CONICET scientist was awarded for his strategies to produce food with less environmental impact

CONICET scientist Lucas Garibaldi, 38, expert in agroecology, was awarded in the category "Incentive"

Although he was born in the city of Buenos Aires, when he was a kid he loved drawing fields with vegetable gardens. For this reason, it was not surprising that he studied Agronomical Engineering in the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), specialized in Ecology and moved to Bariloche once he got his degree. “When I started my career as a scientist I sought to work with issues that were not so explored,” he said.  That was how he began to study agroecology. “I became interested in one of the main world topics that affect people’s quality of life: how to produce without destroying the environment” states the scientist after eight years of work as a researcher of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and four years as a director of the Research Institute of Natural Resources, Agroecology and Rural Development (INRAD) in the Andean office.

Garibaldi has been awarded the “Incentive Award” of the Bunge y Born Foundation, one of the most important scientific recognitions. This year, the prizes were for the contributions on the Ecology. I don’t have work timetables, what I do is my motivation in life, a way towards transformation and world improvement. It’s science to enhance people’s quality of life. It is really important to receive these prizes because the society can become aware of the results and the proposals we have to improve the environment” explains the researcher who was given the Houssay Award in 2007 for his contribution on Environmental Sciences and Technologies, and the “Incentive Award” of the National Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences in 2015.  His research objective was to develop something applied to the agricultural sector considering that it is the most important sector of humanity: “More than half of the land surface are crops, animals, and forestations,” he comments.


The call

When he was contacted to let him know that he was one of the awardees of the “Bunge y Born” Incentive Prize, it was hard for the members of the foundation to locate him: “It was fun because when they called me, they were asked why they needed to speak with me.  As I lead the institute, the staff tried to save my time,” he said. Finally, when I answered and learnt the news, he felt “astonished because I was told it was urgent, and I thought this is really good or really bad,” he remembers. Fortunately, it was very good.

I moved to Río Negro because I wished to live in contact with a more natural environment. And Bariloche is like a Silicon Valley in Argentina: it is not a big city, surrounded by nature and with several universities and academic resources. There are physicists, biologists, forestry agronomists here,” Garibaldi comments. He has a strong commitment to teaching, which has done for nineteen years in universities and different courses.

Garibaldi’s study in the south of the country focuses on how to apply ecological concepts to agronomy. Ten years ago, this area was not well developed but now it’s rapidly expanding. “When one thinks about technology and new devices they do not only refer to expensive equipment and laboratory developments: within ecology, there is new technology called process technology which is applied to increase productivity and promote a change and enhance the way we produce,” the scientist describes. “His work focuses on finding new ways to produce food -soy, wheat, apple, pear- without destroying the environment, and encouraging biodiversity: species diversity.

“Today, more production means more destruction of biological diversity, but we found that contrary to what is commonly thought, by promoting healthier environment, it is possible to produce more at the same time,” he affirms. He mentions pollinators as example: “Natural and semi natural environments in agricultural landscapes do not only promote industries such as apiculture but also encourages pollinator’s diversity, which are animals that visit the flowers of crops. During that visit, while they pass from one flower to another, they transport pollen, and that contributes to the formation of fruits and seeds we need most.  So, to have sunflower crops with mountains or certain natural habitats near, makes it possible to have diversity of pollinators such as honeybees and to harvest more sunflowers per hectare,” he states. “Considering that in the world there are more than 20 thousand species of bees, it is important to increase the diversity to increase the production: the honeybee is the most common honeybee for us, but it is not the only one,” he says.

Another objective that was promoted with his research work was crop rotation and biological control of plagues. “The concept of plague is linked to monoculture, where there is only one species and the experts apply the same agrochemicals for under grows, for bugs. In the other way, the resistance is not present, the soils do not degrade, and they recover. This allows us to think at a greater scale; very often it is cost reduction because some agrochemicals are applied in more amounts than necessary because people do not know how to use it.”

The work conducted by Garibaldi and his team is sometimes done with producers. “We analyze their management; then we make suggestions and then evaluate their efficiency. In other cases we use satellites, mathematical models of landscapes, drones or with experiments in some fields that cannot be extrapolated to a larger amount of places and situations.  The team works with all sectors: from small producers to companies. “Our motto is to produce more but promoting biodiversity. This is called ecological intensification, an inclusive process in which others can participate: great producers, family production, and small producers, with transition patterns year after year. It is not possible to revolutionize the system from day to day: the agricultural system is very dynamic in Argentina, we need to incorporate ecological principles to agricultural production.”



For the scientist, it is urgent to apply this type of technology. “We cannot wait more: the rate of destruction of the environment and the loss of quality of life linked to it advances quickly and with strength,” the researcher affirms.  The floods as well as the earth degradation, the loss in the quality of the water or the nutritional quality of the food, unemployment, and the health problems are the result of how we are conducting our animal, agricultural and forest production with the predominance of monocultivation and the increasing use of agrochemicals that destroy biodiversity.” The figures are really telling: the agricultural system is the main world employer, and the principal industry that impacts the environment consumes more than 70 per cent of the fresh water of the world.

But the solutions do not depend on us. All actors have to be involved: politicians, consumers and producers. “Here there are not good ones or bad ones: some produce and others buy. We all have an important message for consumers too: most of the people live in cities and are consumers, and those who live in cities believe they have nothing to do with this problem but in fact, they are the key. The most important is to be aware of each consumption decision because that promotes one agricultural system or another,” Garibaldi says.

“In the valley of Río Negro there are more organic farms, without agrochemicals. They are biodynamic, they preserve the natural habitat and that is not for an Argentine law, but it is for changes in preferences of the consumers: in Europe and North America, consumers are becoming more and more aware of the power they have and their influence in the promotion of living in a healthier environment.” For Garibaldi, social pressure exercised by consumers is the key for a real change in production. “We are all in the same boat, there are not good ones or bad ones, we are connected. One exists because they are connected with the other, the beginning and the end of the agricultural chain.

The jury decided to award him because “one of the researcher’s most significant contributions was to demonstrate that the biodiversity and abundance of wild pollinators are more important than the abundance of the domestic bee at the service of the pollination of several crops.” Besides, the jury highlighted his “remarkable interest for disseminating the implications of his scientific findings to the society.” ¿How does he picture his career in ten years’ time? ¿Will he be devoted to the same topics? He does not know it. “As a scientist, I have constant curiosity about how things change and I want to work on what is missing. So I think that perhaps I won’t be working on the same topic in ten years’ time because our needs change.”

By Cintia Kemelmajer

Translation: Cintia González