24 NOVEMBER 2021 | 9.00 – 13.00 CET

Webinar “Copper: a key ally for food security, availability and affordability”

On 24 November 2022, the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and the EU Focus Group co-organised a high-level workshop on “Copper: a key ally for food safety, availability and affordability”. The hybrid event took place on the Piacenza campus of the Università Cattolica and it was livestreamed both in English and Italian. The workshop attracted the attention of an elevated number of authorities, stakeholders, and copper operators from Italy and other European countries.

Prof. Marco Trevisan, Dean of the co-organising Faculty, stressed in his welcoming remarks both the relevance and the salience of discussing copper at this moment. In particular, Trevisan mentioned the current geopolitical events and the continuous reduction in the number of active substances and plant protection products available for farmers.

Such considerations were echoed by the keynote speaker On. Paolo de Castro, former Italian Minister of Agriculture and currently MEP from the Socialists & Democrats Group, who interrelated the discussion on copper with the Sustainable Use Regulation. From Strasbourg, he stressed that the ecological transition should be made with farmers and not against them. De Castro claimed that ideological positions without concrete answers for growers are to be avoided, and that new developments in genetics and genomics as well as smart farming could and should play a role in reducing the use of synthetic chemical pesticides. He argued for a serious scientific analysis of how the Commission goals can, if at all, be achieved in practice.

The first roundtable focused on the socio-economic relevance of copper, an inorganic substance of crucial importance in the Alpine country. The discussion inquired how to couple sustainability and availability of quality food and was moderated by Prof. Emiliano Finocchi, Italian Partner at EU Focus Group and Professor at Luiss Business School, who asked pertinent questions to all speakers.
On. Pietro Fiocchi, MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, manifested the political complexity around regulating plant protection products, claiming that a drastic reduction would not be feasible. Fiocchi is of the view that some Member States have made significant progress in reducing the use of pesticides and argued for a strong voice for Italy in Europe to protect the Italian agricultural production. He showed moderate optimism advocating for a pragmatic approach with the necessary crop protection tools in order to respond realistically to environmental goals.

Prof. Raffaele Oriani, raised awareness of suboptimal effects and trade-offs with policy decisions. With concrete examples from the Farm to Fork Strategy, he put sustainability in context and stressed the lack of realistic alternatives to copper. He argued for rigorous methodologies for assessing the environmental impact of plant protection products and thus inform ex ante final decisions. Oriani also stressed that having a restriction on copper at the European level, there would be biases and disparities across Member States and copper users would be strongly penalised.

Massimo Perboni, Agricultural Director from Mutti, eloquently showed how copper is essential to guarantee both quality and sustainability in the entire tomato value chain, in particular for the pulp that is the most fresh and relevant product. He mentioned how bacterial and fungal diseases compromise the health and quality of Italian tomatos, discussing at length bacterial speck (Pseudomonas Syringae) and late blight (Phytophthora infestans). Perboni showed that tomato naturally presents 0.059 mg/100 g of copper, far from the limit to the residue maximum limit. For that reason, copper is out of scope in their policy guidelines because it is natural and it would be irrelevant to consider it as a chemical. Finally, he stressed that copper is an effective tool to reduce chemicals residues in food and poses no risks for tomato.

Paolo Tassani introduced the mission and efforts of the European Union Copper Task Force. He stressed that as a natural medicine for crops, copper is subject of some challenges when its singularities as natural substance are not recognised by regulatory agencies. As the voice of the industry, Tassani demanded the abandonment of emotional answers and advocated a rational approach focused on data when it comes to making decisions. “Evaluating without understanding the compound is misguided”, he pointed out. Tassani directed the attention to the contradiction between policy goals, specifically the reduction of pesticide volumes and the expansion of organic agriculture where copper plays a crucial role. He also stressed that investments in new registrations and new technologies should be matched with sensible timelines by the authorities.

The technical & regulatory roundtable questioned how to promote the use of inorganics and naturally-present substances in combatting pests, and it was moderated by Prof. Marco Trevisan. The discussion focused on concrete aspects that make copper and other minerals necessary tools for crop protection, especially in some key sectors of the Italian agriculture.

Riccardo Bugiani, Plant Protection Inspector from the Emilia-Romagna Region, presented some examples of copper usage as plant disease protection from main fungicidal activity against Oomycetes, bacterial diseases such as PST or XCV, to secondary fungicidal activity such as wood cankers or black rot. Bugiani also mentioned how copper can function as a partner of other fungicides with high risk of resistance occurrence. With the case study of grapevines, he claimed that copper use in IPM could be optimised with the use of elicitors whereas copper remains key for organic viticulture throughout the entire growing phases. Bugiani also presented how copper can protect tomatoes and fruit trees from some diseases for which no real crop protection alternative exists. He concluded by pointing out that a reduction of use of copper as plant protection product could conclude in a rise of fertilisers based on copper, which he found alarming.

The position of the European Commission was expressed by Jérémy Pinte, Policy Officer at the DG GROW. He started by saying that there is an interest in maintaining fertilising products containing copper in the market but ensuring that they follow safe instructions for users and consumers, in accordance with the Fertilising Products Regulation. He discussed how the European Commission has proposed to revise the persistence and toxicity criteria that qualify copper as plant protection product as a Candidate for Substitution. Since the new PBT criteria will only apply to organic compounds made by the industry, minerals such as copper will be removed from the Candidate for Substitution list. According to Pinte, the Green Deal requires alternative crop protection mechanisms to be prioritised but, in the end, pesticides should be used as much as needed but not more.

The academic voice was Prof. Vittorio Rossi, Professor at host Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. He presented a research project attempting to ascertain whether biosolutions can be developed, tested, promoted and used with the same logic as chemical products. The BioSolution Academy studies the preventative and eradicant activity of natural substances, their tenacity to rainfall, duration and degree of activity. In his view, copper is clearly a biocontrol solution. Rossi stressed that natural compound solutions such as copper have the potential to be more effective than it is commonly believed, so he encouraged to continue researching how minerals and microorganisms work in practice in different scenarios.

Marco Dreni, Lead Technician at CIO-PARMA, was the voice of tomato producers in the North of Italy. He introduced the table of fungicide resistance action substances, pointing out that the number of options is limited. Given its multi-site activity, copper is generally considered as low risk without any signs of resistance developing to the fungicides. Dreni also pointed out that the resources to protect plants against bacterial diseases is very limited, with just copper, Acibenzolar-S-methyl and Bacillus subtilis. He pointed out the risk posed by Xanthomonas vesicatoria and concretised the definition of genetic resistance. Dreni concluded with a conceptualisation of sustainable production, which involves social, environmental, and economic aspects. Focusing on the latter, the costs for farmers using copper are 25€/treated ha whereas without using copper the costs may raise up to 38 €/treated ha, which would not be sustainable for the producers.

The viticultural sector was also present thanks to Giacomo Manzoni di Chiosca, Chief Agronomist at Zonin 1821 Winery. He stressed that the surface dedicated to biological agriculture in Italy has grown exponentially up to 17.4%, becoming the highest in the EU. The market has also increased significantly since 2013. Manzoni was adamant in arguing that copper remains indispensable to confront Peronospora, highlighting that monitoring copper usage is key to guarantee good agricultural practices. Copper is used throughout the entire production cycle, complimented with other supportive elements. However, the accumulation of copper in soil does not seem to have increased. He concluded introducing the EQUALITAS-Vino Sostenibile certificate that requires wine companies to report on several sustainability variables.

On behalf of the European Union Copper Task Force, Matthias Weidenauer clarified that the main objective of the 12 member companies is the renewal of approval of copper compounds not as a Candidate for Substitution and allowing a flexible dose scheme. He introduced the timeline of the renewal process and welcomed the EFSA Statement on how to perform a risk assessment for transition metals, a document that overcomes the use of inappropriate guidelines. Weidenauer presented the complexity of parallel timelines, including new requirements by the Food Law, renewal of product authorisations, the maximum residue levels dossier, but also the reform of hazard classes in the CLP revision, the review of the Sustainable Use Regulation, and the coming Soil Health Law. He argued that the fact that copper is a ubiquitous essential nutrient subject to homeostatic control makes it a unique plant protection product that requires different approaches. Weidenauer presented several promising studies performed by the Task Force, including environmental risk assessments on aquatics and soil accumulation.

To conclude, Prof. Emiliano Finocchi closed the workshop on behalf of co-organising EU Focus Group summarising the key takeaways from both roundtables.

Did you miss our webinar? Check out the recording posted here.