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THE FOOD OF THE FUTURE

Estella Beltramelli

Roberto Colombi, il custode del fagiolo di Clusven nell'orto di casa sua a Gandino (BG).JP

Roberto Colombi, guardian of the Clusven bean, in his orchard in Gandino.

            have been growing this bean for 52 years. I got the first seeds from my father-in-law; I have always tried to keep the best ones to get all the colour nuances'. 

Roberto Colombi, striking with his sportsman's physique and brilliant mind, is 83 years old and is considered the guardian of the Clusven bean. We are in Gandino, in the province of Bergamo, and Clusven is a small hamlet just above the town.

His personal story intertwines with a larger, international project and an increasingly urgent issue: the food of the future.

The seed that Mr. Colombi has guarded is that of a native bean that had almost completely disappeared, and which for the past two years has returned to the fields, not only in the Bergamo area but in other European countries, thanks to Colombi' s care and the vision of an international team of researchers. 

'Here we used to call the bean 'copa fam', which in Bergamo dialect means the 'hunger killer'. Colombi recalls. "Because of its large size, intense flavour and mellowness. When it is cooked it fills the bottom of a spoon'. 

He keeps some seeds protected at home; they are from previous years because in July the plants were in extreme distress. 

"Because of the scorching heat and the drought, I haven't harvested a pod yet," explains Colombi. Fortunately, I have kept a stock of seeds, they are not many, but they should be enough for next year, when hopefully the season will be better. 

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The many variations of color of the Clusven bean, also know as "Copa fam", the hunger killer.

After more than half a century in its caretaker's garden, the Clusven bean has failed to bear fruit and its seeds are beginning to run out.

With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the general rise in commodity prices, prolonged drought, and the effects of climate change gave us a glimpse of a global famine scenario, which we thought pertained only to developing countries. We realized that, even in our fertile and productive latitudes, dealing with the climate crisis means ensuring food survival. 

According to a study by Eth, Zurich's Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climatology, carried out alongside other research institutes, the boreal summer of 2022 was one of the hottest ever recorded, with more than 24,000 anomalous heat waves. 

The periodic measurement of soil moisture, both at the surface and at a depth of one metre, where the roots draw their nourishment, found that in the northern hemisphere - above the tropics and in particular in western and central Europe - human-induced climate change made it much more likely for the soil to become dry, by at least 5 times on the surface and at least 20 times in the root zone. 

According to the Living planet report, WWF's biannual report, 'Italy's countryside is at the brink of collapse and 28 per cent of its territory is at risk of desertification'. Guarding seeds means ensuring food security and preserving organic variety.

Project Increase's bean plants, grown in the botanical garden of Astino, just outside Bergamo.
Project Increase's bean plants, grown in the botanical garden of Astino, just outside Bergamo.

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The bright red blooms of the Clusven bean.
The bright red blooms of the Clusven bean.

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Project Increase's bean plants, grown in the botanical garden of Astino, just outside Bergamo.
Project Increase's bean plants, grown in the botanical garden of Astino, just outside Bergamo.

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The supply of seeds is guaranteed by germplasm banks, or seed banks, which are also present in Italy, such as the Majella Seed Bank in Abruzzo and the Germplasm Bank of the South-Western Alps in Piedmont

However, a very different approach is spreading, one that aims to conserve germplasm not by locking it away in secure locations, but by putting it out in the field: citizens in the guise of scientists, after receiving a few varieties of seeds, monitor and report on the plant's adaptability and productivity through an app. This is the CSE (Citizen Science Experiment) participatory science project and is one of the most innovative elements of the INCREASE Pulse project, which involves 27 partners in 18 countries, with the Università Politecnica of Le Marche region as the leading partner. A project funded by the European Union, under the Horizon2020 programme, with 7 million euros, lasting six years and about to enter its third year. 

This year's citizen science experiment was entirely dedicated to beans, with over a thousand varieties, including the Clusven bean, which ended up in the willing hands of other European citizens, like Colombi’s, to study its adaptability and ensure its preservation. 

‘Climate crisis data is extremely worrying’, Professor Roberto Papa, the INCREASE project coordinator, commented at the first public conference held at the Mole Vanvitelliana in Ancona last September. "Within this crisis, there is also the agrobiodiversity crisis, and we know how vulnerable the conservation system is, just think of the Aleppo seed bank, destroyed during the conflict.

‘The truth is that today we have a large reserve of germplasm varieties at our disposal’, says Papa, ‘but we do not use it to the full, because we have an approach that is only based on formal research, without the involvement of users. If we don't involve them, we lose their point of view, which is instead fundamental to getting the information we need’. 

Some of the seed jars from Angelo Savoldelli's archive.

Preservation in banks is fundamental, but in the long run, if there is no use for it, we can lose the sense of conservation. Promoting the experiment of participatory science does not only mean developing a research activity, but also a process that is cultural and social. 

Thanks to social media, a real community of citizens is developing around this project, asking questions, providing their experience and sharing information, recipes and advice.

More than 4,000 people have contributed to the research in 2022, with Italy and Spain leading the way. 

Global food security can truly be in the hands of every one of us.

"We have structured the INCREASE project to work on four food legumes: chickpea, lupin, bean and lentil. ‘These are the legumes of the Mediterranean agricultural tradition, but they have been abandoned for more than a century, due to food systems based on the excessive consumption of meat as the main protein source. The project’s aim is to improve the integration of legumes into dietary habits while respecting the environment and sustainability’, concludes Papa.

The INCREASE team is in the process of systematizing all the data collected in order to begin its analysis.

It is still early to have results, but knowing, for example, which types of beans were able to produce fruit despite last summer's extreme drought is information that is becoming more and more vital with each passing day.

December 2022

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