The thistle, a new resource for the bioeconomy

thistleFrom thistle a new era for the agricultural and industrial value chains. An innovative business model, which combines the industrial needs of Matrica, a joint venture between Versalis-Eni and Novamont, with those of farmers located  in northern Sardinia. An agro industrial relationship model, aimed at creating a integrated value chain rooted in the territory in synergy with local biodiversity. These the key issues discussed last Monday in Porto Torres at the second technical meeting on thistle which was attended by numerous high level representatives of the Sardinian agricultural world and by representatives of research and local institutions, including the mayor of Porto Torres, Beniamino Scarpa, and the dean of the University of Sassari, Attilio Mastino.

The meeting provided information and dissemination on the nature of the crop and the potential for Sardinian agriculture. The thistle (Cynara cardunculus L. var. Altilis and var. Sylvestris) is an herbaceous perennial plant  native to the Mediterranean region, which can adapt well in hot and dry climates. It grows during autumn and winter, and even with no irrigation it produces significant quantities of biomass and oil, precious raw materials for the Third Generation Biorefinery which is being built in the Matrica plant in Porto Torres and which will produce bioplastics and chemicals building blocks.

The positive results presented at the meeting showcased the interesting opportunities in terms of revenue generation for the agricultural sectors and the key role that integrated value chain linked to biorefineries can play to respond to the increasing tendency of abandonment of certain areas affected by the current crisis.

“The thistle does not only provide  biomass and oil – commented  Mauro Marchetti from Cnr Sassari – but also substances with high added value such as feed and  pollen.” And that is how the thistle value chain meets two others value chains: that of sheep and goat milk and the honey one. The first one could benefit from flour protein, residues originating from the oil extraction of thistle seeds produced in Sardinia, Gmo free and suitable for feeding livestock, the second of the pollen collected by bees to produce quality honey.

Moreover, in the course of Monday’s meeting Luigi Pari, from Cra-Ing (Agricultural Research Council of Italy which operates under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture, with general scientific competence within the fields of agriculture, agroindustry, food, fishery and forestry), described the operations needed to collect thistle and stressed the commitment to implement a prototype tested with a different intake system of the stems and reduced overall mass than is currently used, aimed to increase the operational capacity and versatility.

Michele Falce, coordinator of the agricultural value chain of Matrica and moderator of the debate, emphasized the importance of mechanical harvesting operations which  account for about 60% of the cost of production of  thistle and that has a significant impact on the  yield and quality of production.

Building on previous discussions and evidences Massimo Fagnano, from Naples University Federico II,  illustrated the ongoing trial in the Campania region of thistle and on alternative oilseed crops, which could be developed in rotation with biomass crops. The results presented confirm  that the thistle is the most suitable culture: on fertile soils in the second year of the cycle it has doubled its productivity producing higher quantity of biomass and oils from seeds.

Some interesting remarks and data were also unveiled by Salvatore Raccuia from Cnr Catania on the results of the tests and trials ongoing in Sardinia. “Experimentation in Sardinia, which began in autumn 2011 with the planting in marginal lands of thistle in Nura and Ottana, continued in 2012”, said Raccuia. “On this land wheat is not enough profitable: compared with a production cost of 650 to 700 €/ha revenues, with 2 t/ha of grain produced, amounted to about 600 €/ha (data from Coldiretti 2010).”

The mayor of Porto Torres, Beniamino Scarpa, outlined how the meeting provided additional positive confirmation on the key potential for the local areas triggered by green chemistry and the Matrica Project. Attilio Mastino, dean of the University of Sassari, gave also some positive feedback outlining how Matrica will create sound opportunities for cooperation with local universities.

Concluding this debate was Marco Versari, member of the board of Matrica, who said: “Resource Efficiency is not only a strategic need of our planet, but also a key opportunity to boost  the Sardinian economy , starting  from new technologies integrated in a virtuous way in the local areas. This requires to embrace a development  model circular and systemic, which can solve specific problems of environmental sustainability, through an ongoing dialogue and close collaboration with the Sardinian agricultural community, the research community and local entrepreneurs.”

Isabella Dalbelgio

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