The FENNEL4MED project has been built up on the following assumptions. The world is presently over-dependent on a few plant species for the supply of staple foods. Diversification of production and consumption habits to include a broader range of undervalued and underused plant species could significantly contribute to improving human health and nutrition while increasing livelihoods and environmental sustainability in the Mediterranean. Edible wild herbs have traditionally played an important role in supplementing staple foods, and they might do so again in the future. Indeed, given their innate resilience to rapid climate change, they could play an increasingly important role in buffering against food shortage due to periods of low agricultural productivity associated with climate events. Among edible wild herbs, halophytes include salt-resistant plants equipped with well-defined adaptive mechanisms that enable them not only to withstand periodical high salinity, but also to complete their entire lifecycles under saline conditions . More specifically, halophytes are known to generate economic yields, although exposed to salt stress conditions [2-3]. Within the context of an ever-growing population and the limited and expensive water supply, “halophyte agriculture” is hence a valuable agronomic alternative. It has been esteemed that the 21st century will likely be the century of halophyte agriculture expansion, as diminishing freshwater resources put pressure on civilization to utilize the vast saline soils and aquifers. Though soil/water salinity is an old phenomenon, this environmental problem has been aggravated by modern intensive agricultural practices and the increasing irrigation needs . Accordingly, the possibility of cultivating halophyte crops under water and saline stress conditions represents a sustainable and profitable opportunity . A large body of information on halophytes is accumulating and the effort to develop useful ecotypes is only beginning. Wild, or partially domesticated halophytes already exist in virtually all regional ecosystems, and especially in the Mediterranean.
The domestication and valorisation of these new crops can be an important addition to the Mediterranean agriculture and sustainable food biodiversity. Among halophytes, C. marithimum L., commonly known as sea fennel, rock samphire, or St. Peter’s Herb, grows spontaneously in coastlines, being particularly abundant in Mediterranean countries, including Italy, North Africa, Croatia, Turkey, and Greece. Its use as food ingredient and in folk medicine dates to ancient times. For its acknowledged high content in C vitamin, the consumption of sea fennel was particularly common among seafarers as a valuable aid for the prevention of scurvy . Besides to C vitamin, the succulent leaves of this spontaneous halophyte contain high levels of numerous bioactive compounds, including phenolic compounds, carotenoids, and other compounds [6-8]. As regards the essential oil extracted from sea fennel leaves, a marked chemical variability has been reported depending on the plant geographic origin within the Mediterranean basin [9-10]. The trade of this spontaneous herb was very popular all over Europe up until the early 1900’s; however, the indiscriminate harvest of sea fennel determined its disappearance in different European coastal areas, so that the removal of wild plants is now illegal in some areas/countries. Forgotten for a long time, this highly aromatic herb has recently been re-discovered, being defined by various authors as a “cash crop” or as an “emerging crop”, for its high economical potential [11-12]. Indeed, thanks to its richness of health-promoting components, sea fennel seems to be a very promising candidate for food industry and even pharmaceutical to produce new functional products. Though in the Mediterranean basin an increasing number of small/medium sized farms are producing sea fennel crop (especially in Italy, Greece, France, Spain) new research and development activities should be carried out for its full commercial exploitation.
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Based on these assumptions, multiple test sites across the Mediterranean basin, including coastal areas in Italy, Croatia, North Africa, Greece, France, and Turkey (corresponding to natural habitats where this specific halophyte grows spontaneously) will be used for selection of sea fennel ecotypes with the highest nutritional/biological potential. Selected ecotypes will be cultivated in demo and field trials according to the principles of organic agriculture. Since Mediterranean climate is broadly characterized by two geographical gradients: North/South, with a warmer and drier South, and West/East, greatly influenced by Atlantic/Asian circulation, cultivation trials will be performed in different Mediterranean sites (Italy, Croatia, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey). Preliminary demo field tests will be crucial to identify the ecotypes with the best agronomic performance. Selected ecotype(s) will be hence assayed in industrial scale open field trials carried out at an Italian farm with expertise in cultivation of sea fennel. Once the new organic crops are available, they will be processed for the manufacture of laboratory-scale prototypes of new sustainable foods/food ingredients. Prototypes will be validated by several tests aimed at assessing their nutritional/sensory/functional traits. By-products of the new crops will be valorised exploiting their “hidden value” as a potential source of bioactive extracts for the manufacturing of functional food ingredients/nutraceuticals. The final residues from extraction of bioactive compounds will be assayed in composting trials.
With its research and innovation activities, the project is situated in the spectrum from experimental proof of concept (TRL 3) (e.g. development of optimized protocols for sustainable cultivation of organic sea fennel crops from selected Mediterranean germplasm) to technology validated in lab (TRL4) (e.g. production of new sea fennel crops in demo fields; manufacture of laboratory scale prototypes of new foods/food ingredients/nutraceuticals from the new sea fennel crops) and technology validated in industrially relevant environment (TRL5) (e.g. production of new sea fennel crops in open field; manufacture of industrial scale prototypes of new sea fennel-based foods/food ingredients/nutraceuticals). The project will link to the following relevant EU policies and objectives in the context of the EU Green Deal and relevant Horizon Europe Missions and Partnerships: “Farm to Fork Strategy”, “Biodiversity Strategy, Horizon Europe Mission on Soil Health and Food”, “European Partnership Water Security for the Planet (Water4All)”, “European Partnership accelerating farming systems transition: agroecology living labs and research infrastructures”, “European Partnership Agriculture of data, European Partnership for Safe and Sustainable Food Systems”, “European Partnership for rescuing biodiversity to safeguard life on Earth”.
The project will also capitalize the outputs of the financed Projects listed as follows and involving the Consortium Partners: (i) Regional Project “BioSME: Plants as a source of bioactive sulphur compounds and their ability to hyper-accumulate metals (IP-2016-06-1316); (ii) Regional Project “BioActCom”: Investigation of bioactive compounds from Dalmatian plants: their antioxidant, enzyme inhibition and health properties” (IP-2014-09-6897); (iii) ANRT-financed project “HALOCIV”: Biotechnological production and evaluation of several halophytes towards food, feed, and cosmetical applications (2015-2018); (iv) EU-financed Project (FP6) “DEVELONUTRI”- ‘Development of High Throughput Approaches to Optimise the Nutritional Value of Crops and Crop-Based Foods’; (v) EU co-financed Project “Use of natural extracts to control the toxic effects of mycotoxins, natural contaminants of the food chain” (Greece – Romania: Joint Research And Technology Programmes); (vi) National Project (Greek Ministry of Development) “SysTerp”- ‘A systems approach into the production of plant and algal diterpenes with high industrial and pharmaceutical value’; (vii) EU-financed Project (ENPI CBC MED) “ECOPLANTMED” ‘Ecological use of native plants for environmental restoration and sustainable development in the Mediterranean region’; (viii) EU – FP7th project (FP7th) “Sustainable agri-food systems and rural development in the Mediterranean Partner Countries” (SustainMED); (ix) the COST action ‘Putting Halophytes to Work, From Genes to Ecosystems’ will be considered by the Project (http://www.cost.eu/domains_actions/fa/Actions/FA0901); (x) PRIMA2019 project “Development and optimization of halophyte-based farming systems in salt-affected Mediterranean soils” (HaloFraMs), aimed at screening halophytes (not including sea fennel) for their potential to withdraw salt under experimental (control) conditions and to mix halophytes and unconventional crops in salt affected soils by testing crop rotation and intercropping. Finally, the project will capitalise knowledge made available through published papers (most of which produced by Researchers of the SEA FENNEL4MED Consortium [3, 5, 6, 8], about:
i) successful use of saline water in crop production ;
ii) high adaptation of sea fennel to high salinity and Mediterranean coast climates [2-4];
iii) high economic yields of sea fennel crop [3, 4];
iv) high biological potential of sea fennel Dalmatian genotype ;
v) manufacturing of high-quality sea fennel-based preserves [6, 7].
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