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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.