The latest Italian job


The EU’s handling of pesticides and biotech seeds has gotten “curiouser and curiouser” with almost every passing year. But recently a new milestone was established.

European corn borers have been chewing their way through Italy’s cornfields for several years, and also providing pathways and nutrients for microscopic fungi that release lethal natural poisons known as fumonisins, which can cause severe neurological damage in human fetuses. Droughts have further devastated the Italian corn crops. American farmers have successfully controlled both infestations, and low moisture conditions, by using limited amounts of pesticides but primarily relying on genetically modified Bt corn that is also engineered to withstand drought. However, these safe, modern, proven technologies are banned in Europe which means they are unavailable to farmers who desperately need them. That has led to some truly absurd responses by EU regulators.

You have to read Mischa Popoff’s entire story to grasp the insanity of it all. But as they say, the difference between fiction and fiction stories is that nonfiction has to make sense.

Italian farmers, facing insect infestation, pay dearly for Europe’s anti-GM stance. So do consumers.

by Mischa Popoff

“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

italian jobNowhere is the art of bureaucratic precaution and 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.

The following true saga captures the insanity, hypocrisy and tyranny of Europe’s war on chemicals and biotechnology. Lewis Carroll would have been proud to have authored it. The tale would be hilarious, if it were not so costly to so many. The situation certainly has gotten “curiouser and curiouser” with every passing year.

Highly nutritious corn (maize) has been produced in sunny Italy since it was first imported from the New World almost five centuries ago. Corn provides a lucrative export to countries with less temperate climates that cannot grow it. When it comes to staple crops, it has been as important a staple to the Italian agricultural economy as potatoes are to Ireland and Idaho. At least it was, until a few years ago.

No one knows for certain when the tiny moth Pyrausta nubilalis (aka the European corn borer) started eating its way through Italy’s cornfields. Compounding matters, the pest’s feces 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 human fetuses.

In spite of this threat, Tiberio Rabboni, chai­rman of Emilia-Romagna, one of Italy’s most important regional agricultural departments, insisted for the longest time that only traditional, organic methods be used to fight this plague. However, he never explained exactly what these methods were. He couldn’t.

Rabboni has never run a farm, never even worked on one. And yet, even though 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 conceded that synthetic pesticides should probably be used. But the only pesticides approved for use in Europe had proven ineffective. So he indicated he was willing to ignore and not punish farmers who might resort to using chemicals that science oversight bodies worldwide have deemed safe and are routinely used in North America. The chemicals are nonetheless deemed “dangerous” and thus banned by EU authorities, who are guided by the precautionary principle.

Then in July, just as Rabonni was relenting 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 (genetically modified) corn, although the corn had previously never been grown officially.

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 GM varieties of corn that are resistant to this pesky parasite. That means fewer chemicals need to be used per acre to protect against pests. As an added bonus, today’s pest resistant corn 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 because of the drought, moth populations grew exponentially, breeding even more lethal pathogens that feed upon their feces, and thus more fumonisin. But since GM crops are banned in Europe, there was no way lifelong bureaucrat Rabboni was even going to consider making an exception.

Chemicals – even those prohibited in Europe – could be used in emergencies, 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, 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 the majority of Italy’s corn was too toxic even for animal feed. And so, after months of secret negotiations with other agricultural bureaucrats, Rabboni made a rather telling decision:

italian job“Clean” corn could be imported from America to mix with Italy’s toxic corn. But most of America’s corn is GM. So now the same GM corn that Italian farmers are not allowed to grow was to be 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.

Therefore, 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. Instead, it would all go to energy production. Controversy resolved, sort of.

The twisted, arbitrary executive decisions left a huge gap in 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? So Rabboni then made his last and most ironic decision amid 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 for 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. Thus 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, sending feed and thus pork prices skyrocketing.

Meanwhile 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, to be burned for electricity. All just so Europe’s time-honored ban on a perfectly safe, proven 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 aptly summed up the bizarre predicament. “Many politicians in Italy take it as a rule,” he observed, “that convenience determines truth. What is convenient guarantees consensus, votes and power, while 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. Meanwhile bureaucrats thrive – this huge army of aparatchiks, most of whom have never worked a day on a farm, but earn a sumptuous living off the backs of those who do. 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, “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 Garibaldi patriots in Italy these days. And a severe lack of 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, Frontier Centre for Public Policy and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, and author of Is it Organic?  This article is reposted with permission from The Genetic Literacy Project.

About Author

PAUL DRIESSEN is senior policy adviser for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), public policy institutes that promote environmental stewardship, the enhancement of human health and welfare, and personal liberties and civil rights. He writes and speaks frequently on the environment, energy and economic development, malaria eradication, climate change, human rights, corporate social responsibility and sustainable development. His articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines and on news and opinion websites in the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy, Peru, Venezuela, South Africa, Uganda, Bangladesh and many other countries. Driessen’s book, Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death, documents the harm that restrictive environmental policies often have on poor people, especially in developing countries, by restricting their access to life-enhancing modern technologies. It is in its second US printing and has also been published in Argentina (Spanish), India (English), Germany (German) and Italy (Italian). He was editor for Energy Keepers - Energy Killers: The new civil rights battle, by CORE national chairman Roy Innis; Rules for Corporate Warriors: How to fight and survive attack group shakedowns, by Nick Nichols; and Creatures, Corals and Colors in North American Seas, by Ann Scarborough-Bull. His report, Responsible Progress in the Andes, examined ways that modern mining operations can bring jobs, infrastructure, and improved safety and pollution control practices to poor communities. Driessen’s studies and analyses have also appeared in Conserving the Environment (Doug Dupler, editor), Resurgent Diseases (Karen Miller, Editor) and Malnutrition (Margaret Haerens, editor), all part of the Thomson-Gale “Opposing Viewpoints” Series that is used in many high schools and colleges; Redefining Sovereignty: Will liberal democracies continue to determine their own laws and public policies, or yield these rights to transnational entities in search of universal order and justice? (Orin Judd, editor); and other publications. He played a lead role in the “Kill Malarial Mosquitoes Now” campaign, an international effort that restored the use of DDT to African and other malaria control programs, and served as an advisor to the film “3 Billion and Counting,” examining how environmentalist and EPA campaign against DDT had devastating impacts on families in poor developing countries. Paul received his BA in geology and field ecology from Lawrence University and a JD from the University of Denver College of Law, before embarking on a career that also included tenures with the United States Senate, U.S. Department of the Interior and an energy trade association. He has produced documentary films about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, immigration through Ellis Island, and marine habitats beneath offshore oil production platforms. Driessen is also a frequent guest on radio talk shows and college campuses, and at business and public policy forums. He participates in energy, health and environmental conferences, and was active in the Public Relations Society of America, where he served as Washington, DC chapter newsletter editor and in the Social Responsibility Section.


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