Part V of a five-part series on Italy’s grain battles
By 1997, 81% of the developing world’s wheat area was dominated by semi-dwarf wheats, that had superior yields and responded better to nitrogenous fertilizer. As the world’s preferred staple food, global wheat production has been on the rise, assisted with better seed storage and germination ability. In fact, world trade in wheat is greater than for all other crops combined.
In Italy, efforts to increase grain productivity have culminated in a particular expertise in durum wheat production – a strong, high-protein wheat ideal for making bread and pasta. Nevertheless, despite its position as Europe’s largest producer of durum wheat, the country continues to depend on imports, mainly from Canada, the US and Ukraine, to fuel both its domestic consumption and export of wheat derivatives such as pasta. Despite Mussolini’s efforts to achieve autarky in the grain department, supply within Italian borders simply cannot catch up with demand.
Italy, the world’s leader in pasta production and consumption (Source)
One reason is that unlike its counterparts across the Atlantic, Italian producers and the general public regard agricultural biotechnology with hostility. With a certain romanticism, they cling on to the artisanal values behind the cherished “Made in Italy” label, resisting the gene revolution bandwagon. Even with the typically strict European rules allowing for some biotech crops, Italy effectively bans any such cultivation. There is a preference for plants with a longer cycle, with farmers resorting to a shortened crop cycle only in extremely unfavourable climatic conditions.
In contrast, in the Americas there has been a ten-fold increase in the rate of wheat yield improvement per year since 1955. At a time when most food commodities are getting more expensive, wheat prices have actually fallen 31% in 2015, and Italian producers are feeling the crunch. With multinationals partaking in speculative importing, producing a hectare of wheat in Italy costs more than what it can be sold for. 300 million farms and 2 million hectares are at stake, especially in the South, where the only alternative to wheat cultivation in certain areas is abandoning the land. Tellingly, Ugo de Cillis’ Sicilian ancient grains now takes up a mere 1% of all the grain-cultivating land on the island. Producing grains is simply increasingly unsustainable.
Protest led by Coldiretti against speculative importing of wheat in July 2016 (Source)
Coldiretti, the main Italian farmers’ association, is leading the uphill battle against cash crops. Its chosen strategy is to promote the labelling of where raw materials come from – at the moment a product can be labelled as “Made in Italy” as long as it is processed on Italian shores, regardless of origin – and reinstate the value (and price) of true artisanal Italian products. A small step forward was achieved in December 2016, with Brussels mandating that pasta produced in Italy indicate where the grains were grown and milled. It remains to be seen if Italy can win this battaglia del grano, if farmers can defend their values and preserve biodiversity, and if more of the world can continue sharing in the goodness of Italian grains.