Agriculture in Crisis

What can you buy today for nine euro cents? It’s not enough for an SMS. Maybe you could buy a few nails. I can’t think of much else, except for a kilo of carrots, wholesale. And that’s just one of many possible examples when it comes to food. Maybe readers haven’t realized, because the food they buy always costs the same, if not more, but the prices that farmers receive have been in constant decline for years. Almost all farms are producing at a loss and surprisingly this fact goes almost unnoticed. Who in Italy still cares about our agriculture?

The sector is in more of a crisis now that at any other time since the post-war period. Just think that a quintal (100 kilos) of wheat is paid between €13 and €15, a price considerably lower than even 20 years ago, when it cost €25. In the last five-year period alone the price has gone done by around 30%. And in the meantime there has been an inflation in production costs: Trade associations have shown that to farm a hectare of wheat today costs a farmer €900, while the resulting crop can be sold for €600. I challenge anyone to want to work in these conditions. All the agricultural sectors are experiencing this crisis. Cattle and pig farmers are facing a real catastrophe. In the dairy industry alone, from over 180,000 farms in 1989 we’re now down to the current 43,000. The average cost of a kilo of pork in 1990 was €1.20, and in 2009 it was the same.

We’ve got to the point that we need “fair trade” for our own farmers, not just those in poor countries. According to official statistics, in 2009 wholesale prices in Italy fell compared to the previous year by 71% for carrots, 53% for peaches, 30% for wheat and milk and 19% for grapes. And the trend for this year is showing no signs of improvement. Farmers used to say that rice was the only crop that gave them a degree of security, because even if everything went badly, it always offered at least some small profit. Well, not even rice has escaped; in October 2009 it cost almost €50 a quintal, and now it is close to €30. This is a disaster of never-before-seen proportions, but it seems that only the increasingly desperate farmers are aware of it. We still pay one euro a kilo for the carrots for which the farmers received nine cents, an incredible mark-up of 1100%. We pay more than a euro for a liter of milk which originally cost a paltry 30 cents, and a kilo of peaches, which cost more or less the same as a liter of milk, cost us almost two euros.

It’s crazy, but it’s the norm, and no longer makes news. And the causes are not economic, but structural. Luckily, Italy’s agriculture is still made up of many small and medium businesses. This has always been our true strength, bringing diversity, a rootedness in the territory that has brought benefits also in terms of our country’s beauty, the capacity to preserve a biodiversity that is also a cultural expression and a slow and careful evolution, the principal result of our “local adaptation.”

But the fate of these small and medium farms will be sealed unless we see some significant changes and a more far-sighted attitude. Our farming sector might be unique in the European context but it is not immune from the processes of industrialization, centralization and especially concentration that have beset agriculture in Northern European countries, in France and the United Kingdom, following the model of what has happened in United States. These processes are based on the idea that food can be produced without farmers. Food is shipped vast distances, and all you need are a few employees doing piecework for big corporations or distribution chains.

Our agriculture sector is one of the oldest in Europe. We have one farmer under the age of 35 for every 12.5 farmers aged over 65. This is very different from France and Germany, where the same relationship falls to 1.5 and 0.8 respectively. That means that in Germany there are more people working in agriculture who are under 35 than over 65. And if there aren’t enough old people, there’s always the immigrants; given the trends, it’s awfully tempting to exploit them, sometimes even violently. The other day I was in Zibello, the town that has become an international symbol for quality thanks to the cured meat Culatello. On the town benches I saw a group of women wearing Indian saris. “Indians can take the tough life of our old people,” I was told when I asked why they were there.

Who else wants to put up with this tough life? Nobody, and that’s the problem. How can you survive as a farmer when so little is paid for the food you produce? What will happen if the people who keep the countryside alive all leave? Behind the glittering shelves of the places where we shop often lies a trade that tends to have similar characteristics to that in developing countries, marked by exploitation, intermediaries who can dictate their terms, infiltration by criminals who ship products for purely speculative reasons, farmers who end up reduced to poverty, forced to give up their business. This is the sad face of progress, the end result of all that “modern” and “competitive” agriculture, unless we realize that farmers’ work should be recognized, respected, rewarded, incentivized, protected, held in great esteem as the profound and intelligent base of our society. Maybe we need fewer factories and more people in the countryside.

The GDP fanatics don’t understand this. They brand as “poetry” direct sales (constantly on the rise), farmers’ markets, small-scale producers who can’t ship around the world but can meet the needs of local markets. Without farmers, “made in Italy” food will also disappear: Industries will no longer be able to sell lies, those increasingly fake, poor-quality products, increasingly standardized to a low average level. And everybody will be at fault. Everybody is already at fault.

When, in far-off 1920, my grandfather, a socialist and a train engineer, joined with other “companions” to form a consumers’ cooperative in Bra, his home town, he was clear about the solidarity that lay behind the organization’s aims. To revitalize this solidarity today means building a new alliance between farmers and city dwellers; strengthening information, product traceability and food education and supporting local agriculture and product seasonality. To anyone who tells me this is already happening, I say that it is not enough. To anyone who tells me that it is not sustainable from a financial point of view I say that it is the only sustainable policy in the context of such a great crisis.

We must realize that we are not exempt from responsibility. When I read that some consumers reacted to the blue mozzarellas that sprung up like Smurfs a few weeks ago by saying “I’ll buy them anyway because they’re cheap, and if I see that they’re blue I’ll throw them away,” it was clear that we are close to a point of no return. All that matters is price. We demand prices so low we can’t even complain if the quality is inferior. The food can always be thrown away, wasted. After all, we don’t even know how to recognize quality any more. We expect zucchini in the winter, paying six or seven euros a kilo, without realizing it’s crazy to eat zucchini in the winter. For the record, now that they are in season they cost a euro or slightly more. If we as consumers, small indispensable cogs in the system, are not the first to start to realize that a fair price should be paid for food, that it has a value and not only a price, that we have to help farmers because “eating is an agricultural act,” then nothing will ever change, and our agriculture will die, fake and standardized, just as it has in many other countries in the world that have already made the same mistakes. Look at the United States, where it is no coincidence that we are seeing a real renaissance led by “foodies” who care about their food and their children’s food, who shop at farmers’ markets and develop direct sales networks online, inspiring a new generation of young people to become farmers or chefs who make local and eco-sustainable the basis for outstanding cooking.

I wonder when we will have a food policy worthy of the name, which educates citizens about responsible, sustainable and pleasurable choices, which provides assistance to those farmers who produce food in a way that is good for both us and them. I don’t see strong signs from either the government or the opposition in this country. For years farmers have been showered with subsidies, impoverishing their way of producing and doing business, and today they are isolated and cheated. Must we also wait for good agriculture to die in our arms? Why is no one holding protests in the streets to defend the farmers? We need a renaissance that does not only look at GDP, but goes beyond subsidized interests to keep alive an agriculture which, if not already on its deathbed, is well on its way. A renaissance that, believe me, is not poetry, as those GDP enthusiasts claim. It is a renaissance that starts with agriculture but concerns our whole civilization.

First published in La Repubblica

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