The vineyard in the photo above is farmed by one of Italy’s most prestigious wineries. It provides fruit for one of the estate’s marquee wines. Although many Italian wine trade observers assume it’s an organically farmed parcel, it’s actually farmed conventionally. The winemakers contend that conventional farming is actually better for consumers and for the planet.
As the Italian senate is about to consider newly introduced legislation that would promote and protect organic farming, calling it vital to the nation’s health and environment, nearly 400 Italian scientists have signed an open letter opposing the bill, which has already been approved by Italy’s lower chamber.
The researchers argue that organic farming, if adopted on a global scale, is unsustainable and would lead to weakened nutritional security. They also point to aggressive marketing — and not sustainability — as the driver behind the popularity of organic products among consumers. Only privileged Italians can afford organic food products, they note. And they point out that organically farmed products represent a negligible amount of foods that Italians consume.
The letter was delivered in January of this year, with more than 200 signatures. As of last week, that number had grown to almost 400.
On Friday, Il Sole 24 Ore (the Italian Financial Times) published an interview with Elena Cattaneo, one of Italy’s leading researchers and a senator for life in Italy’s parliament. She has joined her colleagues in opposing the bill. The following is an excerpted translation of her remarks (see this Wiki entry on Dr. Cattaneo).
“For the first time,” says Cattaneo, “this letter demolishes the ‘beautiful but impossible” narrative behind organic farming. With supporting data, it reveals the discrepancies in organic farming’s ‘one way’ marketing. I believe such marketing is misleading.”
“In order to justify pricing often double [that of conventionally farmed products], we have been told that organic farming is the only way to save the world and help us to live longer and better. It’s an illusion. There is no scientific proof to confirm this. In fact, the opposite is true: analysis reveals that organic products are not qualitatively better and that large-scale organic farming is unsustainable inasmuch as it produces up to 50 percent less when it comes to top agricultural products. Large-scale organic farming would require twice as much land. In order to convert the world to organic farming, we would have to use hundreds of millions of hectares of currently fallow land, including forests and prairies.”
“The fairy tale that ‘natural = good’ has led to the labeling of more than a million [Italian] farmers as ‘polluters of the planet.’ It’s these same farmers that rely on the best technology available in order to guarantee that consumers have access to wholesome and safe food products.”
The following are my paraphrases of the letter’s 10 bullet points in which the scientists explain their motivation for opposing the legislation. The bill calls, among other things, for all public institutions and schools in Italy to serve only organically farmed food products. Unfortunately, the letter hasn’t been translated in its entirety. If you speak Italian, I highly encourage you to read it.
1) Low production rates in organic farming.
According to currently available data, organic farming yields 20 to 70 percent less than conventional farming.
2) Ecological sustainability for individual farming companies should be more closely examined.
Even organic farms depend on agricultural products that come from the world of conventional farming.
3) Global sustainability of organic farming should be more closely examined in terms of its environmental friendliness.
If organic farming were adopted on a global level, the surface area devoted to agriculture would have to be doubled. The subsequent scarcity of nitrogen in the land (owed to the fact that synthetic fertilizers would no longer be used) would lead to severe famine.
4) Global sustainability of organic farming should be more closely examined also in terms of its economic and social impact.
If organic farming were adopted on a global level, consumers wouldn’t have the same level of access to fruit and vegetables. The impact on health — especially in terms of the occurrence of cancer — could be enormous.
5) Marketing of organic farming aims to denigrate conventional farming even though the latter is productive, efficient, and indispensable to the nation.
Convention and integrated farming provides 97 percent of the food Italians eat and the difference in quality between organic and conventional and integrated foods is negligible. Only the privileged classes have access to organically farmed foods.
6) Is organic farming really growing?
The number of certified organic farms in Italy actually shrank from 58,000 in 2001 to 57,000 in 2017. The sector is essentially stagnant and isn’t showing signs of growth.
7) Organic farming accounts for only a small segment of the farming sector.
In 2018, only 3 percent of foods consumed in Italy were organically farmed. That’s a small increase over 2017 but the figure is reflection of organic foods’ “niche” in the market, heavily dependent on marketing that doesn’t represent Italian agriculture in general.
8) Organic farming is highly subsidized thanks to aggressive marketing.
Organic farmers actually receive more subsidies than conventional farmers because additional funds and incentives are earmarked especially for organic farming. Marketing drives this financial model.
9) Organic farming depends, however counterintuitive it mays seem, on synthetic products.
Even though an individual farm may avoid the use of synthetic products, its sustainability still depends on the overarching farming system where synthetic products are used.
10) Organic farming is opposed to genetic innovation and technical advances in farming technology.
Increasingly, farmers will need to look to genetic innovation and technical advances in farming to feed the nation. Italy’s nutritional security depends on innovation.