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A draft law on organic farming approved by the Senate is causing disquiet among several Italian scientists, who claim it would support and promote agricultural practices with no scientific basis. The law will now be discussed in the lower chamber, and several researchers are petitioning for it to be amended before final approval.

The law aims to regulate the “safeguard, promotion and development” (including research and innovation) of organic farming, a sector that the European Union has placed at the centre of its ‘Farm to Fork strategy’ for sustainable agriculture, that aims to ensure 25% of total European farmland is organic by 2030.

To some who work on agricultural innovation, the very premise of the law is questionable. “It treats organic farming as the only sustainable farming, and encourages all farmers to adopt it” says Enrico Pè from Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, president of the Italian Society for Agricultural Genetics. “What we really need is a law promoting sustainable agriculture, which should cover organic, as well as conventional farming, and new technologies.”

One line in the draft law concerns scientists above all. Article I states that “for the purposes of this law, the biodynamic agriculture method […], when applied in compliance with the European Union’s dispositions on organic farming, is equated with organic farming”. A few articles later, the law requires one representative of biodynamic farmers to sit in a technical committee that will oversee the application of the law, including allocations of public funds.

Biodynamic agriculture is based on the teachings of early 20th century German philosopher Rudolf Steiner. It precedes organic farming historically, and today it shares most of its methods, such as the ban on synthetic chemicals as pesticides or fertilizers. It features the use of specific practices and preparations, from herbal and mineral additives to field sprays prepared by stuffing manure and quartz into animal horns and burying it for months. These preparations are legally authorised by the European Union, but their effects on food and soil quality are hardly reproducible and have not been scientifically demonstrated. In addition to the organic certification granted by public bodies, biodynamic farmers also get an additional certification from private associations, the most well-known being Demeter, based in Germany. Demeter’s standards also include spiritual guiding principles – such as the idea that agriculture must nourish “the soul and spiritual life”.

In casting the only vote against the law in the Italian senate, scientist and Senator-for-life, Elena Cattaneo, condemned the legal recognition of practices that she called “anti-scientific, and esoteric”. Scientists have launched a petition asking for the law to be amended, calling it “absurd to confer economic and cultural preferred status to biodynamic agriculture, as it cannot be verified through the scientific method”. Scientific societies, such as Accademia dei Lincei, the Italian Academy for Agriculture, the Italian Society for Agronomy, the Italian Federation of Life Sciences, the Italian Association of Agricultural Scientific Society, have also expressed opposition to the law.

During the Senate debate, supporters of the law stated that it merely acknowledges that biodynamic farmers are part of the organic movement, and that in order to access any benefit introduced by the law they have to comply with organic farming regulations anyway. But critics reverse the argument. “If biodynamic already identifies as organic, why should its legal status be highlighted further?” asks Pè. “Why must a representative of biodynamic farmers sit in the technical committee?”. The result, he says, would be to equate what can be scientifically tested with what cannot, and to give public recognition, and possibly financial support, to farming practices that are only certified by private subjects.

In an AISSA statement, scientists warn that “public funds could be used for educational activities and research projects on phenomena with no scientific basis”.

Since 2003, the Italian Ministry for Agriculture has been managing a fund for research on “organic and quality farming”, that this law would partially reform. It is financed by a 2% tax on revenues from fertilisers and agrochemicals used in conventional farming, generating between €4 and 6 million per year. Stefano Canali, President of the Italian Network for Research in Organic Agriculture (RIRAB) that includes researchers from CREA, CNR, ENEA and Universities, says the law would probably reduce research spending, as the fund would also be used for promotion and other activities. “It is already a very small cake” he says, noting that only €21 million have been invested between 2009 and 2018, less than 0.1 per cent of the market value of organic farming over the same period. “If it has to be split into even more slices, research will suffer”.

In 2016, the Ministry created a committee that oversees the use of that research fund, and already includes one representative of biodynamic farming. A few projects involving biodynamic methods have been financed since then, such as one on greenhouse biodynamic production, coordinated by CREA, one on olive trees and vines, at the University of Florence, and one on the effects of biodynamic preparations coordinated by the university of Salerno. The latest call for projects, launched last January by the Ministry for Agriculture, even required the involvement of “one organic or biodynamic farm” as a precondition for accessing grants (winners have not been announced yet). Canali, who is not involved in research on biodynamic farming but does not oppose it, says investigating biodynamic methods is a natural consequence of the fact that they are authorized by the European Union. “Biodynamic farming has interesting elements as well as components that are clearly outside the scientific discourse, but so are many things in agriculture” he notes.

Pè says that individual researchers can have different positions, but legislators should listen to institutions such as scientific societies and academies, which are all asking to remove references to biodynamic agriculture from the law. That would not prevent farmers from adopting and advertising the method, but it would avoid legal ambiguity and would send a better cultural signal, he says. “The current text rejects the very idea that the scientific method must guide innovation in agriculture”.