Farmers fear for their land as hazelnuts spill over Italian hills

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Giacomo Andreocci, who runs a small organic farm in the hills north of Rome, said he felt like part of an endangered breed – thanks to a chocolate spread loved by millions .

The land around where he operates in the municipality of Vignanello was once planted with a diverse mix of olives, vines and hazelnuts.

But lately, spurred on by Ferrero, the Italian company that makes Nutella, many surrounding valleys have been turned into intensive hazelnut trees, with monoculture plantations replacing grassy pastures, small farms and rows of vines.

“The cultivation of hazelnuts has exploded massively, causing such a rapid change in the ecosystem around us that nature is no longer able to sustain it,” said Andreocci, walking along a track at the farm where he cultivates a range of crops.

“Now, hazelnuts are planted everywhere. . . and they suck up all the resources of our land.

Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, aims to increase Italian production of hazelnuts by 30% to 90,000 hectares by 2025 © Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg

The changes that dismay Andreocci encompass a multitude of global themes, from food security and international supply chains to growing environmental concerns.

Ferrero’s decision to relocate some of its nut supplies from Turkey, its main supplier and the world’s largest producer, has responded to calls from manufacturers to shorten supply chains, boost local production and strengthen oversight. sustainability and labor rights.

“Consumers in general are increasingly aware of how their product is made and where it comes from,” said Ishan Das of Freeworld Trading, a UK nut trader.

But Ferrero’s change has stoked environmental concerns and divided local communities between those who welcome the chance to maximize their income versus those who believe the resulting monoculture will create an environmental stalemate.

Hazelnuts have been cultivated around Vignanello since the 1960s. But under a 2018 plan dubbed Progetto Nocciola Italia, or Italian walnut project, Ferrero set out to increase national production by 30% to 90,000 hectares. by 2025.

Pressure had grown for the world’s largest buyer of hazelnuts to step up local purchases, with Italian politicians criticizing the private group for its reliance on Turkish supplies. Ferrero also faced competition from the Italian food group Barilla, which launched a spread made from “100% Italian hazelnuts”.

Ferrero said his relocation plan focused on areas where hazelnut orchards could be integrated with other crops, adding that he also wanted to prevent the abandonment of uncultivated farmland.

Tree map showing world production of hazelnuts in 2019

But environmental experts point out that this has led local farmers to plant nut trees where they don’t naturally grow, such as near the sea. Intensive agriculture can also deplete underground aquifers and deprive native species of their habitat. .

“The more we pursue this approach, the more we move towards a point of no return,” said Goffredo Filibeck, environmental researcher at the University of Tuscia in Viterbo.

Environmentalists also claim that monocultures help spread plant diseases and insects, resulting in greater use of pesticides and herbicides. However, the Italian government’s national recovery plan includes an agricultural component of 6.8 billion euros, part of which aims to stimulate organic farming, improve biodiversity and reduce the use of chemicals.

“When there is biodiversity. . . you have a perfectly balanced system, ”said Fernando Testa, an agricultural technician who works in Vignanello.

Ferrero strongly rejects claims that his actions harm the environment.

“The cultivation of hazelnuts does not destroy the Italian countryside; in fact, the country has a long history of growing hazelnuts and is one of the main producing countries, with Italian hazelnuts being used by companies in several sectors, ”he said in a statement to the Financial Times.

The company said it has brought together agricultural and scientific experts to address sustainability challenges and is promoting best practices through its sustainability program. Many Italian farmers have also praised the income from growing nuts.

“This debate is surreal,” said Lorenzo Bazzana of Coldiretti, the Italian farmers’ union. “Monoculture, whether wheat, corn or grapes, is nothing new. . . It is up to each entrepreneur to make his own choices and is responsible for following good agronomic techniques.

Growers protest against Ferrero in Rome in 2018: Monocultures are believed to spread plant and insect diseases, resulting in more pesticides and herbicides © Stefano Montesi / Corbis / Getty Images

The debate in Italy comes as the global nut supply chain comes under increasing scrutiny. While Ferrero monitors sustainability of its supplies, California almond growers have faced a backlash over their intensive water use, while cashew supply chains from Africa to South Asia have raised concerns concerning working practices.

Growing more nuts in Italy helps Ferrero shorten some supply chains and increase its oversight capacity. It currently buys a third of Turkey’s annual crop, which accounts for 65 to 70 percent of global hazelnut production, as well as sources in Chile and Georgia.

But as the Italian hazelnut industry expands, producers are under additional pressure to maintain high-quality supplies.

“The market must be constantly supplied. He wants the perfect hazelnut and he wants it fast, ”said Marcello Lagrimanti, who started growing hazelnuts in Vignanello in 2017.

While surveying the farms around him, Andreocci said he understood his neighbors’ motivations but feared for what it would mean.

“From an economic point of view, at the moment [this] is the best thing ever. When a big business comes along, the local community focuses on a product that pays off. Jobs and wealth are created, ”he said.

“But what are we leaving to future generations? If we continue to plunder the land as we do, there will only be desert left.

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