Visiting the exhibition ‘A Portrayal of Biodiversity’, open until July 4 at the Accademia dei Georgofili in Florence, I was able not only to admire some of the imposing paintings of Bartolomeo Bimbi portraying the riches of the botanic gardens of Cosimo III de Medici, but also some of Giorgio Gallesio’s exceptional illustrations, contained in one of only 170 original copies of his monumental work, Pomona Italiana.
Gallesio was a remarkable man. He was born in 1772 in Finale Ligure and died in 1839 in Florence. He was a farmer, magistrate, member of parliament, government official and diplomat. He is mainly remembered for his enlightened contributions to the scientific study of the plant world, particularly for being the initiator in Italy of the branch of botany known as pomology, the study of fruit, which was already quite widely known in Europe at that time.
The Pomona Italiana was an ambitious publishing achievement without precedent in Italy: for 25 years Giorgio Gallesio traveled up and down Italy to personally record, describe and classify the main varieties of fruit that existed. The result of his endeavors can be found in this compilation of 41 sets of notes and including more than 160 faithfully reproduced color plates of outstanding beauty.
Through its illustrations and writing, Pomona Italiana portrays the Italian fruit heritage at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This work has incalculable value as a documentary record for scientific study and also for people working to conserve and improve genetic resources in the fruit area. It is an important contribution to our biodiversity, relating the history of many varieties, which makes us realize what has been lost and how easily it can happen.
If we look at the situation today, the question of cataloguing fruit and vegetable varieties is extremely topical and urgent. We should recognize that many Italian institutions, particularly some Regional Authorities, have once again undertaken this work, showing laudable far-sightedness. However, there is no overall framework connecting the various projects and they are not always being conducted with the necessary scientific detail.
The pressure towards standardization and the terrible mistake of applying an industrial model to farming have caused irreparable harm to biodiversity. I am extremely concerned at the prospect of genetically modified varieties developed to have perfect properties, such as highest possible yields or being able to adapt to any environmental conditions. The great strength and value of biodiversity is indicated in the word itself: it is the diversity which allows nature to withstand changes to our planet, changes which occur with increasing speed due to human impact. It is diversity which ensures environmental catastrophes can be overcome, cataclysms and epidemics survived. And it is diversity which ensures a normal balance and proper harmony.
Imagine if there were just a single variety of genetically modified potato grown throughout the world. So good, productive and convenient to grow that it replaced all other varieties. If a new disease arose that destroyed all the potatoes without there being time to find a solution, where could we turn, who could we consult?
Perhaps this example is a little extreme and has a touch of science fiction about it, but it does give an indication of how important it is to have seed banks and genetic material to maintain and conserve biodiversity. And one can also appreciate one of the main risks that genetically modified organisms can bring.
So we should applaud and support the modern Gallesios, hoping that there will be an increasing number of them and that research, which definitely needs supporting, prefers to direct its already meager resources towards them rather than the quest for the ‘perfect variety’.
First printed in La Stampa on June 8 2003