Coldiretti’s Battaglia del Grano

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.

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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.


Borlaug’s Green Revolution

Part IV of a five-part series on Italy’s grain battles

As Italy declared its vittoria sul grano, something in the wheat department was brewing across the Atlantic. Norman Borlaug took a keen interest in Nazareno Strampelli’s work and led initiatives to increase agricultural production worldwide. Borlaug made quick progress. After all, in the 30 years separating Mussolini’s battaglia del grano and Borlaug’s Green Revolution, hybridised seeds, modern management techniques as well as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides had become more familiar terms.

Through innovations including developing rust-resistant wheat varieties that increased yield by 20% to 40%, semi-dwarf wheat varieties that could withstand strong winds and hold up huge loads of grains, and a technique known as “shuttle breeding” to speed up the breeding process by having two harvests per year in different climatic conditions, Borlaug transformed the developing world’s ability to feed its population. He received the Nobel Peace prize in 1970 for “preventing malnutrition, famine and the premature death of hundreds of millions”.

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Norman Borlaug (Source)

The Green Revolution achieved its aim of alleviating hunger in countries like India, China and Mexico. However, it also provoked a shift in diets as more and more people turn to wheat as a staple. While its single-minded focus had served a very specific problem extremely well, the Green Revolution failed to anticipate unintended consequences on human nutrition.

Results from the Broadbalk Wheat Experiment, that has analysed grains’ nutrient composition since 1843, show that the mineral content in grains remained stable up till the mid-60s, then decreased significantly with the introduction of semi-dwarf, high-yielding varieties. In addition, increasing yield was found to be a key factor that explained the downward trend in grain mineral concentration.


Graph tracking grain yield and grain mineral density from 1840 to 2000 (Source)

The double whammy of highly industrialised wheat processing further strips grains of all their goodness. Cheap and efficient, steel roller mills manage to isolate the starchy endosperm (the middle layer of the grain) and churn out soft, light, white flour that ships and stores better – while eliminating, ironically, the portions that account for over 25% of a grain’s protein and that are richest in fibre, vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants and minerals. The resulting flour is therefore heavily tipped towards refined carbohydrates that act like a sugar in the body.


Nutritional differences between whole and refined grains (Source)

Subsequent grain breeding have also catered to the incessant demands of industrialised milling and bread manufacturing by increasing protein and gluten strength – these make flours easier to handle, especially with the aid of heavy machinery. The exact cause of the spike in gluten-related intolerances has not been pinpointed yet, and we stop short of naming modern wheat varieties as the culprit. Nevertheless, ancient grain varieties, with their gut-friendly weak gluten, processed in accordance with loving and ethical methods, definitely offer a plethora of benefits and reassurances over their younger counterparts.

So we should turn to Ugo de Cillis, whose crusade to improve wheat agriculture in Sicily consisted in systematically replanting local, autochthonous varieties? Why aren’t these varieties more widely available?

Part V: Coldiretti’s Battaglia del Grano


Strampelli’s Seed Exchanges

Part III of a five-part series on Italy’s grain battles

Much of what we know about wheat production can be traced back to a certain Nazareno Strampelli, an agronomist and geneticist from the Marche region. In 1900, in an era plagued by famine, Strampelli embarked on a quest to hybridise the “Rieti” and “Noé” wheat varieties to obtain a new variety that would not fall over in heavy winds or rains that the Macerata province was notorious for. His efforts, however, met strong opposition, in part due to deeply-rooted habits and seed producers’ objections. At that time, cross-breeding was not widely known – the preferred method was the long and slow selective breeding, or choosing the best of each harvest to plant.


Strampelli and his wife Carlotta (Source)

Strampelli rallied on, threatening to quit twice when the Agriculture Ministry refused to grant him land to conduct his experiments. Despite the obstacles, Strampelli managed to lobby for a “seed exchange” law that allowed farmers to exchange an equal quantity of traditional grains with results of his experiments for free. He eventually succeeded in bringing his first hybrid grain to the market in 1919 – a move that made him famous in Italy and abroad.

The next turning point came when the Fascist regime took power. Strampelli’s unwavering resolve piqued the interest of Dictator Mussolini, then worried about Italy’s rising trade deficit. Strampelli persuaded Mussolini to take a walk in the fields and assess his discoveries. Convinced of Italy’s potential to be self-reliant in grains, Mussolini was inspired to launch the battaglia del grano and Strampelli was appointed as a key leader in the mission.


Strampelli (far right) accompanying Vittorio Emanuele III and Benito Mussolini on a walk in the fields (Source)

The hundreds of new varieties developed by Strampelli contributed to the vittoria sul grano, where Italy’s wheat production increased dramatically and the country no longer had to rely heavily on imports. Nevertheless, as a dedicated scientist Strampelli refused to patent his crops, eschewed the glory bestowed on him and even rejected Mussolini’s offer to name him as Senator.

L’uomo che allarga ogni giorno il suo dominio su tutto ciò che lo circonda non è padrone del tempo, il grande galantuomo che tutto mette a posto. E il tempo a me è mancato di fare tante cose che pure avrei voluto veder compiute. Le mie pubblicazioni, quelle a cui tengo veramente, sono i miei grani. Non conta se essi non portano il mio nome; ma ad essi è e resta affidata la modesta opera mia.

He who extends his domination over all that surrounds him is not a master of time, the great gentleman who makes things right. And time is what I lack, to do so many things that I would have liked to accomplish too. My output, that I cherish dearly, are my wheats. It does not matter if they do not carry my name; but in them I entrust my humble work.” – Nazareno Strampelli

Strampelli continued his studies on cross-breeding and very quickly the varieties he developed were exported all over the world – awakening geneticists, producers and politicians across the Atlantic and taking a live of their own.

Part IV: Borlaug’s Green Revolution


De Cillis’ Sicilian Ancient Grains

Part II of a five-part series on Italy’s grain battles

Following Mussolini’s declaration of the battaglia del grano, agricultural commissions were immediately established in all regions and provinces to further the Commander’s endeavour. There was an urgent need to set up an experimentation centre for grain cultivation in Sicily, the Mediterranean bread basket, to complement existing centres in the Italian peninsula. However, it was only in August 1927 that the Stazione consorziale sperimentale di granicoltura came into fruition, two more years before a Director was appointed, and yet two more years before a location for the Stazione was decreed.

Ugo de Cillis, a native of Caltagirone and Director of Agricultural Experiments in Tripolitania (then an Italian colony) from 1925 to 1929, took up post at the Stazione with an uncompromised resolve to advance wheat cultivation techniques. To him, the road to superior grain varieties could not be undertaken without considering the local, autochthonous varieties, “which were extremely exquisite in terms of physical properties, as well as from biological and cultural viewpoints.” After all, these local grains had adapted to the countless variables and diverse climates in Sicily.

Ugo de Cillis and the original building of the Stazione (Source)

De Cillis further noted that farmers in the Sicilian hinterland, with their unique sensitivity to grain quality, had achieved consistent and predictable harvests. On the other hand, farmers in the mountainous and coastal areas had extremely heterogenous fields that contained a mix of different local varieties and unidentified hybrid ones. With these insights, de Cillin laid out the strategy for the Stazione – in Sicily improving grain cultivation in meant developing stable, pure versions of local varieties.

From the summer of 1931, de Cillis started lobbying tirelessly to obtain samples of every single grain variety then cultivated in Sicily. Facing slow progress, he sent F. Casale on a tour of the island to systematically collect samples in the form of wheat sheaves and 10kg bags of grains. The name, locality, terrain and properties of each of the 341 samples were meticulously documented.

Between 1933 and 1939, the Stazione team “purified” each sample following these guidelines:

  • If the population was generally uniform with a small number of anomalies, the anomalies were eliminated;
  • If the population was non-uniform but could be clustered into two or three types, each type was then cultivated separately the following year;
  • If the population was excessively non-uniform and clearly a hodgepodge of varieties, it was eliminated.


Sicilian ancient grain specimens at the Stazione (photo taken on 19 Dec 2016)

The resulting 70 varieties are what are known today as Sicilian ancient grains. In the Stazione at Caltagirone, which continues its mission to advance agriculture techniques, there is a wall displaying carefully bottled sheaves of these ancient grains. Farmers can also request for samples to grow in their fields. And the decision to conserve these samples was extraordinarily wise, given what unfolded in the next couple of decades after the vittoria sul grano. Going back before the Fascist era, a humble and noble geneticist on the Italian peninsula had opened a can of worms.

Part III: Strampelli’s Seed Exchanges

De Cillis U. 1942. I frumenti siciliani. Pubblicazione n.9 della Stazione Consorziale Sperimentale di Granicoltura per la Sicilia.
2005. La battaglia del grano e l’istituzione della stazione consorziale sperimentale di granicoltura per la sicilia. Pubblicazione della Stazione Consorziale Sperimentale di Granicoltura per la Sicilia.

Mussolini’s Battaglia del Grano

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?

Part II: De Cillis’ Sicilian Ancient Grains