The Project

Extra virgin olive oil is a product that is increasingly associated by consumers with a healthy lifestyle. Italian oils have achieved high quality standard marks as PDO and PGI, however there are still critical issues related to fertilization practices and the use of chemical pesticides, which need effective solutions.

The olive fruit fly (Batrocera oleae) is the most dangerous pest in the Italian olive industry. Chemical pesticides with high environmental impact are usually applied for its contrast, and the possibility that toxic residues remain in the olive oil is not so remote. Furthermore, chemical pesticides are not specific for pathogens, but instead they act also to the ecosystem in multiple levels, compromising the biodiversity of soil, the health of insects, fishes, birds and other animals.
Besides, fertilization practices bring other problems due to the excessive input of nutrients to the soil, up to 200 kg nitrogen per hectare. In fact, nutrients are not efficiently utilized by crops but, on the contrary, high amounts are lost every year to the surrounding environments, polluting surface and underground waters, compromising the quality of water resources and leading to the emission of powerful greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide, that highly contributes to climate change.
It is therefore necessary to upgrade the olive growing practices, for ensuring the health of both the farmer and the consumer, the protection of the environment and the preservation of the ecosystems.

ZEOLIVA is a research project funded by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MIPAAF), in line with the strategic plan for innovation and research in agriculture, food and forestry, where geologists from the University of Ferrara (UNIFE) and agronomists from the Institute for BioEconomy (CNR-IBE) work together with farmers for the application of a natural zeolitite (a volcanic rock highly rich in minerals called zeolites), in olive growing.

Zeolites are applied in agricultural soils because of their peculiar properties that allows lots of benefits as the increase in soil nutrient retention and water holding capacity, contrasting the drought related problems.

ZEOLIVA project has directly involved organic and conventional farmers along the Emilia-Romagna region, where the zeolitite has been applied in two different ways. By one hand the zeolitite, pulverized and enriched in ammoniacal nitrogen, was sprayed directly on the olive tree leaves, to form an active coating barrier against the olive fruit fly. On the other hand, the granular one was applied in the soil, directly in contact with the roots, to permit the decreasing in the application of fertilizers and improve the soil quality and plant health.
Thanks to ZEOLIVA, the sensibility of farmers and consumers about the olive growing issues is increasing, and more sustainable agricultural practices, respectful of the environment and human health, are being promoted on the territory.

Focus: my name is Zeolite
The term "Zeolite" comes from the Greek language: "ζὲω λίθος" meaning "rock that boils".
These minerals are often contained in volcanic rocks (tuffs) that are called "zeolitites" if the zeolite content is greater than 50%. Natural zeolites are minerals characterized by a rigid structure formed by silicon, aluminum and oxygen atoms that delimits large cavities and channels in which different positively charged molecules along with water can be stored. Because those molecules are weakly bounded, they are exchangeable with others present in the surrounding environment by the cation exchange processes. The size and shape of the exchange sites vary depending on the type of zeolite (nowadays are known over than 60 types of natural zeolites in the world) and because of their different dimensions and structures, different zeolites has different selectivity to the exchangeable molecules and/or ions, depending also by the size of the molecule itself and its charge. Zeolites may thus adsorb, maintain and release large amounts of water along with other important elements, in particular they have a great affinity for ammonium ion (NH4+), a very important molecule involved in the nitrogen cycle, and are able to effectively convey it through the soil, to the plant. Zeolites can help to contrast particularly dry periods and, if applied on the leaves, they create an effective barrier against parasites. These are just some of the positive aspects of these materials that are also increasingly applied in other fields besides agriculture, like the thermo-acoustic insulation and wastewater treatment.

In central Italy we can boast the presence of large deposits of zeolitized tuffs, from which one of the best zeolites in the world is extracted: the potassium-rich chabazite.