On the whole, Italian pasta is good, and it has already won out in the global market, being one of the most sought after and consumed foods in the world. But there’s no point in hiding there’s something not quite right with how it’s being made, which could cause quite a bit of “indigestion” in the future.
The only certainties we have are the numbers, and they paint the picture of a global market with special interests that aren’t always acknowledged, especially to the consumer.
In 2015, 14.3 million tons of pasta were produced worldwide.
There are 48 countries that produce more than 1,000 tons per year and 52 countries that consume at least 1 kilogram of pasta per person per year.
Italy is the leading country among the producers, with about 4 million tons per year (the U.S. follows with 2 million, Turkey with 1.3 million, and Brazil and Russia with 1.2 and 1.1 million tons respectively).
Italy is also the country with the highest per capita pasta consumption in the world. Italians eat more than 25 pounds of pasta per year (while the Tunisians eat 15, the Venezuelans 12, the Greeks 11 and the Swiss nine pounds).
With such numbers, Italy is also the market leader: In 2016, for the 12th consecutive year, pasta exports showed a positive trend (6 percent). The Italian Confectionery and Pasta Industries Association (AIDEPI) has certified that in 2016, Italy exported 2 million tons of pasta, worth over €3 billion.
All good, then? Not exactly.
There is a problem, tied closely to many others, and which makes pasta one of the most important foods for understanding the pitfalls of a global food market that by its nature cannot converge towards a standard of ecological sustainability for its system of production. Italy is lacking around 40 percent of the durum wheat it needs in order to achieve the pasta production required for the domestic market (as well as for export).
Over the past 15 years, the cultivation of durum wheat in Italy has decreased by 500,000 hectares. For this reason, as Coldiretti (an association of Italian farmers and cultivators) said in its indictment of imported foreign grain, in 2015 Italy imported around 4.3 million tons of wheat, and 2.3 million tons of durum wheat (the kind used for pasta), from abroad.
The result, as the farmers’ association accuses, is that one in three packs of pasta is made with grain that comes from abroad, without any requirement to indicate the origin on the label (some of the most famous Italian brands mix Italian with foreign grain).
This is not merely a matter of “cereal sovereignty” aiming at protecting our own farmers, hurt by the prices imposed by the global market, but also a matter of health and international politics.
The main countries that export grain to Italy are European countries.
They include France, with 350,000 tons in 2015, and Austria with 176,000 tons. Hungary exported 165,000 tons to Italy in the first half of 2016. With lower quantities, we also find Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Turkey and Cyprus on the list.
Overall, according to 2015 data, Italy imported 2.3 million tons of durum wheat and exported more than 181,000 tons, mainly to the Maghreb (for cous cous).
It seems that, even as it does not produce enough wheat to meet the requirements of its own market, Italy is still an exporter.
This paradox is easy to explain: our wheat is in demand and is sold at higher prices, while imported wheat costs less and is less renowned in terms of quality. And it is even harmful to health in some cases, as several environmental groups are accusing, singling out Canadian wheat in particular.
The Canadian question introduces some troubling possible scenarios, especially since Justin Trudeau’s Canada is establishing itself among the top suppliers of wheat to Italy. We imported 329,000 tons from Canada in 2015 and 383,000 tons in the first quarter of 2016.
Here is the first problem.
In Canada, in order to accelerate the maturation of the grain, glyphosate is used as a desiccant before harvest — a practice banned in Europe. Glyphosate is the main ingredient of the Roundup herbicide produced by Monsanto, which is potentially carcinogenic, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and which is currently at the center of an international dispute: the European Union will decide by the end of this year whether or not to ban it.
The concern is that traces of this herbicide might be present in foods made from the grain, including “made in Italy” pasta. In addition, because of the humidity of the climate, Canadian wheat is affected by mycotoxins from a contaminant pathogenic fungus, which, at high levels of concentration, can have negative effects at the gastrointestinal level.
The presence of these contaminants — glyphosate, mycotoxins and cadmium — was found (albeit within legal limits) in a test carried out on some samples of Italian pasta by the GranoSalus association.
Meanwhile, problem number two not only complicates matters in terms of food safety, but also introduces an issue of international politics.
With the entry into force of CETA (the trade agreement between the E.U. and Canada, which has not yet been ratified by the Italian Parliament), the major North American agribusiness companies will have new instruments available to attack the stringent European standards for the protection of food quality.
Clearly, as explained by the Italian Association for Organic Agriculture (AIAB), a future harmonization of Canadian and European standards could leave everything up for grabs. The critical issues to be addressed at the parliamentary level concern more than just durum wheat containing glyphosate: “The harmonization of standards to the lowest common denominator, as stipulated in the treaty, would accept a de facto lowering of production and food safety standards. In particular, growth hormones in meat would be allowed, as well as the use of antimicrobials in washing produce, a liberalization of GMOs, and even less transparent labeling requirements.”
The Canadian producers make no secret of their intentions. Cam Dahl, the president of Cereals Canada, has threatened retaliation (in the form of legal action at the WTO) if Italy were to impose mandatory origin labeling on pasta.
In effect, the legal conflict is already open, as the obligation to label the origin of the grain will, or should, take effect in Italy on Feb. 17.
But the relevant decree has been challenged by AIDEPI with an appeal lodged at the Administrative Tribunal of Lazio, justified by nothing more than rhetorical smoke and mirrors.
The pasta industry association believes that “the obligation to indicate the origin of the grain used for the pasta is a mistaken policy. It promises transparency, but confuses the consumer, and instead of supporting a sector of such great value to our economy as the pasta sector, risks undermining it.”
Meanwhile, Barilla (the leader of the pasta market in Italy, with consolidated revenues of €3.4 billion and a net profit that rose to €371 million in 2016) is putting its hopes on (television personality) Bebe Vio to change the consumers’ minds in a recent commercial, where they admit the use of imported grain, which however is supposed to be of good quality: “Great, great, you’ve convinced me, give me five packs…”
Paolo Barilla, vice-president of the company bearing his family name, was rather less sympathetic in an interview on RAI 1: “For the industry, it all depends on what kind of product is made and at what cost, because if we were to make the epitome of perfect pasta, in an area of the world that is completely unpolluted, without the need for any chemicals, that plate of pasta would cost €2 instead of 20 cents. Pasta with zero glyphosate is possible, but only by raising the cost of production.”
Now that is clearer than anything you can put on a label.
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