Part I of a five-part series on Italy’s grain battles
In 1920s, at the peak of the Fascist regime, the Italian economy was crippled by an increasingly unsustainable trade deficit. Grains accounted for 50% of the deficit; over a third of the 7.5 million tonnes consumed annually was imported.
Anxious to achieve self-reliance in this staple of the Italian diet, dictator Benito Mussolini declared the battaglia del grano in the evening of 20 June 1925. Mussolini personally took command of the task, rehashing that there would be no increase to the land surface dedicated to grain cultivation. Instead, the yield per hectare had to go up. To do so, the three problems to tackle were: selection of grains; cultivation techniques; and price.
Campaign posters promising rewards for victory (Source)
Several institutions were established to develop grains that would thrive in the fields. Coupled with advances in agricultural methods, Italy dramatically increased its average wheat yield per hectare by 313 thousand tonnes. The country was now capable of producing 8.1 million tonnes of wheat each year, rendering grain imports almost unnecessary. In 1931, the vittoria sul grano was announced. The battle was won!
From alleviating poverty to boosting Italy’s economy, the battaglia del grano remains one of the most significant contributions of the Fascist era. Some argue, however, that victory came at a cost. In the journey to autarky, many local grain varieties were abandoned in favour of superior ones. But what exactly took place in the experimental centres? What did grain selection entail? Were the resulting varieties genetically modified?