The Italian job: Farmers facing pests pay dearly for Europe’s anti-GM stance

| September 24, 2013 |
(Credit: Jeremy Keith, via Wikimedia Commons) (Credit: Jeremy Keith, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel.”

John Quinton, UK George Cross recipient

Nowhere is the art of bureaucratic obfuscation practiced with greater enthusiasm and single-minded efficiency than in Europe. And nowhere is this more in evidence than in Europe’s battle against technological progress in farming.

Our story begins in sunny Italy where highly nutritious corn (maize) has been produced since the day this bountiful crop was first imported from the New World almost a half-millennium ago. Corn provides a lucrative export to countries with less temperate climates that cannot grow it. When it comes to staple crops, corn has been as important to the Italian agricultural economy as potatoes are to Ireland and Idaho. Or at least it was, until a few years ago.

No one is exactly certain when the tiny moth Pyrausta nubilalis (also referred to as the European corn borer) started eating its way through Italy’s cornfields. Compounding matters, the feces of this pest provide fodder for a bevy of microscopic fungi, which release some of the most lethal natural poisons known to man, such as pathogenic fumonisins, which can cause permanent neurological damage in a human fetus.

In spite of this threat, Tiberio Rabboni, the chairman of one of Italy’s most important regional agricultural departments, Emilia-Romagna, insisted for the longest time that only traditional, organic methods be used to fight this plague, never explaining what these methods were exactly. You see, Rabboni has never run a farm; never even worked on one. And yet, in spite of the fact that this challenging situation cried out for a sophisticated, scientific response, he has been intransigent in his rabid support of organic farming to the exclusion of all else.

Eventually, Rabboni would concede that synthetic pesticides should probably be used, the problem being that the only pesticides approved for use in Europe had proved ineffective. He indicated that he was willing to ignore farmers who might resort to using prohibited substances and not punish them for using chemicals that science oversight bodies around the world have deemed safe and which are routinely used in North America but deemed ‘dangerous’ by EU authorities who are guided by the precautionary principle, and thus banned. Then in July, just as Rabonni was easing up on which chemicals might be used against the corn borer, Italy became the ninth EU country to slam the door shut on any possibility of allowing its farmers to grow GM corn, although the corn had never officially been grown previously.

Corn farmers in North America no longer face problems like this. In addition to having a longer list of approved chemicals at their disposal, farmers grow genetically modified (GM) varieties of corn that are resistant to this pesky parasite, resulting in fewer chemicals used per-acre to protect against pests. As an added bonus, thanks to extensive research and development by some of the world’s leading crop scientists working for leading agri-corporate giants, these varieties are also drought tolerant.

According to Italian academician Antonio Saltini, author of the four-volume work Storico delle scienze agrarie (History of agrarian sciences in Western civilization) GM corn became all the more enticing to Italy’s farmers three years ago when drought struck. What little corn survived the corn borer produced withered kernels that were very low in starch, rendering them unsuitable even for animal consumption. In turn, and as a direct consequence of the drought, the population of moths grew exponentially, resulting in even more of the lethal pathogens that feed upon their feces. But genetic engineering is banned in Europe, so there was no way the lifelong bureaucrat Rabboni was going to even consider making an exception.

Chemicals—even ones prohibited in Europe—could be used on an emergency basis, but not any of the scientific community’s most recent agricultural advancements. Farmers pleaded with Rabboni and the rest of Europe’s white-collar policy makers to be allowed to use GM corn, but to no avail. And with only rare exceptions like Saltini, the academic community remained largely silent.

Rabboni proclaimed instead that crops that had not suffered as badly could perhaps be blended with fumonisin-infected toxic crops to make them minimally acceptable to feed to pigs. But when scientists started testing they realized that the majority of Italy’s corn was too toxic for animal feed. And so, after months of secret negotiations with other agricultural bureaucrats, Rabboni made a rather telling decision: “clean” corn could be imported from America to mix with Italy’s toxic corn. That’s right, GM corn—one of the very same varieties that Italian farmers are not allowed to grow—was given an exemption and permitted to be blended with Italian corn in order to bring overall toxicity levels down to a degree acceptable to feed to animals.

This decision caused great consternation for farmers, not just in Italy, but throughout Europe. After all, if GM feed corn could be imported, why not let European farmers just grow it themselves and avoid these problems in the first place? Indeed, farmers in the Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, Romani and Slovakia do grow transgenic corn under a confusing array of highly-bureaucratic special exemptions. Not so in Italy though, nor in the lion’s share of the rest of Europe.

In any case, amidst a firestorm of controversy and accusations of hypocrisy, Rabboni made yet one more pronouncement on everyone’s behalf: Italy’s seriously compromised corn harvest would not be cut with healthy GM corn from America after all. It would all go to energy production instead. Controversy resolved, sort of.

This executive decision left a huge gap at the core of Italy’s agricultural economy: What were farmers supposed to feed their pigs? And what would become of next year’s supply of prosciutto if pigs were simply shot and buried due to a lack of feed? Rabboni then made his last and most ironic decision in this crisis: GM corn could indeed be imported from America after all—not to be blended with Italy’s contaminated corn, but simply to be fed directly to Italy’s pigs.

It was not merely the fact that an Italian bureaucrat decided to import an otherwise banned GM crop from America that was so ironic. In addition to the special exemptions granted on a case-by-case basis to Czech, Spanish, Portuguese and Slovakian farmers, countries throughout Europe, including Italy, have imported GM corn from America in the past under a whole different array of special, case-by-case exemptions granted on a strictly controlled basis by bureaucrats in Brussels. What made Rabboni’s final decision so hypocritical, and frankly absurd, were the sheer quantities involved and the astronomical expense to an already overextended Italian treasury.

Because drought had also hit the United States, combined with massive subsidies to the American ethanol industry that relies on corn as feedstock, the price of American corn had risen steadily over the prior few years. So not only did Italy import 300 percent more American corn than it had at any other time, it paid triple the price to American farmers while Italian farmers who are not allowed so much as a single GM seed on their farms watched the fruits of their labor go for mere cents on the euro, if they were lucky. All just so Europe’s time-honored ban on a perfectly safe-and-sound technology could be upheld on ideological grounds.

To this day, it is not known just how much of Italy’s corn production went to animal feed, how much for energy production and how much was simply destroyed when the cost of the energy required to transport it to an electrical-generating facility exceeded the value of the electricity it would produce. The quantity of Italian corn that will be buried in the ground this year is simply not deemed a topic appropriate to discuss in polite circles, especially when policy makers in Europe remain faithful in their conviction that genetic engineering is the devil’s work no matter what farmers themselves might think.

The aforementioned Italian agrarian academic Saltini has summed up the bizarre predicament aptly:

Many politicians in Italy take it as a rule that convenience determines truth: that is true which guarantees consensus, votes and power, whilst something which might be received with skepticism or aversion cannot possibly be true. For any true son of Machiavelli, what is true must be useful. (From Saltini, “Mais “inquinato” dal caldo: una storia italiana” (Corn “polluted” by the heat: an Italian story; June 2013)

Sadly for the people of Italy, the embrace of anti-technological agrarian ideology provides few if any benefits to farmers or consumers, while bureaucrats, a huge army of people, most of whom have never worked a day on a farm but who earn a sumptuous living off the backs of those who do, thrive. They are an army of white-collar statists who, in the words of American author Robert Zubrin, are really nothing more than antihuman “merchants of despair.”

In broader terms, Samuel Adams put it best when he warned that, “If ever time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” Evidently there is a severe lack of patriots in Italy these days. And corn.

Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector who worked on contract under the USDA’s National Organic Program. He is a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute, The Frontier Centre for Public Policy and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, and is the author of Is it Organic? 

  • stevesavage

    So basically the Italian pigs got a better deal than the Italian farmers?

    • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

      I daresay you have hit the nail on the head Mr. Savage!

  • Loren Eaton

    OH the polenta….OH the prosciutto!!! I heard recently that the ‘dilution’ rules for mycotoxins might be changing at least here in the States. I wonder what their policy is in Europe.

  • First Officer

    How do you say, “LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL”, in Italian ?

  • no-no nanette

    Italy where highly nutritious corn (maize) has been produced since
    the day this bountiful crop was first imported from the New World almost
    a half-millennium ago. Corn provides a lucrative export to countries
    with less temperate climates that cannot grow it. When it comes to
    staple crops, corn has been as important to the Italian agricultural
    economy as potatoes are to Ireland and Idaho. Or at least it was, until a
    few years ago.
    No one is exactly certain when the tiny moth Pyrausta nubilalis (also referred to as the European corn borer) started eating its way through Italy’s cornfields.

    hmmmmm …. ‘suddenly appeared”

  • Janie Dunn

    I would rather suffer a few years than grow GMO. Why large scale mono-cropping is dangerous. If you want to be free, you must be self-sufficient. Don’t put all the eggs in one basket!

    • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

      But Janie…
      Italy HAS put all its eggs in one basket by excluding the only-known form of technology that can beat the corn-borer. With all-due respect, I think you’ve got it backwards.

  • Trixie485

    You need to do a bit of reading on Fusarium verticillioides, which is the fungus being referred to here: “the feces of this pest provide fodder for a bevy of microscopic fungi,
    which release some of the most lethal natural poisons known to man, such
    as pathogenic fumonisins, which can cause permanent neurological damage
    in a human fetus”. The feces of these insects have nothing to do with the infection or transmission of this fungus. The wounding caused by insect feeding increases the chances of the fungus infecting the ears and accumulating fumonisins.