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Inside Italy’s grain and oilseeds sector

Italy, a peninsular in the Mediterranean in the south of the European Union, has a grains and oilseeds sector that is distinctive in many ways. It’s a big rice producer in European terms as well as producing soybeans. Famed for its pasta, it is a large-scale user of durum wheat. The Italian agrifood sector focuses on producing high-quality goods, often under the EU’s system of protected geographical names.

The International Grains Council (IGC) puts Italy’s total 2021-22 grains production at 14.5 million tonnes, reduced from an earlier estimate of 14.9 million. The 2020-21 crop was 15.1 million tonnes. The total for 2021-22 includes 7 million tonnes of wheat, which is down from the month-earlier forecast of 7.3 million tonnes, but still up on 2020-21’s crop of 6.5 million. The IGC’s figure for 2021-22 wheat includes 4.1 million tonnes of durum, revised down from an earlier forecast of 4.3 million, but still up on the 3.8 million tonnes produced the previous year.

Italy’s corn output is put at 5.9 million tonnes, unrevised from the previous forecast and down from 6.7 million tonnes produced in 2020-21. The IGC also forecasts a crop of 300,000 tonnes of sorghum, unchanged from the previous year.

The European grain traders’ organization COCERAL puts Italy’s total oilseeds production at 1.535 million tonnes in 2021, compared with 1.541 million the year before. Soybeans are the country’s biggest oilseed crop, at 1.224 million tonnes in 2021-22, up from 1.221 million the year before. The 2021 rapeseed crop is put at 47,000 tonnes, up from 44,000, while output of sunflower seed is estimated at 264,000, down from 276,000 in 2020-21.

Italy is also the EU’s second largest producer of olive oil, behind Spain. According to an attaché report on the oilseeds sector, dated April 16, 2021, the country’s 2021-22 output of olive oil will be 260,000 tonnes.

“This represents a 30% drop from the previous season, mainly due to alternate bearing of olive trees, coupled with sudden shifts from drought to rainfalls in the leading producing region of Puglia,” the report said. “Moreover, the spread of the harmful plant bacterium Xylella Fastidiosa in Puglia contributed to the decline.”

In an annual report on the EU grains sector dated April 16, 2021, the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service commented that “in Italy, cumulative precipitation during the fall was between 50% and 100% above normal levels in most parts of the country, except for eastern Emilia-Romagna, where rainfall was close to average.”

“The combination of mild temperatures and dry conditions in February contributed to lowering the excessive soil moisture,” the report said. “Currently, yield expectations for Italian grain production are good.”

The same report forecasts an increase in EU wheat imports, noting that “the rise is driven by strong demand for durum wheat in Italy, EU’s largest wheat importer, as the shorter domestic wheat crop and imports within the EU cannot fulfill internal demand for pasta production.”

The FAS also noted Italy is by far the largest rice producer in the EU, accounting for approximately 53% of production.

“Rice cultivation is mostly located in the north (Piemonte, Lombardia, and Veneto regions) where water is relatively abundant, and the rice crop can be raised in flooded fields,” the FAS said. “Approximately 81% of rice varieties grown in Italy are Japonica while the rest of the varieties are Indica.

“Except for limited amounts of rough (un-milled) rice exports and domestic seed sales, virtually all Italian rice is marketed as a whole kernel milled product.”

According to the Italian milling industry’s association ITALMOPA, there were, in 2020, 296 mills in the country. They processed 5.25 million tonnes of soft wheat to produce 3.883 million tonnes of flour, and 6.3 million tonnes of durum to produce 4.206 million tonnes of semolina.

The European Flour Millers, the EU association for the sector, puts the level of capacity usage in Italy’s flour mills at 58%. It explains in its manual on the industry that Italy imports some 65% of the soft wheat it processes, citing the main sources as France, Germany, Austria and Hungary inside the EU as well as the United States and Canada outside it. The non-EU origins account for 20% to 25% of imports.

The European group puts Italian consumption of bread at 42 kilograms per person per year, with the average Italian’s consumption of flour at 66 kg each year.

The European Flour Millers lists the biggest flour milling companies, in alphabetical order, as: Grandi Molini Italiani, Grupo Casillo, Macinazione Lendinara, Molini Agugiaro Figna, Molini Bongiovanni, Molini Dentri, Molini Industriali, Molino Chiavazza, Molino Lario, Molino Pagani, Molini Pivetti, Molino Quaglia, Nova and Simec.

The annual attaché report on oilseeds explains that Italy is the main driver in an increase in EU imports of palm oil for biofuel production.

“Italy has two hydrogenation derived renewable diesel (HDRD) plants, one of which is expanding from 325 million liters to 540 million liters, and another plant of 770 million liters opened in August 2019,” the report explained.

A Nov. 12, 2020, report on agricultural biotechnology from FAS Rome highlights Italy’s dependence on imported GM commodities for its livestock and dairy sectors, particularly soybeans, with imports at 2 million tonnes, and soymeal, of which 1.9 million tonnes were imported in 2019. The leading suppliers of soybeans to Italy are the United States and Brazil, while Argentina is the dominant supplier of soymeal.

“Nevertheless, the general attitude toward genetically engineered (GE) crops remains hostile,” the report said. “The national media debate on GE crops and plant experimentation has made it politically unpalatable to support GE research and cultivation.”

The result is that “public and private research funding on GE products has gradually been cut to zero and currently no GE field trials are being conducted in Italy,” the report said, but it noted that Italy’s Agriculture Minister at the time, Teresa Bellanova, as well as the farming organizations Coldiretti, Confagricoltura, and Cia, along with industry players and scientists, had come forward in favor of innovative biotechnologies, such as genome editing.

As Italy is a Member State of the European Union, the basic guidelines for Italian agrifood policy are set at the EU level. That means that it will be subject to the new, reformed EU Common Agricultural Policy, due to come into operation in 2023. Under the new framework, the Italian government will have to draw up a national strategic plan for its farm sector, with a greater emphasis on climate and environmental goals than previously. The European Commission has provided recommendations for Italy’s national plan, calling for actions to strengthen its farm sector, which is hampered by small farm size and low digitalization, as well as for proposals to make the industry more sustainable and improve the position of farmers in the value chain.

This is against the background of Europe’s Green Deal, proposed into place by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, along with the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies that go with it. The ambitious plans include sharp cuts in the use of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as an increase in the proportion of organic farmland.

The new Italian Strategic Plan also is planned to include the Italian government’s proposal on how these changes will be achieved.

 

World Grain

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