Italy: Letting bees do the hard work

Grosseto: The Italian tomato is prized around the world. Southern Europe’s biggest hydroponics farm is growing pesticide-free crops in environmentally friendly greenhouses – and getting bees to do the hard work.

Set among organic vineyards in Tuscany, Sfera Agricola was launched in 2015 by Luigi Galimberti as a response to repeated UN warnings that food production will need to increase sharply to feed the growing global population.

“The UN reminds us every year that by 2050 there will be 10 billion of us, and we’ll need double the amount of water and double the land to produce food for everyone,” Galimberti said.

“Along with the problems of a suddenly-changing climate, which is having an ever-greater impact on farming, it pushed me to imagine a more efficient, technological way of farming that produces more with less,” he said.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using water fortified with mineral nutrients and oxygen instead.

Galimberti’s farm produces a kilogram of tomatoes or lettuce using just two litres of water, compared to 75 in fields, he says. Of those two liters, over 90% is collected rainwater.

It relies on natural organisms to control pests and disease and the few plants that need to be treated chemically are separated and their fruit destroyed.

“We use bumblebees to pollinate the flowers, and we release a series of insect predators to combat the insects we fear,” Galimberti said, adding that it had led to the creation of new bee colonies in a boost for the local ecosystem.

Pickers shuttle back and forth on solar-powered platforms, delicately tying back the plants’ upper branches as the fruit below ripens.