published on 5 February 2007 in life

Biological products

Sustainable agriculture
Biological products are foodstuffs of vegetable and animal origin (apples, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, pasta, bread, cheese, salami and meat), that are obtained from biological agriculture. From a regulatory point of view, organic foodstuffs are defined as those   “obtained by an biological production method” as specified in the EEC Regulation 2092/91.
Also organic breeding farms are regulated by the legislative criteria defined in EC Regulation 1804/99. Zootechnical organic methods require that animals must not be constrained in cages, like hens in battery farms,  and they must be bred in adequate amount of  space so that  they can move and feed. Cows, pigs, goats and laying hens are fed with organic feed, and no antibiotics are used for prevention and to cure the animals, but only natural phytotherapic or homeopathic substances.  Great attention is paid to the wellbeing of the animals. They are not filled with hormones or other compounds that stimulate a forced growth of the muscle mass (in the case of livestock bred for meat) or for the production of  more milk  (in the case of cows).
Organic foodstuffs are primary consumer goods. From the earth they reach the end user’s table without polluting the soil, the water and the atmosphere. These are products that are obtained through a type of agriculture that supports and preserves the agroecosystem, without deteriorating the environmental situation.
From the soil to the table, through a sustainable course
“The exploitation of resources, in order to meet the needs of the people of the world, must take place in full respect of the environment and biodiversity, in order to guarantee the present without compromising the future (ECOSUMMIT Rio de Janeiro, 1992). This concept, when applied to the agricultural system, summarizes and explains the meaning of sustainable agriculture.
Therefore, in what way can it be put into practice?
This question arose at the end of the Sixties, when some experts in phytopathology (the study of plant pathologies) tried to propose some corrections to modern agriculture management. Excessive use of agrochemical products was questioned and the possibility of applying a “harmonious control” of plants and animals that are unwelcome to cultivations was studied, using biological methods with bio-pesticides, culture techniques and use of chemically synthesized products only in order to complete the process.
Around the mid-Seventies, in Europe and in Italy some experts, who were attentive to the changes in the agricultural sector and the conflict between production and preservation of natural resources, promoted a change, defining the concept of integrated production. The fundamental idea of integrated production, proposed 30 years ago, was ecologically oriented, and soon became the theoretical foundation of integrated agriculture.

Integrated agriculture
The International Organization for Biological and Integrated Control (IOBC) defined integrated production as : “the economical production of high quality foodstuffs, obtained giving priority to ecologically safer methods, minimizing the undesirable side effects and use of  synthetic chemicals, in order to enhance safeguards to the environment and human health”.
Integrated management of agriculture is the link between conventional agriculture  (as seen in the Po valley, with its enormous fields of maize for livestock fodder) and the extreme model of biological agriculture. The aim of integrated production is  to try to limit the damages caused by the accumulation of polluting residues in the environment, to guarantee safe foods for the consumers and profitability for the agricultural companies, through  the rational use of chemistry, the study of  phytosanitary  products and the combination of various techniques .
Therefore minimum amounts of  indispensable chemical compounds are used  only when methods with a lower environmental impact are unable to obtain the expected results. Integrated agriculture uses two methods to defend cultures from parasites. Initially the guided protection technique was used, while at present also integrated protection methods are used.
Guided protection
Treatment with chemical products is used only when it is convenient from an economical point of view, and therefore in those cases in which it is less expensive to use a phytodrug  rather than incur potential damage provoked by a disease of the culture. The risk that insects or mites may ruin the harvest is evaluated, the fields are checked and traps are positioned; the possibility that an infection of microbic origin may spread is evaluated beforehand, using diverse monitoring procedures, such as the preparation of “monitor-fields”. Furthermore attention is paid to the type of phytodrug and the time in which it is used, so as not to use compounds that can be harmful for organisms that are useful for the cultivation, which must be defended.
Integrated control
The basic principle uses alternative techniques to pesticides as first choice. These techniques can be either agronomic, in which long culture rotation is used in order to keep the fertility of the soil and fertilization well balanced, or genetic techniques, where a choice is made of the most appropriate variety to be cultivated, that is best suited to the environment, or physical and biotechnological techniques  that use formulated compounds with a Bacillus thuringiensis base (Bacillus thuringiensis is a micro-organism that produces spores that are harmless for man and bees, but deadly for wax parasites that destroy the honeycombs).
In case intervention with phytosanitary products becomes indispensable, certain rules must be respected. The maximum amount permitted for treatment over a one-year period, must not be exceeded and it is necessary to choose phytodrugs that are indicated as less harmful for man and the agroecosystem. Furthermore, in the category of products with the same active ingredient that kills the parasite, products that are defined “irritant” or “non classifiable” must be used rather than products that are defined “toxic”, “very toxic” or “noxious”, and selective chemical compounds that do not damage insects that are useful to cultivations must be used.

Product quality
The quality of foodstuffs is the capacity to satisfy the consumers’ requirements, and this is obtained by summing some factors: hygiene and healthiness, organoleptic and nutritional characteristics (taste, smell, colour, aroma, nutritional values), method of utilization (easy to store, ease of use, type of packaging), cultural factors (tradition, local origin, genuine nature) ethical and social factors (preservation in the environment, no cruelty to animals in the production process).
As defining the quality of a foodstuff is a complex process, it cannot be stated that products from integrated agriculture are all of a good quality. Let us say these may be classified at a level of food production, that is considered high-quality  also as a result of the cultivation methods and the post-harvesting procedures carried out. The end user of zucchini or strawberries from an integrated production has the assurance that the time that passed from when the fruit or vegetables were harvested, is the least indispensable amount. For example, fruit and vegetables from integrated agriculture are rigorously those in season: fresh vegetables may only  be found in the warmer season, in winter fennels and artichokes are available, but not tomatoes. Furthermore, storage of fresh foods is done by keeping them cold, consequently these products must be sold in a short amount of time.
In the case of transformed products (pulped tomatoes or jam) no additives are used, pasta is not dried at very high temperatures and bread is prepared with natural yeast. It must be pointed out that in the entire production and transformation process, the use of  GMOs  (genetically modified organisms) is not permitted.
How do we recognize high quality products?
How do we recognize products from integrated agriculture at the market or in the large shopping centres ?  Who guarantees that they are high quality products?
It has been considered necessary to create collective registered brands (the brands and their regulations for use are notified to the European Union) of the Italian Regions, that must be indicated on the products, as foreseen by the regulations in the various Regions. It is not possible to find these products, sold under the same brand name all over Italy, as each of the Regions has created its own. The agricultural industries and the Integrated Food & Agriculture industries respect the Integrated production Disciplinary Measures , decided by each Region, in  compliance with the EEC regulations.  The production disciplinary measures  contain rules that are applicable to various activities; production of vegetable products (cultivation, transportation and initial storage), livestock production ( breeding and transport of animals) and post harvest or transformation (transportation, preservation, transformation and marketing).
Controls are carried out on the various farms, in  order to verify that the disciplinary measures are respected by producers who are interested in promoting and enhancing products by using the trademark.

Biological agriculture
Biological agriculture includes all agricultural systems that produce foodstuffs and raw materials in full respect of the environment, of society and of the economy.
In 2001, a study was published in the science journal, Nature, which was carried out at the University of Washington, regarding a comparison of the sustainability of different types of agriculture. The research took into consideration the production of apples with the conventional production system, with the integrated system and with the organic system, over a period of 5 years. The effects of the 3 systems were measured by means of sustainability indicators : soil quality, productivity results, profitability, environmental impact, energetic efficiency. The conclusion of the study was that the three systems produce approximately the same quantity of apples (actually in the biological production more fruits are discarded, and therefore cannot be sold) however the organic method stood first in environmental and economic sustainability, followed by the integrated method and the conventional method.
Hereunder we shall quote one of the considerations expressed by the authors of the publication in the science journal, Nature : “Just because a system is organic or integrated does not ensure its sustainability; nor does sustainability, an inherently complex concept, readily lend itself to quantification. To be sustainable, a farm must produce adequate yields of high quality, be profitable, protect the environment, conserve resources and be socially responsible in the long term”.
Biological agriculture,  is based on this way of thinking, and this is surely one of the reasons for its growing success even on a national and European Community scale. Biological production is an emerging sector even though its application is exacting and full of obstacles for the farmers, who have to offer the end users high quality products at a possibly competitive price.
In fact it is a type of agriculture in which the cultivation and breeding methods only use natural substances that are available in nature, and no synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers, weed killers or pesticides are used. For the soil, natural fertilizers (animal, vegetable or mineral) are used, and  biological control techniques are applied to protect the cultivated plants from disease.

Biological productions
Only the pure fields are considered fields that can be cultivated. These must be far away from sources of pollution such as industrial areas,  highways, city dumps. Furthermore on the field no phytodrugs must have been used for some years (two or more), before using them to produce biological products.
Fertilization of the fields is obtained by spreading organic substances, composted manure, composted mowed plants and green manure, and, for example, incorporating plants sown for this purpose in the soil, such as mustard and clover. One of the criticisms made with regard to some fruit and vegetable biological products is that they have an organoleptic aftertaste (odour, taste, aroma) that derives from fertilization with manure.
In the fields, crop rotation is carried out with the aim of making the environment unsuited for the reproduction of weeds. In this manner parasites’ adaptation to the environment of the fields is hindered and the nutrient substances of the soil are used less intensively.
In the agroecosystem hedges and trees are planted (this very useful practice was abandoned by industrial agriculture in order to give more space to monocultures and to the large machinery used to work in the fields). The aim is to re-create the landscape, to find a habitat for animals that are predators of the plant parasites, and to protect the cultures with natural physical barriers that are pleasant to see. Furthermore,  plants that the parasites of the other plants find unpleasant, are cultivated alongside contemporaneously (consociation of cultures).

The organic standards battle
The organic battle consists in using organisms and applying techniques that in some way “copy” nature in order to limit the dangers that threaten the cultures.
Animals that are natural antagonists   are used to limit the number of units of the populations of harmful organisms. The technique of periodically “launching” entomophages are quite costly and delicate, but they guarantee the preservation of the agroecosystem without polluting the same with chemical products that would much more readily be effective and are less expensive, but which are aggressive on the agricultural environment.
Entomophages are organisms used as armies to protect the crops, they are bred and made to reproduce in specialized laboratories known as biofactories.
In this way preservation is favoured, along with the increase in the natural enemies of the parasites, thus making the environment  more hospitable for other organisms as for example the aphidiphagous coccinellids (ladybirds that eat the aphids that are parasites for the cultures), planting hedges with a thick layer of grass. Maintaining spontaneous grass vegetation is very important because it acts as a physical barrier that contrasts the migration of parasites from one field to the next. Furthermore, it  provides a natural shelter (nests that act as homes) for insects that are “friendly” for the fields.
Another system of carrying out the organic battle is by sexual confusion and disorientation  of defenceless crop predator insects. Communication among insects is of a chemical nature, they understand and find one another through odours. Females of a species produce pheromones, chemical molecules, to signal their presence and provoke mating with the males. Therefore in the laboratory a pheromone is produced that attracts the males in masses, and is made available in the fields, incorporated in dispenser capsules. In this way it is possible to capture large numbers of male insect specimens of a determined species that is a parasite for the cultures.
In particular, sexual confusion is put into practice by spreading pheromones that mask the odour of the females, which in this way are more difficult to find, while the disorientation is carried out placing many chemical odour dispensers in the crops, which distract the males from looking for the females. These sexual deceptions are extremely effective in the case of parasite insects of apple and peach trees.
In the organic battle, some phytodrugs of natural origin, that are foreseen in EEC Regulation 2092/91  (that regulates every aspect of biological production) are permitted. An example are natural pyrethrins, organic compounds obtained from plants of the  Chrysanthemum genus. Pyrethrum is an insecticide that acts on contact with the insect, on its nervous system, and paralyzes it. Its victims are aphids, bugs, potato beetles, flies and many others. It is used to protect strawberries, sugar beet, potatoes and sunflowers. It can also be used to disinfest seeds or to keep indoor plants healthy.
Like all living organisms, also invertebrates (insects and mites) fall ill. The first person who had this brilliant intuition was Agostino Bassi in 1835. He sensed the cause of one of the diseases of the silkworms. The silkworm pathology is an infection caused by a parasite fungus. Since then man has always tried to fight “crop enemies” using micro-organisms that can make the insects fall ill. Today, besides products containing Bacillus thuringiensis, bioinsecticides containing Beauveria bassiana  are used, and granules containing the Cydia pomonella virus.
In the last few years the microbiological battle sector has constantly been expanding, there are an increasing number of compounds that are available on the market for biological agricultural operators. For example, biofungicides, i.e. compounds that are harmful for fungi that are plant parasites, using a bacterium or another antagonist fungus as the active ingredient.

Product control
Biological agriculture is controlled by Third-party Control Organisms (at present there are eleven of these Organisms in Italy). They are authorized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest Policies, and consist in research institutes and laboratories that have been given the authorization and task to control and certify the entire production process of every biological product that is sold on the market. The control system for biological productions (from fruit cakes to salamis and cheese) is uniform in the entire European Union.
All the  livestock breeding farms, the agricultural and agroalimentary industries run according to the organic system, are inspected one or more times a year by a technician from the Control Organism. When, for example, an agricultural farm producing fruit is inspected, the fiscal documents are checked, along with the registers that must be compiled in the case of biological agriculture procedures, the fields, the warehouses where the goods are stored, the fruit packaging and the agricultural machinery depots. Furthermore, samples of fruit, water and soil are taken in order to carry out further tests on the compliance of the production techniques and the products.
Labels and ingredients
European populations are increasingly informed and aware of the importance of food, and how following a healthy diet, without chemical compounds in the dishes together with salads, is closely tied to one’s health. To protect  biological product consumers, the European laws require the certification of the productive process and of the product. The carrying out of these controls is indicated on the label, by law.
Reading the labels of foods is a good habit, that becomes indispensable so that one is not cheated when purchasing an biological product. Since the Nineties all things  that are organic or biological have also become a fashion, therefore it occurs that on some labels the word organic is included without the product being an organic or biological product. This leads to confusion, diffidence and partly damages the sector. Also the words “natural” or “ecological” can be used improperly.
If a product that is sold has the word  organic, then every ingredient coming from agriculture (cereals, oil, eggs) must be produced in certified biological companies and if ingredients of non agricultural origin are present, these must have a prior authorization.
The label of a “real” biological product respects the following rules:

  • if the label specifies “from biological agriculture”, 95% of the ingredients (in weight) except water and salt, is of certified biological origin. The rest of the ingredients must be authorized;
  • if the label specifies, “ xx% from biological agriculture”, 70% of the ingredients (in weight) except water and salt, is of certified biological origin while the remaining part can only contain authorized ingredients;
  • ingredients of agricultural origin that are not organic must all be authorized, as for example rice starch or maize starch that are found in homogenized fruit products “from biological agriculture”;
  • ingredients of non agricultural origin must be authorized : aromas, additives, oligo-elements, vitamins, aminoacids, microbic starters for salamis or cheeses used in the productive processes of foodstuffs. An exception are GMO and their derivatives that cannot be present in any percentage in organic food products;
  • foodstuffs and their various ingredients must not be treated with ionizing radiations (a method for preserving foodstuffs that is dangerous for living organisms);
  • the label must never mention any food-colouring or preserving agents as these are prohibited in the biological production protocols;
  • the name and code of the Control Body must be indicated;
  • the producer’s code must be indicated.

There are also products that  are received from companies that have been included in the control system, as these are in the conversion phase, however these must wait for a period of 2 or more years for the soil to be disintoxicated from the previous use of chemical phytosanitary products. Foods produced by these companies indicate “produced in-conversion to biological agriculture”, on their label.

Biological products and health
Some very recent researches showed that, for example biological fruit and vegetables can contain more nutritional ingredients than the conventional products.
Measurement of the antioxidizing power is establishing itself (but not yet from a legislative point of view) as a modern method of measuring the nutritional quality of foodstuffs. Vitamins and polyphenols are contained in larger quantities in fruits such as organic plums and peaches, and in fresh organic vegetables, and are very important in order to contrast the oxidization process that naturally takes place in the human body and leads to the formation of free radicals. Free radicals are the cause of cell aging and can influence the onset of some tumours, arthritis, arteriosclerosis and pathologies of the liver. Furthermore it has been widely proved that vegetables with leaves (salad), cultivated with the organic method, contain more dry substance than others, and therefore are more nutritive.
Some researchers in the agricultural sector study new nutritional parameters in order to define the vital quality of foodstuffs. In this manner they wish to evaluate quantitatively the benefit that  an biological product brings to the human organism with regard to the lapse of time that passes from when the product is harvested to when  it is  consumed by the end user. In fact if we eat fruit and vegetables that have just been harvested, they contain all the  nutritive principles that are still intact, which however decay with the passing of time.
But quality alone is not sufficient to satisfy the consumers’ needs. Organic foodstuffs are sold in the market at end-prices that are approximately 10-25% higher than conventional type products. This datum is variable and depends on a number of causes : organic farmers incur a series of additional costs due to the larger number of discarded items,  due to manual labour that is less mechanized and land that remains unutilized because it is left to rest.
Furthermore, nowadays organic farms are still not associated into large consortiums, and consequently they do not avail themselves of a series of facilitations and sponsorships that would favour a reduction of the prices.
An improvement in the quality/price ratio is foreseen in the future, and a first step in this direction has been taken by the European Union and FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization) that are developing programmes that are favourable to the affirmation of biological productions.

Written by Eliana Marchisio

With the sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research
Eni S.p.A. - P.IVA 00905811006