough food for all its inhabitants including economic and climate migrants, and to produce surplus to be sold over the Bio-district network.
By returning the land to small communities and farmers, and thanks to regenerative agriculture and agroforestry techniques, we will further increase this food production capability.
Food self-sufficiency also makes economic sense, it does not imply restrictions to import/export trades and it will help reducing the carbon impact of the food system.
The surplus generated by Bio-district settlements will be traded both locally and globally, within the Bio-district network or on conventional markets.
Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain will enable the latter two.
Diet: Decrease meat consumption
Vegetarian and vegan diets are becoming increasingly popular in Italy as a result of a general awareness on health and environmental implications of meat consumption.
We predict demand of cow meat will drop considerably by 2050, and even before then, with a demand drop of 40%, most cow breeding farms will go bankrupt earlier on. Moreover, it is also likely that before 2050 the demand and consumption of other types of meat will drop significantly.
What are the implications of this change in diet in the Valdera bio-district?
- Education and cultural awareness program will be required to valorize traditional local vegetarian “cucina povera” recipes, which represent a balanced source of nutrients and micro-nutrients
- Forage and pastures fields will be converted to agroforestry which will help to further increase yields and absorb CO2
- Small animals breeding can still co-exist on a small scale and whenever useful not just to produce meat but in consociation with agroforestry
Agroforestry and Syntropic Agriculture
Agroforestry is a land use management system in which trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops or pastureland. This intentional combination of agriculture and forestry has varied benefits, including increased biodiversity and reduced erosion.
Agroforestry practices have already been used successfully worldwide.
Large-scale experiments conducted in Brasil, shows that the so called Syntropic Agriculture technique (a branch of successional agroforestry and organic regenerative) can lead to a highly productive system which takes all the complexity of the ecosystems into account, without using any chemical inputs. Syntropic agriculture strictly follows the ecological succession of species to use the maximum of sunlight by all different strata as well as minimizing irrigation needs. Thereby, the right choice of consociations and their spacing is crucial, not only for the natural flow of nutrients but also for the mycorrhiza.
Syntropic and Agroforestry techniques will be a key food production foundation for the Bio-district agriculture by 2050.
Each Bio-district settlement will have the objective of zero-waste and will be measured and taxed according to that capability.
By maximizing consumption of locally produced food, trash will be minimized.
Organic waste will be composted in local and global composting factories to be reused in agriculture.
Modern waste water treatment will use a combination of phytological, microbiological, chemical-physical treatments to minimize waste output produced by each settlement. Such output will be clean water, precision fertilizer and inert material to be used to build infrastructures.
Sludge use in agriculture will not be viable nor allowed within the Bio-district.
Disintermediation through Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain
will be used to build trust between the nodes of the bioregional network by enabling full traceability of the food production process (for every product sold it will be possible to trace origin of raw products, certify the production process, the recipes etc.) which would easily allow consumers to make an informed purchase and authorities to monitor the food production chain
- Artificial intelligence (AI):
AI will have the crucial task to match demand and supply maximizing the GPI
- All surplus generated by every settlement in the bio-district will be traceable in the blockchain
- Consumers (or delegated authorities e.g. a Bio-district) from all over the world can join at any time online auctions where products can be purchased from all over the world
AI will do the following:
- Group consumers based on their proximity
- Group products and producers based on consumers request (from very generic (e.g. apples), to very specific (ancient apples “Francesca” from the Valdera valley, Tuscany, good quality, gathered manually not more than 2 weeks ago) and product availability
- Establish logistic routes and transporters
- Match Demand and supply maximizing GPI and establishing fair prices
- Propose alternative products / consumers / price when GPI criteria for the sale cannot be met
AI Knowledge Sharing
Food production success will also depend on settlements capability to quickly innovate and effectively exchange experiences from all over the world.
Experiences will include:
- field data (climate, soil, ...)
- crops, intercropping, farming techniques
- inputs details (energy, water, fertilization, labor, equipments)
- output details (yields, food nutrients)
- improvements in GPI
- lessons learnt
Experiences will be easily accessible through the AI cloud and compared for feasibility to the local Bio-district conditions.