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Why a taste for Italian cuisine could become an expensive habit

It's hot in the north of Italy—too hot, even—to the point of seriously endangering the crops essential to all kinds of Italian recipes known and loved worldwide

Published: Jul 18, 2022 05:42:52 PM IST
Updated: Jul 18, 2022 05:54:26 PM IST

Why a taste for Italian cuisine could become an expensive habitA tasty tomato-mozzarella salad could soon cost us more. Image: Shutterstock

It's hot in the north of Italy—too hot, even—to the point of seriously endangering the agricultural crops essential to all kinds of Italian recipes known and loved worldwide. This produce includes risotto rice, famously grown in the region, but also tomatoes and olives, harvests of which could seriously dwindle.

Italy hasn't seen this for 70 years. The north of the country is experiencing severe drought, with a state of emergency declared in five regions: Piedmont, Veneto, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. This dramatic situation is notably due to the fact that these Italian regions have seen very little wet weather since last autumn. Italians did not see much snow last winter, while the spring was particularly warm. As a result, more than 30% of national agricultural production is threatened by drought, according to Coldiretti, the country's largest agricultural union.

First, there is rice. The famous starchy varieties—starting with arborio, which makes a creamy risotto—are grown in the provinces of Pavia, Vercelli and Novara. Some 95% of Italian rice production hails from this agricultural area between Lombardy and Piedmont. The Po valley is the largest rice-growing area in Europe. It offers a real reservoir of water that is indispensable to all farmers in the area. And rice growing has a long history there, practiced since the first half of the 15th century, and channels to drain the marshes have made the work easier. It is even said that this network of channels was conceived by Leonardo da Vinci. According to figures published by the French Ministry of Economy, Italy is the leading producer of rice in Europe. In 2018, some 1.6 million tonnes of rice were grown there.

Tomatoes and olives also at risk

While the north of Italy is associated with rice growing, that's not the only crop at risk from drought. Sicily may be famous for its succulent citrus fruits and sun-drenched tomatoes, but Italy's northern regions are also home to crops of fruit and vegetables. And harvests could be halved compared to 2021. According to a British importer (Eurostar Commodities Ltd) of tomatoes and rice, speaking to the trade publication, The Grocer, the foodstuffs they plan to ship will not only be more expensive but also scarcer.

And that's not all. Italian olives—the aperitivo essential—could too be in short supply. The harvest could be down on last year by about 30%. However, if this could lead to fears of a decline in the production of Italian olive oil, it should be noted that this situation is nothing new. The production of this kitchen staple is now subject to a very high annual variability, with a drop of 50% in 2014 and 60% in 2016, according to data from the French Ministry of Economy. And that's not just for production in northern Italy, but for national production, half of which is provided by the region of Puglia in the heel of Italy. Still, drought is not the only culprit. Since 2013, olive fields have suffered the effects of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which causes the trees to dry out. In France, olive growers in the Gard region are experiencing the same problem.

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