17 February 2021

“These technologies can help us meet the healthy soil challenge”

Debora Fino, president of Re Soil Foundation.

Debora Fino, president of Re Soil Foundation: the importance of having a healthy soil is still too underestimated. The skills of technicians can inspire far-sighted policies against degradation and desertification

by Emanuele Isonio


“We have learned over the decades to take care of air and water with precise rules and technologies that prevent and reduce pollution. For soil, a long way must be covered, especially from a regulatory point of view”. Debora Fino is a Professor (chemical engineering) at the Polytechnic of Turin. Her university, together with the University of Bologna, Coldiretti and Novamont founded Re Soil Foundation a few months ago. And just a few days ago, she was chosen to guide it.

Professor Fino, why did you decide to create a Foundation for the Soil?

Re-Soil Foundation was created to provide the legislator with competent support to set up policies which aims to protect the fertility of our soils. This necessarily implies that part of the carbon that we “recycle”, from organic waste and throughsequestration and conversion of CO2 from the atmosphere, must return to the land, otherwise it will degrade. Degradation is currently accelerated by climate changes that lead to desertification.

The EU has included the soil among the 5 missions of the Horizon Europe program. How will Re Soil Foundation define the objectives of this mission at the Italian level?

The Foundation will certainly play a catalytic role for those Italian excellences that are able to develop new technologies for soil protection in response to future European calls for the Green New Deal. In the same way, many sites of great interest in our country could become valuable theaters for technology testing. Let’s think, for example, of the fight against desertification in areas such as Sicily, or of soil quality improvement in high quality agri-food production areas.
Having a soil which is “qualified” under an actual scientific perspective could become a plus from a commercial point of view.

To do this, do you think that an increase of understanding about the importance of soil health is needed to address policy-making? And at what levels?

On many levels. From the Ministry of Agriculture to the new Ministry of Ecological Transition, to the local ones promoted by Italian Regions. Today, the perception of soil importance for high quality agri-food production is low. And even lower is the understanding of the fact that if soil is neglected, over the years it deteriorates irreversibly. Foresight and farsightedness are needed, which can be inspired by enlightened pre-normative actions enacted by legislators.

How developed is the understanding of the soil issue among citizens, stakeholders and public administrators?

As I said, while today we are aware of the importance of air and water quality, the general understanding of soil value is still limited. Perhaps this happens because for air and water quality there is a direct correlation with our health. In polluted cities, deaths associated with air pollution are estimated to be several thousand. In this field, precise rules have led or are leading to real change of paradigms in society: let’s think about sustainable mobility or the use of renewable energy sources.

Beyond your new role in the Re Soil Foundation, you are above all a professor at the Polytechnic of Turin: can technology help to fight the battle for soil?

Indeed. Today, technology is crucial. I love to call it an accelerator of the effects of natural mechanisms. Certainly, the development of bioplastics that combine excellent mechanical strengths with biodegradability in different environments will be of great use. This would benefit the production of high quality compost (agricultural soil improver obtained through biotechnological processes from organic waste). On the other hand, organic waste or agricultural mowings can be thermochemically treated so as to generate renewable fuels and a solid coal-based residue (known as biochar) that can be used as a supplement for soil composition. As always, technologies can propose various approaches that in different contexts lead to different application choices.

What are the most promising and effective technologies to recover the CO2 absorption capacity of soils?

First of all, photosynthesis is the main mechanism by which nature captures this molecule to convert it into organic matter, which then, at least in part, must be left in the soil. On the other hand, many technologies (chemical, electrochemical, biological and more) can be used to capture and convert carbon dioxide from combustion fumes or other concentrated currents. A book that I recommend on this topic is “Green Chemistry 2.0: Let’s learn from nature how to fight global warming” by Guido Saracco published by Zanichelli. It deals with technologies that are developed by the Turin branch of the Italian Institute of Technology, an excellence in the sector.

How is Italy placed in terms of research into technologies applied to soil wellbeing?

Data from the Italian Higher Institute for Environmental Protection (ISPRA) indicate that a quarter of the soils are degraded. However, the resources and actions taken to actively combat this threat are clearly growing. Over the past two years, Italy along with Portugal, Ukraine and Turkey has pioneered the effective implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management (VGSSM) approved and promoted by FAO in 2016. This has been reflected not only by inspiring initiatives proposed by national and regional policymakers, but also by making our country the scene of numerous projects.

The data speak for themselves: the branch inherent in the sustainability and productivity of agriculture of the European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI) reports that there have been more than 450 funding in Italy in the agricultural and forestry sectors aimed at technological research. The networking between them is undoubtedly a key element to bring effective solutions. In parallel, the Life programs sponsored by the European Commission are also a great opportunity to make significant contributions on improving soil health.

Are there any particularly significant best practices?

I cite two illustrious “Made in Italy” examples: the first is soil4life, a program currently underway aimed at actively introducing the aforementioned guidelines for sustainable land use. The second is Life HelpSoil: this plan to apply conservation agriculture has already been successfully concluded. Its principles, based on crop rotation and minimum tillage, are certainly an excellent “best practice” proposal for the future.