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Concept and main impacts

The DREAM agroecosystem will be characterized by the following basic principles which go beyond conventional agricultural systems (Figure 1):
A) scalar multi-variety orchards exploiting a range of modern and old genotypes;
B) consociation of pomme fruit tree with a specifically designed cover crop mixture, able to prolong blooming, increase soil nutritional and water status, attract natural enemies and repel phytophagous insects, and to increase functional diversity in order to enhance biological pest control and insect pollination.
C) adoption of Regulated Deficit Irrigation (RDI) protocols aimed at increasing the system water use efficiency (WUE) as well as improving fruit quality
The agroecosystem will be managed according to low input practices, based on IPPM, integrating preventive approaches (resistant varieties; use of biocontrol agents and natural antagonists; bioactive natural compounds) while leaving conventional applications (curative approaches) as the last option, to be used only “in case of emergency”.
Three testing sites will be implemented in important Mediterranean fruit producing regions, on both Mediterranean shores. On each site the new agroecosystem will be tested on a fruit crop representative of the local fruit economy: apple in northern Italy and in the mountain regions of Morocco; pear in south-eastern Spain. In each site, the new agroecosystem will be designed in collaboration with local living labs developed within the project so that the DREAM basic principles will be specifically tailored to the different conditions, taking into consideration the climate, the main biotic and abiotic stressors, the type of farm holdings and the market requirements typical of the area.

Ambition

The DREAM ambition is to develop a new orchard model to provide Mediterranean farmers, especially small-holders, an alternative approach to increase the competitiveness and the sustainability of their productions. Although also modern, highly intensive farms sometimes diversify crops and varieties to optimize labour and resource inputs along the season, the DREAM approach goes beyond current conventional systems. Its innovation potential lies in the integration of the following innovative concepts which can be tailored to a range of different environmental conditions and associated to a new business model to improve farm economic stability.

  • Design of multi-variety apple and pear orchards adapted to different environments and exploiting a range of genotypes providing scalar vegetative cycles and natural resistances to biotic and abiotic stressors. Although multi-varietal orchards cannot be considered an innovation “per se”, the careful choice and integration of the varieties, based on their features (vegetative cycle length, final quality, metabolite composition and resistance) represents a key step moving beyond current practices. The interrow will be managed with a mix of cover crops, which will increase above and below ground functional biodiversity and ecosystem services (e.g., pest control, pollination and soil fertility (WP1)
  • DREAM agroecosystem validation, with management protocols based on the adoption of an IPPM approach to reduce chemical inputs, improve sustainability and resilience to stressors and extreme weather events and decrease the probability of pollination deficit. Furthermore, the adoption of ad-hoc Regulated Deficit Irrigation protocols will allow saving water while increasing fruit dry matter content and enhance the accumulation of beneficial compounds. Based on these premises, the DREAMagroecosystem is expected to produce zero-pollution diversified products of high quality features in terms of dry matter content, taste, nutraceutical component, healthiness production of antioxidant / antipathogenic metabolites (WP2)
  • Introduction of the concept of agricultural ecosystems as added-value for the society and the environment, and economically sustainable for growers. Besides production, the DREAM agroecosystem will provide ecosystem services to society, such as increased functional biodiversity and reduced chemical inputs and pollutions. The higher resilience of DREAM agroecosystems to climate change, extreme weather events and to other abiotic stressors, will contribute to the higher economic stability and satisfaction of growers. Besides, this new management approach can include also educational and recreational services (WP3)
  • Alternative marketing strategies and market chains properly suited to diversified and scalar products with enhanced quality features. These strategies will consider the producers (growers and cooperatives) logistical issues, as well as the consumers’ behaviour towards the acceptance of alternative products. (WP4)

Expected impacts

DREAM will provide the whole fruit sector with alternative tools to improve its resilience, CC adaptation and economic stability. In fact, beside the tested pome fruit species (apple and pear), DREAM will represent a starting point to be adapted to other major Mediterranean fruit crops, such as other drupaceous species, citrus and other minor fruit crops etc., being able to expand up to about 50% of the Mediterranean fruit farms, with small holders and organic systems as main targets. Making Mediterranean orchards more resilient and economically stable will contribute to several Sustainable Development Goals: mainly SDG#2 “zero hunger” by promoting agricultural sustainability (2.4.1) through better productivity (2.3.1) and income (2.3.2) of small scale food producers, but also SDG#1 “no poverty”, SDG#3 “good health and well-being” SDG#6 “and SDG#12 “responsible production and consumption” and last but not least SDG#5 “gender equality” thanks to the foreseen key role of women in the LL to co-design DREAM features at each location. Each of the expected impacts reported by the topic will be addressed by DREAM. Several Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to monitor the impact of DREAM outputs are also proposed.

The adoption of specific Deficit Irrigation strategies as well as a better soil management increasing the soil water holding capacity will allow an increase in water use efficiency and irrigation saving up to 30% without drawbacks in terms of productivity as demonstrated by the application of deficit irrigation strategies in several environments (Fallahi et al., 2010 – https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI.45.11.1616; El Jaouhari et al., 2018 – https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.06.108; Razouk et al., 2020 – https://doi.org/10.15302/J-FASE-2020325). A better management of the water resource at farm level can lead up to a significant reduction of the water required for irrigation at district level, providing more of this resource to other sectors of society (e.g. civil uses, industry). A better water management at irrigation district level will contribute to safeguarding natural resources, especially ground water for future generations, particularly in low-water quality, water-scarce and drought-vulnerable areas. The improved functional soil biodiversity coupled with cover crops will increase the orchard carbon sequestration through improved soil organic matter accumulation in the soil as well as reduced CO2 and NO2 emissions. (Thiel et al., 2015 https://doi.org/10.2489/jswc.70.4.247)
KPIs: 1) m3 of saved water; 2) Water Use Efficiency (m3 of irrigated water per harvested yield); 3) % of increase in SOM; 4) belowground functional biodiversity indexes;

The new DREAM agroecosystem will be more resilient to extreme weather events thanks to its scalar vegetative cycles. This is a key feature for several reasons: the increased damages due to recent late frost events (spring 2018, spring 2020, spring, 2021) led to severe losses (up to 80%) in many fruit crops, with no effective solution available. We expect that in case of a late frost event 3/4 of the DREAM production will face only minor damages. In addition, in case of heat waves and prolonged water scarcity which is widely impacting southern latitudes, 1/3 of the production (late harvest varieties) might be able to recover in the fall. A late hail-storm event may save the early varieties representing 1/3 of the total, while the selection of varieties with natural resistances will limit the population growth of pest and disease incidence (Ratnadass et al. 2012 https://doi.org/10.1007/s13593-011-0022-4) Furthermore, the DREAM agroecosystem will provide a number of different ecosystem services such as biological pest control and pollination; biodiversity conservation; orchard land stewardship even in conditions of climate change .
KPIs: 1) % of losses due to extreme weather events; 2) stressors incidence vs. conventional systems;

Varieties ripening at different times during the season will improve the management and organization potential of small-holding farms. This will improve harvest management, thus limiting fruit waste to minimum levels. The development of ad-hoc marketing strategies such as local markets will optimize post-harvest management and reduce the time lapse from producer to consumer, thus reducing losses due to post-harvest disorders. Furthermore, the application of ad-hoc deficit irrigation protocols together with a proper soil management are expected to save water by reducing the irrigation needs by at least 30% (Venturi et al., 2021 https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy11061141)
KPIs: 1) % reduction of fruit wasted vs. conventional systems;

The selection of resistant fruit varieties along with the implementation of cover crops and sustainable soil management and irrigation will allow: i) improved above and belowground functional biodiversity that will enhance ecosystem services (pollination, pest control and soil fertility) over time; ii) a 40-80% reduction in the chemicals to control pest and disease at the end of the four-year project (Lamichane et al., 2015, https://doi.org/10.1094/PDIS-05-15-0574-FE); iii) doubling the populations of pollinating insects and enhance pollination service; iv) a 60% to 80% reduction in the use of mineral fertilisers with consequent reduction in leaching (Montanaro et al 2017. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scienta.2017.01.012); iv) increased product safety and healthiness thanks to natural resistances and the IPPM approach. Furthermore, the living mulch will promote the recirculation of nutrients at soil level, benefitting from the interaction with mycorrhiza and rhizobacteria, this will improve water holding capacity and soil microbiome biodiversity in the soil thanks to increased content in soil organic matter. KPIs:1) Pest and disease incidence vs. conventional systems; 2) amounts of chemical used; 3) level of pollination, yield and fruit quality; 4) functional biodiversity indexes; 5) soil fertility (availability of the different nutrients in the soil); 6) % reduction in the use of mineral fertilizers vs. conventional systems;

WP4 will be dedicated to the development of new marketing strategies for the DREAM products, including specific certifications to valorize the high quality, low residues fruits in accordance with consumer expectations and acceptance. This will lead to increased market opportunities and economic independence for small holders, whose business generally depends just on bigger actors. DREAM will also: i) provide fruit growers and consultants with economically convenient and sustainable alternatives to conventional orchards; ii) reduce the use of agrochemicals and, thus, decreasing the direct application costs with positive impacts on the farm revenue. In addition, the DREAM system will widen the range of products during the season, thus reducing the risk of failure due to extreme climatic events thus allowing more stable incomes for growers and the economic sustainability of smallholder farming.
KPIs: 1) gross income per hectare compared to conventional orchards; 2) produce value (EU/kg) vs. conventional orchards; 3) cost chemical inputs for pest management and fertilisation vs. conventional orchards

The DREAM agroecosystem can represent a very useful tool to favour women empreneurship in agriculture. In fact, being particularly suited to small farms, it can be easily managed at family level, thus facilitating women involvement and independence, especially in less developed countries. In each test location, the new agroecosystem will be co-designed, developed and locally promoted by the living labs, where several actors along the chain will be involved with special attention to young people and women. This will allow to better adapt the new systems to the needs of local small holding farms and promote the engagement of women and young people in creating new types of sustainable farm and market models. Besides, local living labs will represent lively networks to promote the training and growth of young farmers, women and consumers through regular meetings, seminars, workshops and peer exchanges to address local problems and favor resource exchanges.
KPIs: 1) number of women and young growers involved in the living labs; 2) number of training activities specifically addressed to women and young people.

Specific niche products, with high quality (improved dry matter content, taste and nutraceutical value) will be produced thanks to the valorization of old varieties and the correct application of RDI strategies that, beside saving water, can lead to 2-3% increases in fruit dry matter content, with no negative impacts on yields (Venturi et al., 2021 https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy11061141). Features that are also related to longer storage potential and higher consumer acceptance. Thanks to its sustainable approach DREAM will also secure the supply of healthy food such as fruit to Mediterranean consumers. Specific market studies will be carried out to identify the best certification strategies to promote the added value of the DREAM fruit. In cooperation with local living labs, ad-hoc activities in schools and local markets will be organized to engage consumers and promote the consumption of sustainable healthy fruit and the adoption of the DREAM approach.
KPIs: 1) improved fruit quality (soluble solids content; dry matter % etc.); 2) number of external events to promote DREAM products.

The DREAM approach represents an alternative, diversified and new production model. It will offer: i) an innovative profitable and resilient cultivation alternative to face the current challenges related to climate change of growers affected by scarce revenues or biotic and abiotic stressors; ii) an alternative set of products to create new market opportunities to distributors and retailers; iii) a diverse set of products with high taste and nutritional value to consumers. This will allow the agricultural sector to make a step forward from traditional production schemes while providing an innovative approach to face the many challenges laying ahead such as the increase of global food demand under climate change pressure. KPIs: 1) Number of stakeholders (growers, cooperatives etc ) reached by DREAM.

The DREAM products will create new market opportunities for: i) growers and local sellers, through local markets and the valorization of local high value products; ii) large sellers and retailers thanks to their diversification and high quality standards compared to traditional fruit, with the possibility to develop new specific marketing brands and channels, with potential higher prices due to their higher intrinsic value. Besides, the low-input and environmental-friendly approaches adopted in the production chain (i.e. low water, carbon and chemical footprints) may be exploited as added values in the commercial chain and valued thanks to specific brands.

Beside its agronomical value, the DREAM agroecosystems will be an ideal educational tool for students, families and the society in general, giving them the possibility to learn some basic principles related to agricultural sustainability, biodiversity, ecosystem services and as well as beekeeping and healthy fruit production. This will raise awareness on the main environmental issues we are all facing and on the need to find sustainable solutions. The organization of “educational open days” might represent a further opportunity for growers to widen the services offered by their farm.

The coexistence of orchards and natural landscapes often represents the backgrounds of many environmentally gifted regions in the Mediterranean basin. The sustainable DREAM approach will make these landscapes more resilient to climate change thus contributing to well-being and to the tourist industry. The DREAM resilient strategy will provide protection to the environment from losses due to meteorological and climatic factors, contributing to reducing the effects of extreme environmental hazards, such as erosion, flooding, etc.

DREAM will provide consumers with a range of diversified healthy products, with increased nutritional value and taste. Local old varieties have often an improved composition of beneficial metabolites with a role against multiple-stresses compared to commercial cultivars (Donno et al., 2015 doi:10.1111/j.1745-4557.2012.00442.x) . Moreover, moderate drought stress often increases nutraceutical components presence, improving also fruit sensory profile (Chenafi et al., 2016 – https://doi:10.1051/fruits/2015048).
KPIs: 1) increase in the total fruit antioxidant activity.