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Italy, Steriltom: Nestlé's pilot project for sustainable irrigation

07/10/2021 - François-Xavier Branthôme - Lire en français
"Promoting regenerative agricultural practices within our industry"

Nestlé and its partners in the tomato industry are focusing on sustainability. The Buitoni factory at Bénévent, the international hub for the Nestlé group's deep-frozen pizza business, supplies the tables of many Italian and European consumers. About 2,700 tonnes of tomato pulp of exclusively Italian origin are used in this way each year. From now on, the tomato that goes into this product will be a bit more sustainable.
Installation of tensiometers
In the context of its commitment to increase sustainability within the food industry, Nestlé has launched a program to optimize the water used to irrigate tomato crops. The Italian partners of this project are Steriltom, the industrial tomato processing company based in Piacenza (and a Nestlé supplier), and a group of four growers who supply the raw materials.

Optimizing the use of water in the field
Tomatoes are a crop that is particularly sensitive to hydric stress, particularly in the early stages of development after transplanting. But they are also vulnerable to a number of plant diseases and affections that occur in the event of an excessive presence of water.
In order to estimate the real irrigation needs of plants, Steriltom has contributed to the installation of tensiometers, sensors that monitor the crops of the four production farms involved in the project. At the beginning of the season, each plot was equipped with four tensiometers to measure the availability of underground water at different depths, from 5 to 30 cm. Data from the sensors was then sent to a control unit that is powered by solar panels, which uploads data from these measurements to the cloud.

Cesare Malvicini with the tensiometer sensors
In this way, growers can use their smartphones to determine the exact quantities of water being supplied to the plants. 
"This tool is easy to use and allows me to know exactly when irrigation is required. I can even monitor the data while I am irrigating the field, in order to cut off at the right moment, without wasting a single drop of water," explained Cesare Malvicini, the owner of a 65-hectare farm, 10 of which are used to grow processing tomatoes. "These sensors are also useful to estimate rainwater levels. Even after a storm, it can happen that rainfall is not sufficient to reach the deeper layers of the soil, and it may run off the surface of the ground. With my smartphone, even if I am several kilometers away from the field, I can check and decide whether to switch on irrigation or not."
The system is supplied by DPS-Promatic and was made available for the four farms that supply raw tomatoes to Steriltom, which then processes them and ships its production to the Buitoni factory. "Thanks to precision irrigation, we have estimated the reduction in water consumption at around 40%, because we only irrigate when it is really necessary," says Malvicini. "But there's more: in addition to avoiding stress to the plants through careful irrigation, we also avoid problems such as blossom-end rot and infections by pathogenic microorganisms. In the end, the product is also healthier and of better quality." This helps tomato plants be more reactive and resistant in the event of pathogenic affections or particularly intense episodes of heatwave, making it possible to limit the use of plant-health treatments and thereby protect biodiversity. This practice also helps to protect the fertility of the soil, by preserving its organic substances.

From plot to processing
Founded in 1934, Steriltom is a company that has specialized over the years in the production of tomato pulp for the food industry and for the catering and hotel sector. "All our suppliers are located within a radius of 25 kilometers [around the factories], which guarantees the freshness of the product we receive, as it has not been affected by the transport," explains Alessandro Squeri, representative of the fourth generation of executives and now at the head of the Group, which invoices around EUR 100 million per year and exports Italian tomato products all over the world.

 "We have two production plants: one in Piacenza and the other in Ferrara, which was set up as a result of the takeover of the former Ferrara Food plant, now ItalTom. In our factories, maximum attention is paid to sustainability, particularly at the Ferrara plant, which was recently built, and where we have installed a closed-cycle system that practically allows us to be self-sufficient in terms of water."

Sustainability is a strength of our industry
The project implemented by Nestlé and Steriltom confirms a trend that has been increasingly observed over the past few years, with the development of targets of greater sustainability in the agricultural field, supported by the entire sector. To meet the demands of consumers in terms of sustainability, which have been passed on by intermediaries such as the large chain retail outlets and the product's manufacturing brand, growers are being supported by their partners within the industry, both technically and economically, as in the case of the tomato supplied to Buitoni. From this point of view, Nestlé is one of the first large multinationals to have made concrete commitments to promote sustainable and regenerative agriculture. The company is doing this globally, targeting the 150,000 suppliers and half a million farmers in its supply chain, with the twin goals of halving its carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving "zero carbon" emissions by 2050.
Detailed view of one of the sensors in the ground
"We are particularly proud of this project, which represents a first but important step in the path we are taking in Italy to support the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices within our industry," stated Marco Travaglia, President and CEO of the Nestlé Group in Italy and Malta. "Companies operating in the agri-food sector have the duty and the opportunity to contribute to a change of course that will be beneficial for the environment, for communities, for ourselves and for future generations."

Internationally, Nestlé will invest EUR 1.1 billion over the next five years to promote regenerative agriculture throughout its supply chain, using three different levers to help farmers: the implementation of the most advanced knowledge and technology, the provision of technical assistance, and the offer of investment incentives by paying a premium for products from regenerative agriculture.

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