The EU’s rice policy was one of the hottest points on the agenda at the meeting of the Council of Ministers in Brussels last week, called to examine plans for mid-term reform of the CAP drawn up by Commissioner for Agriculture Fischler.
The prospects still look grim for Italian rice growers, apparently facing an irresolvable predicament: their overproduction subsidies will be cut by at least 50%, while direct payments (based on the amount of land cultivated) are increased. In other words, if they plant as large an area as possible (to attract payments based on area cultivated), they will then be landed with surpluses whose subsidies are so low that it is not worth their while growing anything.
What’s more, since there are large quantities of produce on the market, prices will be depressed and it will not be possible to compete with imported rice. If prices are low, their safety net will disappear and a completely free market will leave them at the mercy of huge price oscillations caused by the speculation of companies, multinationals and international traders. This new regulation will in fact have the effect of adding the finishing touches to a trend evident—and foreseeable—for some time in Europe: the discouragement of large-scale production.
Even if this position might be acceptable in principle, the situation is actually very complex, since it involves an interaction of local and global forces. We are witnessing pressure from the world’s poorest countries, which from 2008 will have free access to the European market for their produce (without any customs duties), but also have to take into account the legitimate expectations of struggling farmers here. It would seem that the result of this struggle—a defeat for Italian rice growing—is a foregone conclusion. Who’s to blame? What are the prospects for the future? Large Italian rice producers certainly haven’t done themselves a favor by adopting practices that have erased some of the distinctive characteristics of different varieties. They have done this by ‘parboiling’—cooking the rice grains at high temperatures to gelatinize the starch, which makes the grains stickier and less likely to break during processing. As far as they are concerned, it makes no difference whether the rice is Italian or not. When rice from less developed countries is available at a lower price, which are they most likely to buy? At the same time, who is going to save these newly ‘advantaged’ countries from overproduction and monoculture farming?
I don’t think it’s too fanciful to envisage crises similar to the ones now being experienced in coffee and cocoa production. It’s pretty clear that to stake everything on a global market with the present rules would be to lose out. Many small farms would be forced to give up, but I’m sorry to hear many rice growers fatalistically saying that they can still get by for a few years and “Then we’ll see”.
Let’s remember that the Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano varieties are unique to us here in Italy and they are intimately bound up with our culinary traditions, especially of course with risotto. We should insist on knowing where our food comes from and having clear traceability, since we have the right to know what type of rice we are eating.
Our only option is to compete in terms of quality, by which I mean highlighting the specific, distinctive nature of our produce. I would like therefore to encourage our rice growers to accept this challenge, and not to resign themselves to their fate or rail against the European Union. I can well understand their despondency and the difficulties they face, but at this juncture it is essential to focus on quality as much as possible, explaining that a risotto using parboiled rice is not a real risotto and making sure that accurate information is disseminated.
It is vital to involve consumers, educating them not only to appreciate quality but to also make proper purchasing decisions. We will do all we can to put this into effect. If rice growers really want to pick on someone, they should look at some of the large companies (do we need to name names?), who certainly haven’t made them a fortune and are responsible for the their present plight. Italian rice growers have an incomparable product and they shouldn’t be afraid of an open market, but at the same time producers from less developed countries should be producing mainly for their fellow countrymen. The people trading rice around the world are responsible for some of the mistaken notions. Sooner or later subsidies will be eliminated and import duties will have to fall. We grown excellent products on our land which cannot be reproduced anywhere else. If we recognize and develop their potential, I’m sure we’ll be up to the challenge.
First printed in La Stampa on 16/3/2003
Adapted by Ronnie Richards