The Ministry of Food Gamble

26 Nov 2003

There are a lot of fine intentions and talk surrounding the “necessary” reforms of the state bureaucracy in Italy. Trying to reorganize things in that area is a bit like tilting at windmills. I don’t want to get too involved in the issue, but there is one reform which is crying out for attention. In spite of it being clearly essential, nobody is bothering to think about it, formulate plans and carry it through.

I am referring to the idea of finally setting up a Ministry of Food to replace the Ministry of Agricultural and Forestry Policies. It still continues to exist though two referendums agreed it should be abolished and it finds itself responsible for things which are either beyond its remit or assigned to other ministries. Food has always been an issue of crucial importance and it has been even more in the spotlight in recent years. It involves the lives of everyone and is at the centre of difficult global questions that affect our future, our quality of life, agricultural production, environmental protection and relations with other countries.

I do not see that there is anything so strange in setting up a public body which would be able to intervene and take decisions on a whole range of issues. These issues have so far been kept separate, but even those not interested realize just how interrelated they are.

The European Food Authority was supposed to go to Parma, we were told that it would be located there whatever it took, but we haven’t heard anything further for months. Harmonizing with European agricultural policies remains a fundamental problem and our Minister Alemanno has to watch out that our fragile agricultural sector doesn’t get continually hammered by decisions taken on the basis of production systems very different to ours.

But it is not only a matter of defending a production system based on quality raw materials, traditional features resulting from local geography and history, or ancient traditions which can generate considerable present-day wealth.

What is produced in Italian fields ends up on our tables, where we eat it. We need to promote public awareness and education, defend our ability to produce good food and control the situation so that temptations to raise productivity do not lead to risks for public health and biodiversity.

But what happens now is that once agricultural products are ready to be sold and processed, responsibility passes to the Ministry of Production Activities, whose concerns are to do with Italian industry and a long way from eco-gastronomic values. And if we are all too fat and people don’t know how to eat properly, the Ministry of Health jumps in with its prescriptions inspired by omniscient science. Finally, when it comes to education, we have yet another Ministry involved. It may know its way around the school system, but it certainly doesn’t know much about peas and beans and it will not be able to provide the comprehensive, up-to-date food education programs needed to create discerning consumers aware of taste and production issues.

Agricultural production, markets, the processing of raw materials, controls of all types, gastronomy, consumption and education are all part of an integrated whole. They know that at the Ministry of Agricultural and Forestry Policies, but they can’t control the entire chain, so the system is shaky.

When it comes to going somewhere like Cancun, it means two lots of representatives have to travel if decisions have to be taken on GMOs: the Health Ministry scientist sees things with a clinical eye and addresses potential effects on humans, while the industrial expert from the Ministry of Production Activities sees the money that can be made.

Minister Alemanno then has a tough job reaching a clear-cut decision. And as for us, if the worst comes to the worst, we are already eating it. We need a Ministry of Food: it is a simple and sensible reform. I hope that isn’t the problem.

First printed in La Stampa on October 26 2003

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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