The LIFE Grace project aims to promote the conservation of the semi-natural habitats of the Natura 2000 Network (6210* Festuco-Brometalia; 6220* Thero-Brachypodietea; *6230 Nardus grasslands) united by the need for grazing as a condition to avoid detorioration or loss. These habitats are already degrading to shrubs that will later become woods, leading to a simplification of the naturalistic biodiversity that characterizes them. These are habitats present in the Lazio Region for tens of thousands of hectares, both on calcareous and volcanic rocks, whose unifying feature is a reduced depth of the fertile soil, such as not to allow mechanical processing for agricultural purposes: the only sustainable form of utilization is therefore grazing. In most cases, grazing is still practiced with native breeds, strongly adapted to the limiting conditions under a thermal, water and food profile, breeds that have undergone a millennial selection process oriented by the environmental context of reference.
Between the habitats of the Natura 2000 Network and the breeds of zootechnical interest, in particular autochthonous, there is a two-way and exclusive relationship, as the conservation of the environmental context is the result of a rational exercise of grazing, whose progressive reduction translates into loss of habitat and this, in turn, limits the possibility of conserving already rarefied livestock populations, reservoirs for adaptation to climate change, but already at high risk of genetic erosion.
The Life GRACE project is therefore based on the evidence that the semi-natural habitats of the Natura 2000 Network are affected by progressive phenomena of loss and / or degradation which, with varying intensity, unite the Central Southern Apennines. In particular, the project will analyse in depth the dynamics currently underway in three areas of the Lazio Natura 2000 network: the complex of the Tolfa mountains to the west, the Reatina mountain to the north and the Ausoni-Aurunci mountains to the south. With the same habitats occurring in the three areas, and despite the presence of complex dynamics related to the different pedoclimatic conditions, the fundamental element that affects the semi-natural habitats of the Natura 2000 network is the management model used (and therefore the anthropic factor) in terms of:
- conservation (rational grazing managed according to optimal stocking rates),
- loss (abandonment of grazing);
- degradation (in some cases overgrazing, but in most cases undergrazing).
The conservation measures that have been progressively developed by the Environmental Authority highlight, in almost all cases, the duality of grazing, always present in terms of opportunity / threat, depending on whether it is to be supported - to counter the simplification that derives from the advancement of the forest and the closure of clearings at high altitude - or to be limited - to avoid the simplification and degradation of the floristic assortment induced by overgrazing.
Today, notwithstanding a more generalised access to the biological production method and to measures relating to animal welfare, as in some case of the Traditional specialities guaranteed (TSG) certification, the grassfed cattle applied in Natura 2000 areas is not a reference standard in the meat supply chain. A high slaughter yield is often the main contractual precondition for the sale of livestock or carcasses, which is achieved through finishing periods through a dedicated richer in energy and proteins diet (minimum for breeds extensive farming models compared to super-intensive farming models).
Grassfed cattle does not in itself a discriminating factor in the current meat certification schemes, for the best value of the animals deriving from this type of extensive farming, of absolute environmental, ethical and wholesome production value, and which would already be in perfect coherence with the Green Deal strategies, without specific adaptation costs.
It is clear that the objectives of the GRACE project can be achieved only by creating synergies with the production system, its representatives, the local system (increasingly depleted of advanced skills), land managers and regional agri-environmental authorities. For these reasons, the project provides for different levels of discussion and animation, for which the maximum possible collaboration is requested, to protect the environment, consumers, breeds at risk of genetic erosion and enterprises active in fragile rural areas.
The objectives of LIFE GRACE
The project is divided into a series of actions to be developed over the 4 years of activity, for which relations are essential, not only with the 600 companies in the target areas, but also with the Environmental Authority, the local system, associations and managers of the common lands, in order to achieve the following objectives:
- To promote knowledge of the contractual measures in Natura 2000 areas, which have been practiced for decades in Europe for the achievement of habitat conservation measures. A number of case studies will be investigated with the aim of replicating in the Lazio and in other regions the good practices identified in similar contexts. The contractual measures presuppose a comparison between environmental authorities and stakeholders operating on the habitats of the Habitats directive, and are calibrated on the specific criticalities of the territories. The first evidence of the Grace project certifies the need for site-specific contractual measures, aimed at guaranteeing in the first place the ACCESSIBILITY to pastures at high altitudes, even before monetary compensation for positive conservation actions (e.g. introducing individuals of different species to avoid excessive selection of floristic assortments; regulating the periods of use in relation to specific orchid blooms, managing stocking levels in an optimal way to avoid degradation phenomena from overgrazing or undergrazing, etc.);
- Mapping of grazing habitats and development of web-apps that allow farmers to participate in environmental monitoring on the conservation status of the habitats, in order to avoid monitoring costs that would make it impracticable to integrate their contribution into conservation of the sites, and with it the failure to activate measures related to impact indicators;
- Evolutionary analysis of grazing habitats and stocking rates: from the satellite images it is possible to accurately derive the evolution that has occurred in grazing habitats in the last 50 years, with evidence of their progressive reduction which has been accelerating in the last 20 years, and not only; from the intersection of vegetation analysis data with public databases, a representation of territorial scale emerges on the three target areas which are particularly worrying at present. This manifests itself in several ways: a share of non-use that affects about 15% of the grazing areas, not associated with any company file and therefore indicatively in a deterioration phase; a share of undergrazed pasture, equal to about 20% of the surface, which is used for less than 0.3 LU / hectare (i.e. the equivalent of 0.3 adult cattle with which the animal pressure on the pasture is parameterized), a threshold below which membership in organic farming is not payable, just to give an indication of economic intensity; 35% of the UAA is used for less than 0.5 LU / hectare, an indicator of a progressive decommissioning process in almost half of the active farms, for which access to a decoupled CAP has led to a progressive reduction in the breeding stock.
- Raise awareness among the managers of the common lands that make up the prevailing matrix of the grazing habitats (the common lands, moreover, are all bound to environmental conservation purposes by the Law 168/2017) on the need to operate the management and granting of franchises with a more marked orientation to the targets and instruments of EU policy aimed at the conservation of habitats of the EU directive. Raising awareness is aimed at encouraging the adoption of multi-year commitments, avoiding the non-use and under-grazing of pastures, introducing priorities in favor of organic farming, young people, the conservation of indigenous breeds at risk of genetic erosion, to adopt the outcome of the monitoring of the evolution in progress on the vegetation of the common lands. These initiatives have a particular value where the managers are the municipalities, as bodies of collective rights, even more relevant where these are slow in the management adaptation, already in place in numerous agricultural universities in the Lazio region.
- Investigate, through specific market analyzes, the distortions of the supply chain- even though there is a progressive growth of the short supply chain- as in the case of a clearly prevalent share of cattle which is often valued before the finishing period, by commercial operators from other territories, while the Rome consumer market does not know the health characteristics of the “grass-fed” productions from indigenous breeds, obtained in the Lazio Natura 2000 area. While there is a progressive reduction in per capita consumption of meat, the relative weight of pork and poultry meat is growing- more often associated with intensive farming- which now accounts for about 2/3 of the total, in connection with the increase in unstructured consumption, due in particular to their presence in over-the-counter preparations or in the formulations of take away dishes.
- Strengthen the role of brands for the production of the Natura 2000 pastures and the relationship with the HORECA system, also through the introduction of low-cost traceability models (blockchain, etc.) suitable for characterizing contractual models shared with operators in the supply chain, from breeding to distribution, being aware that voluntary characterization models, which are not valued in commercial transactions, do not allow the environmental, ethical and health values of the productions achieved in the Natura 2000 area to be conveyed to the final consumer (the GDO- the Great organized distribution-covers 70% of the meat market and tends to operate autonomously the enhancement of sustainability, with corporate private-label models aimed at internalising the consumer additional price on ethical low-impact productions) also in consideration of the radical nature of the judgment of the consumption of meat, due to the critical issues linked to the external environmental costs (deforestation, simplification of cultivation in developing countries, etc.).
- Implement the CAM (minimum environmental criteria) currently envisaged by Ministerial Decree 65 of 10 March 2020 for public canteen contracts, strengthening the role of local supply chains that can appropriately document animal welfare, the absence of use of antibiotics, the practice of the grass-fed for at least ¾ of the life cycle.
- Extend the territorial analysis model that associates vegetation studies and public databases on the use of utilized agricultural areas, livestock stocks and methods practiced so as to allow integrated interventions of environmental and socio-economic sustainability to other areas (Natura 2000 and not). Such a predictive assessment of the phenomena in progress allows for the preparation of initiatives capable of preventing the advance of the forest in unused or undergrazed areas- which tends to consolidate as irreversible renaturalization- thus avoiding a substantial impairment of the potential for reactivation of internal areas.
- Raise public awareness on the productions achieved in Natura 2000 areas, on the role of extensive agriculture as an engine of sustainable development and the conservation of naturalistic biodiversity and, with it, of livestock breeds with a high risk of erosion. The project intends to promote the value of meat from Natura 2000 areas, involving, among other things, at least 70 Horeca operators (restaurants, farmhouses, etc.). At the same time, the project intends to raise awareness among farmers on the best practices to be implemented in Natura 2000 areas to improve the conservation status of agroecosystems, also through the new Rural Development programming for the five-year period 2023/27. The new cultural paradigm dictated by European strategies, primarily those from Farm to Fork, (F2F) and on Biodiversity, makes it unavoidable to agree with farmers on the best implementation of site-specific conservation measures for grasslands of community interest, and prepare them for citizen science activities, widely practiced in Europe, for example in the collection of information and geo-referenced images for monitoring the naturalistic biodiversity present on prairie habitats, whose monitoring by institutional subjects has prohibitive costs for the public system.