With Coldiretti being Europe’s largest farmers’ trade association, numbers-wise, are we saying that, despite the rise in urbanization and the industrial expansion that occurred in the twentieth century, Italy still has a strong agricultural bent?
Coldiretti is indeed the largest farmers’ union in Europe, in terms of numbers, as well as being the number one in Italy not only in terms of hectares, but also as regards workforce size. These figures confirm our strength as an association, as well as highlighting the importance to the Italian economy of the agricultural sector. Twenty years ago, some people thought that agriculture would become marginal, not least in terms of job-numbers.
The theory was that there would be a few thousand large-scale farming concerns, all very similar to each other. In fact, the exact opposite has happened. Today, two million people work in the farming industry, this due to a recasting of the role of the farmer who has become someone producing high-quality, local specialties. Farms are also key to maintaining the natural environment, and they also play a major role on the social level. As a result, agriculture is the only sector that has seen an increase in job numbers, despite the economic crisis, while being of increasing appeal to the younger generation.
Can you supply some figures regarding new farming ventures run by younger people?
There are currently between 60,000 and 70,000 farming concerns headed up by the under-35s. This is an ongoing trend, with more and more people in the lower age-groups expressing interest in this kind of multi-functional business.
The European Parliament in Strasbourg has given the final approval to the change in the Directive on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which allows member-states of the Union to ban them on their national territory. What is your thinking on this measure?
Italian agriculture and the food it produces are world-wide winners because they are unique, and are closely-linked to local tradition. Our objective is to avoid anything that tends towards standardizing output. GMOs lead to standardization, in that the idea is to grow a small number of varieties in large quantities, which also leads to environmental problems, I might say. We have always been against GMOs, and we were very pleased with the European Parliament’s move to allow each country to decide for itself. We are also happy that the Italian government has confirmed its opposition to GMOs.
The Km Zero, or farm-to-table, initiative was created to convince managers of school and workplace dining-rooms and canteens, as well as chefs, and restaurant chains to tailor their menus to seasonal, local produce. This implies a change of life-style, keyed on respect for the environment. Opinions are mixed on the subject. What does “km zero” mean today?
The Km Zero project started as a way to respond to consumers’ demand to be able to buy local produce and to know, therefore, exactly what they were eating. The initiative has led to the creation of 1,500 street markets, as well as 10,000 shops featuring the Campagna Amica (Friendly Countryside) logo.
To us, the Km Zero concept is designed to allow people to identify quality food, GMO-free, anywhere, even in the largest supermarkets. Other countries in Europe, as well as the United States, are also working along similar lines.
According to the data in a recent report on the impact of local cuisine on the Italians’ choice of where to take their vacations (Vacanze Made in Italy nel Piatto), some 58 percent of the interviewees said they were attracted by the idea of the local, or regional, cuisine of the area they were visiting. What can you tell me about this kind of tourism: people going to places to taste their local specialties made with local ingredients?
A very interesting phenomenon, this. If, on the one hand, Italy is famous for its art and its culture, with plenty of visitors coming here for that purpose, the same is happening to certain regions that are famous for their food. If someone wants to see the Coliseum, they have to go to Rome. If they want to taste a really good Barolo wine, then they have to go to the Langhe area in Piedmont, which, perhaps not surprisingly, has recently become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Food has become a marketing tool for tourism, and is helping burnish our reputation worldwide.
On the subject of UNESCO, in November last, Italy scored a major coup. A traditional technique for growing vines, the so-called ‘head-trained bush vines' method, coltivazione della vite ad alberello, in Italian, employed on the island of Pantelleria, which lies between Sicily and Tunisia was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This was the first time such status has been granted to an agricultural practice. What does this mean, and what kinds of opportunities can such a nomination offer?
This confirms that food has a social and economic value that derives from our culture and from our food and wine tradition, and follows the addition of the Mediterranean Diet to the same list. Our next candidates will be Neapolitan pizza, which has made Italy’s name worldwide, as well as pesto from Genoa, a food product that is intrinsically linked to its place of origin. These awards open up new export markets and, as we mentioned earlier, help boost tourism too. People come to Italy to experience our quality of life, our food, and the beauty of our natural environment.
What work opportunities can farming offer? And how many new jobs can be created in the supply-chain, in terms of value added, and the digital economy?
Despite the wide-spread economic crisis, the farming sector is creating new jobs. If we can increase our exports, then this sector can grow even further, work-wise. The government has set an objective of lifting exports from 33.4 billion euro, which was the figure in 2013, to 50 billion euro.
Achieving that target, would mean adding another 100,000 jobs in the agricultural sector. And that’s not counting the professionals. Food is a strategic sector, on which we can build the next stage of our country’s development.
Coming back to the topic of work, the Sardinia-based members of Coldiretti have signed an agreement with Novamont to grow thistles that will be used in the production of sustainable materials in the new Matrìca bio-refinery at Porto Torres. Can you say something about the impact of this agreement?
This agreement just goes to confirm the job-creation potential, and the income, that can be generated from farming activities. Coldiretti will be boosting the value of a crop that exists in marginal areas, where water is scarce. Novamont has researched the potential of thistles and has identified this species as being appropriate for the innovative materials it is producing, such as bio-plastics. This is a clear demonstration that it is more than possible to implement innovative technology without destroying the territory. Indeed, it is possible to innovate and boost it, at one and the same time, especially when the land is not suitable for food-production. This, as opposed to GMOs, is the kind of research that Coldiretti likes.
What does Expo Milano 2015 represent for Coldiretti?
Expo is a unique opportunity for pushing forward a development model that brings together agricultural production, the unique features a particular location, biodiversity, and tradition. It is a model that can be exported, because it brings together food and people. This could be a good response to the problem of hunger, especially in countries where land-grabbing is a problem.
We have accepted the challenge laid down by Expo. By means of the showcase offered to us by the Universal Exposition, we hope that more ideas will emerge regarding this development model, which we believe is not only the way forward for Italian farming, but also for those countries where the emphasis is on land, tradition, and food.