Speaking of 'Made in Italy' is easy: quality agriculture, organic, non-GMO, local dishes (in which Italy takes the lead in Europe) and traditional fare. Can we find such strong common denominators for food within the framework of 'Made in Europe'?
Italy has more of a claim than other European countries, to tradition and high quality food recognized products that are loved all over the world. As for 'Made in Europe', we take a broader view, trusting that the quality of what we eat is guaranteed by strict community controls throughout the production chain and supported by clear information for consumers. But we need to be careful and the question needs to be carefully assessed in the context of multi-lateral treaties signed by EU trade. In this context, the question of labelling of origin has proved to be rather more delicate, and as we aim to further enhance these features, a new campaign will start in 2015 to promote EU agricultural products with the payoff of "Enjoy, it's from Europe", a hallmark of quality to help increase the value of exports and create new growth opportunities for businesses and new jobs.
In September, you cautioned against underestimating the effects of the Russian embargo on Europe. On balance, what effects have there been on Italian and European agriculture caused by trade retaliation from Russia this summer?
The ping-pong between sanctions and restrictive measures between the EU and Russia is seriously damaging European farming. One is an area that needs support but which is instead paying a heavy toll for the damage of a diplomatic crisis that in part was not even intended. The repercussions are severe, especially in the long-term view: the ban on exports imposed on many agricultural products and foodstuffs in fact sees the disappearance of an important export market for Italy and Europe, a market which in recent years enjoyed constant growth. The risk is that the list of products affected by embargo gets longer, causing irreversible damage from the politics that need to focus on re-establishing a diplomatic front, restoring the business relationship that existed before. In terms of European institutions, the Parliament and the Council of Agriculture oppose the EU Commission’s proposal to cut the agriculture budget of 448.5 million euro caused by the damages suffered as a result of the Russian embargo and other emergencies. It will be an absolute travesty of justice if European agriculture has to pay twice for a situation in which it is blameless.
For years, Italy has been fighting in Brussels to further protect its traditional products. Lately we have seen many successes, including one case of producers from Parma that before an EU-Canada agreement, they were not able to export their hams to that North American country because the trademark 'Parma Ham' was already recorded by Canadian producers. What leverage do we have to grow in this direction?
It's true. Also thanks to the commitment of Italy in Europe, the battles for the protection of typical products of quality have given us significant results. Indeed if you think about this EU-Canada Free Trade Agreement, it has taken an important step forward that opens up new growth opportunities for the agri-food businesses in Europe and in particular, for quality Italian production. Ottowa’s recognition of our DOP and IGP quality production trademarks was an historic milestone, and offered us the possibility of extending the list of permitted products in the coming years. The case of Parma Ham was emblematic, and after twenty years, it can at last be marketed in Canada bringing important changes that also affect the dairy sector which will increase its export volume. Certainly the action of both the European Parliament and its Agriculture Committee, which sees a high representation from the Mediterranean countries, has had and will continue to have a decisive role in bringing to the attention of the Commission and the Council's priorities in the sector, using all the means available to achieve growth; growth that today offers us a much needed foothold in foreign markets and in ongoing negotiations with non-EU countries - primarily the one with the US (TTIP) – it’s a crucial opportunity to be seized.
It seems that, at least since 1998, there has been not one Minister of Agriculture in Italy who would back the introduction of GM crops in Italy: regardless of political party, or affiliation. All of these ministers have of course, found themselves in different socio-economic context, yet their opposition seems to have been a position they all held. You were Minister of Agriculture: do you remember the reasons why this position was taken?
As we know, as minister of agriculture, I took a stand in favor of the freedom of public research into GMOs. We can certainly discuss the potential of their large-scale use in Europe in terms of the need for preserving a certain type of agricultural heritage. This is what the EU is addressing with the new rules that are being pulled together, which provide the opportunity for the 28 Member States to restrict or ban the cultivation of GMOs on their territory even if authorized at EU level. But public research must continue. Over the years, in our country, there is a growing front that is opposed to the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. Surely at the root of this address there was and still is the protection of sustainable production practices even if, over time, the concept of sustainability has taken on new meanings and interpretations. We must always keep in mind that, in a future marked by the scarcity of natural resources in which we must ensure food and water to a growing number of people, we will need to go back, and for those who do it already, continue to invest public resources in innovation and agricultural research, including genetic engineering techniques.
You were among the first to raise the alarm about the phenomenon of land grabbing with your book Corsa alla terra (The Race for Earth): in Italy the debate is still in its early days, but which negative effects could bring this phenomenon into our agribusiness?
Food is the great challenge of the future. The growth of food consumption, accompanied by extraordinary climatic variability, is generating phenomena typical of situations of so-called scarcity of natural resources. Price volatility, competitive use of land – giving rise to so-called 'land grabbing' in developing countries by transnational corporations, foreign governments and private entities -, alarms around financial speculation, the revisiting of commercial behavior among large global players, are all urgent phenomena that affect us all at close quarters. But these are global issues which need to be addressed as such. Our agribusiness is clearly part of this system and we must get organized to fight back and govern the changes taking place. For this reason, we need to open a broad comparison that is international in scope, in which we can analyze scenarios, new requirements and new goals. And Expo 2015 is an opportunity to do so.
One of the lines of investigation that interests us most at Expo 2015 is the understanding of which raw food, so widespread today, could be at risk in the future, for reasons such as climate change, the population explosion, the enrichment of India, Brazil and China. Also just out in The Guardian is the special report which shows that coffee, wheat and also maple syrup, are at risk because of global warming: Eight foods you're about to lose due to climate change ...
Yes, I know the article. The potential impact of climate change on agriculture was also documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with simulations that are frightening, especially regarding the Mediterranean area. The problem is not only rising temperatures but also the frequency of extreme weather phenomena, in particular, in Italy, where the hydrogeological emergency is visible to all. Faced with this scenario, agriculture can act both to minimize the cultural practices that are more impactful in terms of emissions, to foster innovation in varieties and agronomics that increase the resilience of crops and mitigate climatic stress. Maize varieties able to withstand drought are already being studied. However, such varieties of crop are very difficult to obtain. Rice that resists being under water longer than conventional rice was already invented in Southeast Asia through biotechnology and call Scuba Rice. Research is always the key and technology has always found answers that have moved us away from the nightmare of hunger. To turn your question upside down: what if tomorrow researchers in Brazil, where public agricultural research is heavily funded, invented a variety of coffee capable of resisting climatic stress, even more than it does today?
You were recently appointed as Permanent Rapporteur for the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Parliament for Expo 2015. What will be the contribution of the European institutions at the Universal Exposition and which issues will lead us to the heart of the debate?
The European institutions will be physically present in Expo 2015 in the Italian Pavilion and will make an important contribution to the debate by focusing on the crucial role that food and nutrition will have in the near future for us all. Topics such as food security, the fight against hunger and food waste, scarcity of natural resources and food price volatility will be just some of the focal points of Europe’s intervention in Milan. On that occasion, it will be important to take every opportunity it offers, by describing different situations to those participating. To make Expo 2015 a moment of reflection, even a turning point for the debate on the future of food, is the goal that the European Parliament is vigorously pursuing. Our proposal, as MEPs, to make the EU's contribution at the event of a scientific nature was accepted and developed by the European Commission with the Strategic Committee (steering committee) created for the purpose. The body is chaired by Franz Fischler and it brings together leading scholars from many disciplines (economics, ecology, nutrition and food safety, engineering) and institutions around the world. The goal is to make the Universal Exposition a critical juncture for the future of the global debate on food supply. But we are working to ensure that the European Parliament does even more in this context, in terms of enhancing the "think tank" that was set up by Expo 2015 from a European institutional point of view.