Italy facing the challenge of wheat

(To Andrea Forte)
07/07/22

It is now evident that the war in Ukraine is also a war over that country's food resources. Among all, cereals in general and wheat in particular. If it is true that Ukraine alone does not feed the world, it is equally true that it feeds a large part of the world that is hungry.

So there are already two elements of power that have emerged, the possession of the cereal resource and the almost total dependence of a part of the world on this resource, coming from that area. All this within the framework of the financialization of the economy, that is, a context in which it is not only the effective availability of a resource that determines its price, but the justified perception of it or not, so prices soar regardless of the real existence of the problem. Finally, economic life is currently globalized, therefore owning a resource means having a world lever and being able to create world problems, a true nuclear weapon even before bombs in the strict sense. Owning this resource, or more resources, then means trying to break that same globalization, thanks to which that element itself is a weapon. It therefore means trying to make it a strategic tool for the construction of a counter-globalization, that is, to jointly own a domain and claim one's own. This is the game that Russia aspires to play with the Chinese side, intent on collecting wheat from Ukraine and the whole world well before the outbreak of the conflict.

Finally, it must be remembered that the game of wheat is not a game in itself, nor is it played as such by the powers involved. It, as a systemic weapon, is part of an arsenal used to decide where the world should or should not go.

It is therefore an absolute weapon in its own way, because absolute is the game that one pretends to play with it. Who will be hungry? Who will satisfy this hunger, or who will dominate this hunger? This is the level of the current geopolitical game.

If this is the panorama, how is Italy placed? Is he subject or object in this challenge? What levers do you have and how are you using them?

Precisely the theme of wheat makes it possible to highlight some Italian strategic fundamentals, or absolute elements, which Italy cannot evade in evaluating moves and counter-moves. These are valid regardless of the agri-food exchange that Italy has with Ukraine and / or with Russia.

Italy is the typical case of a country that imports very little wheat from Ukraine and Russia, but which, living in a financial and globalized world, inevitably also becomes the object of speculation and rising prices.

From Ukraine and Russia together it does not receive more than 4% of all imports of durum and soft wheat. Moreover, the Peninsula, like every community, needs cereals not only to feed its population, but to feed its livestock. Therefore, wheat, secondly, allows you to have milk and derivatives, it allows you to have meat, that is, it allows an entire food world.

First of all, the chronic-historical insufficient national cereal production capacity, in relation to its own population, must be emphasized. In other words, Italy is unable to produce all the grain it needs to feed itself.

Second factor, consequence of the first. It is a country which, not possessing an adequate amount of this raw material, is therefore forced to import it and this exposes it on two levels. Towards the producing countries of this resource (in this case primarily Russia and Ukraine), but also towards all the candidate countries to replace its supplies; secondly, he exposes it to trade routes, whose safety, certainty and continuity therefore become fundamental.

Third factor, it is of vital importance for Italy, with 8000 km of coastline, in the center of the Mediterranean and with its well-being dependent on maritime imports and exports, to associate out of necessity and convenience with the powers that dominate the world trade routes. by sea. The current global hegemon, the United States, controls this trade and Italy is included in their force field, following the defeat in World War II. In this case, therefore, the coincidence between historical wound and strategic necessity would seem to favor it, but here the contradiction of the present situation opens up, with the existence of an antagonist to this dominus, Russia, which seeks to control more and more the world productions of wheat, precisely through the reacquisition of Ukrainian soil to its sphere of influence.

Whether or not Ukraine, especially its black lands, is part of the Western camp or the Sino-Russian camp, this will have a vital (or deadly) weight in the present challenge with Moscow and in the future with China.

Italy then faces (strategically is exposed) to that entire strip of the world that is seething with Africa due to its overwhelming demography and poverty. A whole world with these characteristics lives on the coasts in front of one of the granaries of the boot, Sicily and the South in general. Making sure that this part of the world eats and that it is not fed by the powers, which more than all the others are insinuating themselves (Russia, China and Turkey) is therefore a further objective, which Italy needs. to reach. On pain of migratory waves and / or revolutionary instability on their borders. Which also means, in the worst case, the formation of formal or informal powers more or less influenced by hostile or at least rival powers. Here is the re-emergence of the systemic level of the grain lot. Take the case of Libya, divided into two zones of influence, dominated by Turkey and Russia. It means having the taps of hunger and migration in the hands of powers on the southern Italian front, which exacerbate the fragility to which Italy is already subject.

These weaknesses are accentuated by the way in which it has managed its agricultural production capacity, starting at least from the 70s. From that moment, together with industrialization, a standardization of cereal production is favored. The areas cultivated with the old low-yielding and high-quality varieties are then reduced and agriculture in general with respect to livestock farming is reduced, creating a development that is not sustainable, since hunger increases and the product decreases to feed. At the same time this phenomenon destroys an entire agricultural fabric-wisdom, which had allowed two generations ago to exploit any strip of land, even the most marginal ones on the Apennines, because it is based on cultivations based on the soil and time and implemented with a rotation of the crops and a variety of the same, with consequent great adaptability.

A system has genetically weakened, which in today's phase of climate change has shown how much more effective it is in the long run. The current cereal species are unable to resist, because they are selected on the idea of ​​an eternal climate and an eternal space, for which almost genetic uniformity was assumed to be convenient. It would be necessary to resume the oldest cultivars, which had lower yields, but which guaranteed a protein intake much higher than what is a standardized product and recover an agricultural variety made of legumes, tomatoes and more, more nutritious and more adherent to climates and soils in which they grow. In any case, for decades, in addition to disqualifying the product, the land cultivated with wheat has also decreased, substantially half a million hectares. As if to say, quality and quantity have been lost.

According to Coldiretti, only in the last decade one out of five wheat fields, that is half a million hectares, no longer produces wheat.

Before understanding how Italy can and should react to the current situation, it is necessary to have an overview of it in terms of the agri-food sector, to understand its criticalities and strengths. In a general sense, it is possible to say that Italy is a power in the sector. Its agri-food supply chain has a value of 540 billion euros, its workforce in the sector involves four million employees and to feed this machine Rome conveys 11% of its energy, or 13.3 million tons of oil. As for soft wheat, it imports 64% of it, managing to produce only 36% of its consumption, becoming forced to buy from France, Germany, the United States and Canada. In this period, however, it is above all 30% of imports from Hungary that must be emphasized, which having almost immediately made their exports very difficult, for fear of shortages of their own resources, has in fact, in the current batch in progress, exposed Italy and the whole EU at additional costs for imports from overseas and for the inflationary spiral.

However, it should be noted that the great tender is not what is needed to produce the main Italian excellence, pasta, for which durum wheat is needed. From this point of view, Italy maintains a record. It alone produces 50% of all European durum wheat and covers 70% of national consumption, allocating up to two years ago as many as 1.23 million hectares, divided as follows: 73% in the South, 21% in the Center and 6% in the North. , but the North confirms itself as a higher quality production area, capable of accounting for 12% of national production, while for the South, in fact, the entire production comes for 28% from Puglia and 22% from Sicily.

Given the volumes of pasta production worldwide, Italy remains the first importer of durum wheat in the world and the first exporter. The Peninsula also remains in this field a "factory" for the transformation of raw materials into finished products, therefore it possesses the skills not only artisanal, but even artistic, to transform a resource and resell it in the form of excellence. The Italian pasta in fact. Of course, in the immediate future, the emergency deriving from lower cereal inflows from Ukraine has implied an increase in the cultivable area throughout Europe and a lowering of quality standards, in order to have that grain that the world needs. With the United States and Canada being the only feasible alternatives in this case, the EU risks accepting wheat grown with a greater use of chemical fertilizers, for example twice as much glyphosate, and if the barrier against GMOs is also to be loosened. , Italy, which is not a country of exceptional seed multinationals, would be exposed to a dependence on them (and on the powers to which they belong).

As far as our reactions are concerned, however, an inflow of six billion euros foreseen by the PNRR and a beginning of the ability to create a system through supply chain contracts should be emphasized. What is needed is confirmation of an investment in the soft power, carried out through the laboratory capacity to transform the raw material. Land recovery is required, but not to increase the quantities, but for the agricultural production of food varieties, especially legumes, with a much higher protein content than wheat.

Then Italy, at the center of hunger and migration in a very fragile area of ​​the world, is forced to realize that it cannot afford these crises on its borders. A national strategy is therefore necessary, which does not focus on looking only at the internal hectares and not even only those cultivated by its closest allies (who in any case privilege their interests). An overall strategy is urgently needed, involving the safety of trade routes to all those countries that literally live off the grain of others, all the more so considering that all this takes place in the Mediterranean, where Italy counts less than its main regional rival, Turkey. which moves to the limits of American tolerance, but with skills and results absolutely necessary for it and against which the United States is not willing to act, only to favor the Italian interest. It is an interest that Rome should cultivate with its own forces, especially since NATO and its energies are destined to concentrate further east and north of Europe, and even in the Pacific, to contain China, allocating to the Mediterranean just enough to contain the African ambitions of Washington's rivals, but not to distance them always and in any case from the interests of Italy in the strict sense.

Doing it alone, doing it with one's own strength, is confirmed as a nightmare for Italian a-strategic thinking and yet it is also an opportunity, which in the eyes of the American pivot makes them deserving of greater consideration, more subject to challenges and less object. It is an opportunity to return to the sea with the thought even before the physical articulations of the state.

Italy can overcome the ongoing cereal storm in itself and as part of a crisis system that crosses drought, war, migration, poverty and inflation only if its ability to establish the paradigms of good and healthy at the food level they will become in all respects the soft power of sophisticated power. Obviously, the entire Italian agri-food system cannot obtain these results, if in turn it is not integrated into a country strategy that involves all fields. Which brings to the center the eternal question of the incompleteness of his geopolitical and strategic thinking.

It is therefore not the solution to the wheat problem, which will increase Italy's geopolitical depth, but it is the elaboration of a realistic and therefore effective geopolitical project, which will allow it to have a voice and results even in the storm that upsets this resource.

Photo: Presidency of the Council of Ministers