MONTEVIDEO – Undergrowth and insects, traditionally regarded by farmers as problems to be addressed, have become indispensable allies to Uruguayan fruit growers who now see bees, butterflies and wild plants as a reservoir of biodiversity that enriches both crops and the ecosystem.
A glance down the paths that run between rows of pear trees and apple groves on the Pigato family’s 65-hectare (160-acre) spread outside the southeastern town of Progreso is enough to notice that something has changed.
What would once have been bare soil is now marked by patches of grass and wildflowers.
“In the past, everything was removed, now they are leaving it,” Guillermo Delgado, regional head of Responsible and Sustainable Business for Swiss-based biotech giant Syngenta, says as he surveys the operation.
And though that change consists only of discontinuing the previous practice, it still represents a major step, according to Sebastian Pigato, who emphasizes that every link in the chain of agricultural production “has a reason.”
Pigato, a grower for 40 years, told Efe that while eco-friendly and sustainable production have always been a priority for him, Syngenta is helping his family’s enterprise achieve more “professional” results.
“The change was not so abrupt because we were already doing it, but not correctly, so we made some changes in what we were doing and now we are learning to live with the undergrowth, which is what we have to learn,” Pigato says.
Estela Santos, a research biologist and instructor at Uruguay’s University of the Republic, is working with Pigato and other growers to move in the direction of sustainable production.
Treading carefully to avoid killing insects, she says the key to Syngenta’s project in Progreso – launched three years ago – is the concept of “multifunctional landscapes.”
The approach calls for setting aside areas of 50 x 4 meters (164 x 13 ft) near planted fields and orchards and allowing “the vegetation that grows naturally to grow,” Santos explains.
She adds that the resulting “vegetal and animal density” performs a range of functions, most importantly pollination.
“Nowadays, the pollinators have a nutritional deficit because many vegetal species have been lost. So their diet is very monofloral, and it’s very beneficial to have these places that have significant floral diversity,” the scientist says.
Because apple and pear trees are highly dependent on pollination, helping bees and other pollinators boosts production, Santos points out.
Preserving the original vegetation can also enrich the soil by promoting nitrogen-fixing, and the brush often includes plants and herbs with medicinal properties, such as marcela and carqueja, she says.
Delgado says the Multifunctional Landscapes initiative is part of the sustainability project that Syngenta is pursuing throughout the Southern Cone of South America, which includes Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay.
Though the project has a “global format,” Syngenta intends to adapt the program to the particularities of each country, he says, underlining the importance of working with local farmers and monitoring their progress.
“This management is done from the field, followed and supervised by us. We have agriculture professionals who provide this support, but it’s indispensable that the one who acquires and incorporates (the knowledge) is the producer,” Delgado says.