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Agriculture: from food security to food sovereignty

  • Rome
  • 9 May 2023

        “Agriculture: from food security to food sovereignty” offered an opportunity to confront multiple issues regarding the agri-food sector, which accounts for a full 15% of Italian GDP. The discussion underscored the Ukraine conflict’s noteworthy impact on agricultural markets, particularly exports of Russian and Ukrainian wheat to many countries along the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Fortunately, Italy is a major producer of this resource, although it is short on others such as durum wheat, the basic ingredient in pasta production. Last July’s Black Sea Grain Initiative allowed three Ukrainian ports to resume grain exports that had been suspended since the onset of the conflict the previous February. Trade has thus revived, skirting a worsening of the supply chain crisis, which nevertheless persists and is accentuating food price speculation and volatility. Market considerations should also reflect on asymmetries such as the limitations on European farmers’ use of some chemical products while no such limits exist for extra-European producers that do use them.

         Italian agricultural production covers only a portion of the nation’s food requirements in sector segments such as bread, pasta, animal feed and vegetable oils; a consideration that foregrounds the need for a realistic approach to food sovereignty. The data on national production show that agricultural self-sufficiency calls for rigor, on the one hand, and the reduction of excess bureaucracy that burdens commercial activity on the other. Product labelling, for example, can have a significant negative effect on international trade and Italian exports; the Irish proposal of a health warning on alcoholic beverages, including Italian wines, has raised opposition from countries such as the United States and Cuba, which sends a clear signal to European regulators. Another recent issue is the Westernization of the Asian diet, which is going to lead to a necessary adaptation of international production aimed at satisfying emerging food demands.

        In general, it appears difficult to strike a balance between environmental sustainability and food security; this in light of a growing food demands that calls for more production and less waste. Process and product innovations (including genetic) are cited as essential solutions that employ a multidisciplinary approach to uniting productivity and sustainability, and are thus potentially capable of achieving that equilibrium. It was pointed out that a strong agriculture sector is essential the ensuring the general and well-distributed prosperity of a population; an interesting correlation reveals that when the economy of a country is able to rely on a well-developed farming sector it is usually a democratically governed one. 

        In any case, important also is the balance between food production and climate change; the economic transition must also take into account the environmental one, investing more in human capital and in the skills of those operating along the value chain. It was also noted that the ESG parameters (those that evaluate a company’s adherence to environmental, social and governance criteria) risk polarizing those willing and able to shoulder the costs of compliance from those unable to do so.

        It is important to note that public communication on Italy’s primary production system is often conditioned by unrealistic data, some of which derive from narrations both imaginary (as promoted by advertising) and pseudoscientific. It is essential to reestablish a balance that restores farmers their technical-entrepreneurial role through a correct understanding of what they do and the economic and social contribution they make (on this latter point the importance was underscored of farmers as “custodians of the territory” and of its maintenance).

        Finally, on the digitalization of the agricultural sector, insistence was placed on the introduction of Agriculture 4.0 technologies that make it possible to monitor the entire productive chain and optimize the generation and extraction of value from Big Data. This new era is marked by the use of instruments such as sensors, drones and advanced data analysis, thus technology will be key to ensuring successful production sustainability. Also cited were projects such as the UNESCO Chairs and the Assoverde “Libro Bianco del Verde”, which underscores how technological development can go forward only if underpinned by solid skills. 

        To summarize, the challenges facing Italian agriculture are demanding ones, given the volatile external context of oscillating prices and costs, climate change, asymmetric competition and excess bureaucracy, all of which constitute obstacles to doing business. It is important therefore to adopt a multidisciplinary approach founded on the promotion of technological innovation, human capital and more accurate and realistic communication. 

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