Interview with Maria Albuquerque, Project Manager in Veolia’s Research and Innovation Department

One of Maria Albuquerque’s areas of expertise is the agronomic recovery of organic waste as part of a regional ecological approach. Her talent is constructing research projects based on client needs and aspirations, and then seeing them through to maturity. Her compass is research that fosters a vision of the world that is environmentally friendly and in line with Veolia’s missions.
Published in the dossier of April 2018

Planet / The QualiAgro pilot project is celebrating its twentieth birthday. The first results have been shared as of 2014 . Others are to come. How do you communicate these results and who is interested in them?

M. A. / As QualiAgro is a member of the French field trial network SOERE PRO and the European network ANAE, the data collected is then shared with a broad community of scientists working in a wide variety of disciplines, from agricultural sciences to statistics. It is thus up to scientists to rework this data, which can be used for new research. The list of the associated scientific programs is constantly evolving. The farming profession and the agri-food industry also take a very close interest in QualiAgro’s results

Planet / Why is the farming profession taking a close interest in urban composts?

M. A. / With QualiAgro, we can draw many conclusions about the benefits organic material provides to soil: we speak of physical, chemical and biological fertility. Physical fertility is improving the structure and physical properties that promote soil stability, soils’ resistance to erosion and slaking, an improvement in water retention through enriched soils (more resilient to water stress) and water seepage (reduced risk of flooding). Chemical fertility corresponds to the input of nutrients in organic form, which will gradually mineralize and become available for plants. Biological fertility corresponds to an increase in the soil’s microbial and biological activity (see boxed text). Potentially pollutant elements such as metal trace elements, inerts or organic pollutants are also monitored.

Planet / Could you give us an example of knowledge shared between all these actors?

M. A. / Veolia invited all these professions to take part in two discussion days in November 2015. With Inra (French National Institute for Agricultural Research) and Ademe (French Environment & Energy Management Agency), our first partners, we presented QualiAgro, i.e. more than fifteen years of acquired scientific knowledge. Over the course of these two days, we raised different concerns, especially the strategic role of soils in food security and climate change questions.

Planet / Based on the data and results delivered by QualiAgro, can we envisage tools being designed to benefit the farming sector and the environment?

M. A. / With INRA, we have developed CarboPro, which models the behavior of carbon stored in the soil according to the type of compost added. It takes many parameters into account: those linked to the soil’s characteristics and the climate to which it is exposed (pedoclimatic model). Likewise, we plan on offering a tool to help soil’s organic fertilization for the benefit of agriculture 2.0. This tool was developed based on the vision put forward by SEDE, a Veolia subsidiary and the project’s sponsor, with a high level of involvement on the part of its operational and commercial teams. This tool essentially covers three steps: diagnosis, simulation and optimization. The simulation will anticipate the soil’s dynamic after the input of compost, in ten or even twenty years’ time. The tool integrates databases (OWPs, soils, climate, plants), an agronomic model (tailored and calibrated for French soils) allowing us to carry out simulations, and an optimization algorithm for advising farmers about the fertilization choice for their plots of land according to crop rotations and the crop management technique to be implemented in their fields. The tool therefore allows for extremely personalized advice to the client’s benefit. It also makes it possible to quantitatively demonstrate an improvement in the soil’s properties linked to the input of organic matter.

Planet / You are tasked with launching and conducting applied research projects. At what point do you pass on the baton to discern new applications?

M. A. / I champion a vision of research in the service of the Group’s areas of expertise and operational realities. At the same time, I think that it is important to dare to follow a disruptive path and take the risk of leaving the comfort zone of traditional (incremental) research. This path opens up new fields of exploration and is sometimes even open to tackling fundamental questions to remove certain obstacles. I still feel — whatever the type of research chosen, incremental or disruptive — that this scientific research must lead to applications at a given moment. This new tool’s development and functional improvement are the result of sustained collaboration and broader dialogue with Veolia’s operational and commercial teams, which will very shortly allow us to make better use of the value of the accumulated knowledge. Being able to support Veolia’s vision through these assignments that correspond to our clients’ aspirations is, in my view, what our work in Veolia’s R&I is all about.

Planet / In Veolia’s Research & Innovation department, what is the time frame for developing a project?

M. A. / Developing a tool like Smart Agri took less than three years. This digital simulation and optimization tool for integrated and organic fertilization was initiated mid-2015 and has today reached the phase of an initial business solution rollout. We can both support knowledge projects with extremely long-term goals, as well as effectively develop new tools on behalf of our clients and operational performance.