The EU's organic tiger
In Italy, ancient farming traditions, a richly varied terrain and strong government support have yielded exceptional growth for organics, but many challenges remain.

By Laura Sayre

Italian organics

Italy is smaller than the state of New Mexico, but it has more land under organic management than does the entire United States.

For advocates of organic farming, that's a staggering comparison, one that brings with it a whole wagonload of questions: how did this situation come about? what crops are grown? what are the markets like? what kind of research is being done?

It was to answer questions like those that Iowa State University extension researchers Kathleen Delate and Jerry DeWitt organized a study abroad course in Italy earlier this year.

For two weeks in early August, Kathleen and Jerry led a small group of Iowa farmers on a tour of the Veneto (the region around Venice), eastern Sicily, the Campania (the region around Naples) and finally to Rome, visiting with organic farmers, researchers and certification experts.

Somehow, I was lucky enough to get to join them for part of the time. In the following articles I'll attempt to summarize what we saw, learned and tasted.


What's ahead:

November 10, 2005: Proponents of sustainable agriculture in Europe have already begun talking about the 1990s as Italy's "golden age" of organic farming. In that decade the area under organic management in Italy expanded from just 13,218 hectares (32,648 ac) to more than 1 million ha (around 2.5 million ac), while the number of organic farms leapt from 1,300 to 47,000. In 2001, organic acreage topped 3 million acres on 60,509 farms, a full 8.2 percent of the country's total cultivated land.

Recollections of a golden age imply a falling off, however, and the country has since entered a "silver age," with organic farm numbers dropping to 44,039 farms on approximately 2.6 million acres, or 6.8 percent of total agricultural land. "The question now," says Paolo Sambo, an agronomist at the University of Padua, giving voice to a widespread concern among observers of the organic farming sector, "is, have we reached equilibrium?"

A number of explanations are given for Italy's spectacular growth and more recent contraction of organics. Chief among these is the role of government subsidies, which in the European Union as a whole were dramatically reoriented in favor of organic farming as a part of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy reforms beginning in 1992 (just a year after implementation of the first EU organic rule, EU Reg 2092/91). In 2001, according to data compiled by Nicolas Lampkin of the University of Wales' Institute for Rural Studies, public support for organic farmland in Italy averaged €679/ha ($275/ac at €1=$1), with 37 percent of organic land participating in the EU programs.

European Union countries have a certain amount of latitude in how they implement EU agricultural policy, however, and after 2001 subsidies for organic farming began to contract again. Our Italian hosts assigned two reasons for this: the right-wing government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is not that interested in organics; and the recent expansion of the EU means there's less money in European coffers to go around.

Organic farming—with or without subsidies?

Debates about agricultural subsidies have a very different tone among advocates of sustainable agriculture in Europe than they do in the United States. In the U.S., many sustainable ag activists argue that the abolition of all federal agricultural subsidies would be a good thing because it would force farmers to diversify and to seek higher value markets—for instance, by transitioning to organic.

In Europe, however, as Stefano Canali, a soil scientist based at the Istituto Sperimentale per la Nutrizione delle Piante, in Rome, puts it, "If we don't have subsidies for agriculture. . . we are not going to have farming for very far into the future.

"Europe has about the same number of people as in America, but much less space, so it is a given that the agricultural land will quickly all get built up if there is not any support for farming," Canali goes on. "The main role of agriculture in Europe is not to produce food, it is for environmental benefits. Farmers should be paid for that because it is something that benefits the whole society, and so everyone should pay for it."

Those kinds of convictions—and the so-called "agri-environmental" policies that give them expression—have had real consequences for the development of the organic sector in the EU. While Europe and the United States have organic markets of roughly equal size, in 2003 total organic farmland in the U.S. amounted to less than a quarter of total organic farmland in the EU-15 countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom). And despite its recent backsliding, Italy still boasts the highest number of organic farms and the largest area under organic management of any European country.

The lay of the land

Leading Italian regions for organic production include Emilia Romagna and the Piedmont in the north, Tuscany and Latium in the central part of the country and Apulia and Calabria in the south. Emilia Romagna is known for its many large organic orchards, organic cereals are raised in Apulia and other areas, organic rice comes from Lombardy and the Piedmont, while organic vineyards and small-scale olive orchards are found in many parts of the country.

But the most rapid expansion of organics has been in the island regions of Sicily and Sardinia, which together are home to more than a third of the country's total number of organic farms and 44 percent of its total area under organic management (based on numbers from 2000). Sicily is a leading producer of organic citrus, with 37,000 acres in 2004. On Sardinia, where many farmers raise sheep and make sheep milk cheeses, conversion to organic production was spurred by subsidies for permanent pastures contained in EC Reg 2078/92.

In terms of farming types, the largest part--41 percent--of Italy's organically managed land is in pasture and fodder crops, leading some observers to speculate that a significant portion of the country's organic expansion represented idle or marginal agricultural land swiftly 'transitioned' for the sake of subsidies. Another 18 percent is devoted to cereal grain production, 10 percent to olive orchards, seven percent to fruit trees, three percent to vineyards and the remaining 20 percent to other types of crops, including vegetables (again based on data from 2000).

The spread of organic farming in Italy has highlighted, in a curious way, the country's longstanding economic disparity between north and south, with most of the population, wealth and industry in the north and most of its poverty, agriculture and unemployment in the southern and island regions. Although organic farming has promise as an economic development opportunity for poorer areas, some regional imbalance between production and consumption of organic products seems inevitable.

Holding organic ground

If the Italian organic farming sector is now going through something of a shakedown, the researchers, farmers, processors and other supporters we met here were determined to build on the country's many strengths as a leader of the organic farming movement. Those strengths include a surviving infrastructure of small family farms (average farm size here is less than 25 acres), a resilient network of producers' cooperatives, a profound cultural respect for food and some of the best agricultural equipment in the world.

For many years Italy also enjoyed a nationwide ban on GM crops, and although earlier this year that ban was replaced by an official co-existence policy permitting local decision making, 15 of Italy's 20 regions have since declared themselves GM-free.

The organic movement in Italy is likewise reinforced by a number of related trends in food and farming, including the widespread support for and interest in prodotti tipici (the foods and beverages traditional and characteristic of a particular region), the popularity of agriturismo (farms with bed & breakfast or other accommodation for travelers) and the allied success of aziende didattiche (teaching or demonstration farms). Increasing numbers of both organic and conventional farms in Italy are also exploring value-added opportunities by developing on-farm processing and marketing directly to consumers.

But perhaps the greatest—and potentially the most far-reaching--impact of Italy's enormous expansion in the number of certified farms has been the corresponding expansion in the number of agricultural professionals working in and around organics. There are now more than a dozen certification groups operating in Italy, all of them private, including the Istituto per la Certificazione Etica ed Ambientale (ICEA), Suolo e Salute (Soil and Health), the Consorzio per il Controllo dei Prodotti Biologici (CCPB) and the Institut für Marktökologie (IMO, a German-Swiss agency operating in Italy's German-speaking province of Sud Tirol, on the Austrian border). ICEA, a spin-off of the non-profit Associazione Italiana per l'Agricoltura Biologica (AIAB), is the largest certifier, accounting for about a quarter of the nation's organic farms.

Similarly—as our group's itinerary demonstrated--more and more university and extension researchers have begun working on organic topics, which should enable them to better address the needs of the country's organic farmers as time goes on. Critical production needs cited by researchers include achieving more consistent quality through pest management and variety selection and addressing soil fertility needs in areas where few livestock are kept.

Looking to the future

With production having expanded so fast, the consensus among observers of the organic scene in Italy is that the focus now should be on developing organic markets, both domestically and abroad. As University of Padua researcher Paolo Sambo puts it, "We have good organic farmers—what we need now is more good organic marketers, we need to discover more markets, to convince more people to buy organic, to sell more to northern Europe."

In some respects, Italy's strong food traditions may militate against the development of domestic organic markets. The existence of vital, diverse, regular street markets, for instance, may make it more difficult to establish producer-only farmers' markets or CSA-type arrangement whereby organic growers can capture the full value of the retail dollar. Similarly, Italy has some of the strictest rules in the world regarding chemical residues on fruits and vegetables, so many consumers perceive low risks of chemical contamination on conventional produce.

Nevertheless, the value of the Italian organic market reached €1.4 billion in 2003, and it continues to rise fast. In the past five years all of the nation's major supermarket chains—including Coop, Esselunga, Giesse, Pam—have launched private-label organic product lines. The food service sector has also been discovering organics, with a large number of schools, universities, and business lunchrooms offering organic menus.

One of our last stops in Sicily was an organic grocery store in downtown Catania, a city of about 300,000 people on the eastern coast. Supermercato Biò opened its doors in 2001, and has been so successful its owners recently established a second location in another part of town. Unlike many stores of its type in the U.S., Biò carries exclusively organic foods. Moreover, 95 percent of what's in the store is grown or raised in Italy. "That is the logic of organics," store manager Sara Iocco tells us, through a translator. "First we try to source as much as possible from within Sicilia. Then we move to southern Italy, then northern Italy, then the rest of Europe, then beyond."

Shops like Biò are heavily engaged in reaching out to consumers to convince them of the benefits of buying and eating organic. As such, it may be one of the most promising signs of Italy's organic future.

Organic Centre Wales, "Europe - the development of organic farming between 1985 and 2003."