AquaTEK™: Helping farmers manage water more efficiently in Italy

By Carlos Vicente

Sustainability Lead, Europe & Middle East

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Italian food is one of the undisputed jewels of the country, but on the farm fields where the food grows, there is ample room to bring better harvests more sustainably. Monsanto has collaborated in a public-private partnership, called AquaTEK™, to help farmers manage water use more efficiently while improving their harvests.

“One of Monsanto’s commitments in Italy is to make the production of maize (corn) sustainable from an economic, environmental and social perspective,” said Federico Bertoli, commercial director of Monsanto Italy. Bertoli recently presented the AquaTEK project at an Expo Milan 2015 workshop on “The hunger for water and its sustainable use for cropping systems,” organized by the National Research Council on July 1 at the Italy Pavilion.

Federico Bertoli
Federico Bertoli speaking at EXPO2015.

“AquaTEK represents the practical realization in Italy of the importance of principles of precision in the production of corn,” Bertoli said. The AquaTEK project began in 2013. It is a public-private partnership between Monsanto Italy, Netafim and the University of Milan. The project’s objective is to improve corn harvests and reduce the amount of irrigation water used for the crop. Energy consumption may also be reduced, as fuel used to pump irrigation water may also be reduced.

The three pillars of AquaTEK are: training farmers; developing and making available the decision support tools (water sensors in the fields and satellite data collected); and distribution of more efficient irrigation systems, allowing for more efficient water use.

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Since 2013, more than 70 technicians have been trained and 7,000 farmers have been informed to encourage the adoption of efficient irrigation systems. In addition, the University of Milan tested several irrigation systems to evaluate and compare their performance.

“The essential element of precision agriculture is the adoption of technologies that support the decision-making process, allowing farmers to understand if, when and how much water to use to optimize production and costs,” Bertoli said. In this context, with the farmer’s permission, Monsanto uses special probes that measure the soil’s water content, which provides useful information to optimize irrigation operations.

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“To make the technology accessible to a greater number of farmers, we are developing a new system that uses satellite detection on nine Italian farms,” Bertoli said. “By cross-referencing the satellite data with weather information, we are able to provide more precise irrigation advice.”

In the first two years of experimentation, AquaTEK has helped farmers to reduce the consumption of water by 17 percent, improve harvests by 27 percent and improve energy efficiency by 20.2 percent, cutting the loss of nitrogen in groundwater by 78 percent. Thanks to targeted watering of the plant, it was possible to prevent many of the diseases that, in recent years, have infested and damaged maize production in Italy.

An irrigation water channel in Italy.
An irrigation water channel in Italy.

“Based on our experience thus far, the most efficient system for the production of maize is drip irrigation,” Bertoli said.

Bertoli noted that the program has been very successful, and Monsanto and our partners are preparing to introduce the AquaTEK program on a commercial scale in 2016.

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