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COVID-19 pandemic: warning for the sustainability of European agri-food systems

La pandémie de Covid-19: une mise en garde pour la durabilité des systèmes agro-alimentaires européens
Maria Gemma Grillotti Di Giacomo et Pierluigi De Felice

Résumés

Bien que les dernières réformes de la Politique Agricole Commune (PAC) tentent d’inciter au développement des systèmes agricoles traditionnels et des solutions agroalimentaires locales typiques originales (éco-conditionnalité, découplage, marques de production), le processus de concentration des terres, contre lequel l’UE s’est pourtant explicitement prononcée en dénonçant ses effets négatifs (résolution 197 du Parlement européen du 27 avril 2017), continue de générer des entreprises agricoles toujours plus grandes et des reconversions de cultures toujours plus standardisées. Cependant, l’expérience dramatique de la pandémie de COVID 19 nous a obligés à prendre conscience de l’importance de rapprocher les producteurs et les consommateurs pour garantir la sécurité alimentaire, la sûreté des aliments et la durabilité de l’alimentation. En utilisant la méthodologie d’enquête éprouvée du groupe de recherche interuniversitaire GECOAGRI-LANDITALY (Géographie comparée des zones agricoles européennes et non européennes), les auteurs mesurent et interprètent le processus de concentration des terres dans les campagnes européennes et s’interrogent, par le biais de simplifications éloquentes, sur les systèmes agricoles traditionnels et les techniques de culture qui, exprimés dans les paysages ruraux historiques, protègent le mieux les produits agroalimentaires de qualité.

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Notes de l’auteur

Authors' contributions: Grillotti Di Giacomo M. G.: Introduction to the problem; Large land concentrations and family farming in the global/local dialectic during COVID-19; The rural landscape as an economic and social recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. De Felice P.: Method for analysing evolutionary trends of the European agricultural systems; An emblematic example: the Italian agri-food sector in the COVID-19 pandemic. Grillotti Di Giacomo M. G. and De Felice P.: Discussion: the agricultural spaces and the teaching of the COVID 19 pandemic

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Introduction to the problem

  • 1 Boccaccio sets the Decameron away from the city, besieged by the plague, in the countryside wher (...)

1The rediscovery of rural spaces in the most critical historical periods (wars, calamities, epidemics) is a recurring phenomenon (Montanari, Sabban, 2006), documented even by literary works – in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the countryside is an antidote to the plague1. So it is not surprising that the current COVID-19 pandemic has led to a reassessment of agricultural spaces for their capacity to offer both fresh food, work and hospitality (Grillotti Di Giacomo, De Felice, 2019; Luxembourg, Lebrun, 2020). Let us ask ourselves whether, strengthened by our experience during the 2020 lockdown and, above all, equipped with new communication tools and access to services, unimaginable only 20-30 years ago, it is not possible to recognise and design which agricultural systems best perform the function of guarantors of environmental sustainability and food security.

2It must be acknowledged that, with its latest reforms, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has sought to favour those traditional agricultural systems that best guarantee the originality of the agri-food solutions typical of each territory (cross-compliance, decoupling of aid quality regimes). However, the process of land concentration, against which the EU itself has repeatedly expressed its negative effects (Resolution 197 of the European Parliament of 27 April 2017), has continued and continues to generate increasingly large farms and uniform crop reconversions (Grillotti Di Giacomo, De Felice, 2019). This process, which apparently seems irreversible, completely justifies the fact that among the objectives of the CAP 2023-2027 we find, as a top priority, the commitment to give support that is more directed to small farms (European Union, 2021).

  • 2 Although we do not deal with it here, it is worth mentioning that the current unfair phenomenon (...)

3The COVID-19 pandemic and then the war between Russia and Ukraine have certainly contributed to making even more explicit and dramatic the unsustainability of agricultural practices based on extensive monoculture. Both of these unexpected events have made it abundantly clear that the exasperated concentration of monopolies, of any resource and any productive sector, not only always generates serious environmental and social imbalances, often irreversible, but makes everywhere completely unmanageable and therefore fragile any economic-political system2.

4On the other hand, although still unknown, the very origin of the COVID-19 virus – as well as that of other new lethal microorganisms – denounces the breaking of the necessary and fundamental balance that must always and everywhere be established between the activities of human communities and the resources offered by the natural environment in which they live. The jump of species with which the virus has managed to attack the human organism and its immediate spread on a planetary scale demonstrate, therefore, precisely the interruption of that healthy relationship between man and the environment.

  • 3 Where the power of human intervention has in fact been exercised with arrogance on the condition (...)

5Among all economic activities, agriculture is the most directly linked to the dynamics and health of man and the natural environment. This explains the role of “sentinel” called upon to play towards the sustainability of production models: some of which are responsible for the processes of desertification and soil pollution and for possible damage to the health of farmers and consumers (occupational and food-related diseases, hunger and malnutrition)3.

6Today, agriculture is being asked to guarantee and stem any environmental, economic and social imbalance: from desertification to soil pollution; from production surpluses to food shortages; from starvation to riots and forced migrations.

7Here we intend to analyse and identify the agricultural systems that best fulfil the function of environmental and social sustainability, taking into account that the best of them will have to fulfil at least three objectives: to bring production closer to consumption; to exercise proven and virtuous exploitation practices; to ensure the replicability of the use of resources.

8The GECOAGRI-LANDITALY Inter-University Research Group, in order to know, interpret and evaluate the organisation and functionality of different agricultural systems, has developed an investigation methodology applicable on a different geographical scale and replicable in different historical periods. In fact, the new dialectic between local and global generated, on the one hand, by the forced isolation dictated by the rules of forced distancing adopted by all European and non-European states to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and, on the other hand, by the trade blockade resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war, is waiting to be interpreted by geography by applying the tools of our discipline.

Method for analysing evolutionary trends of the European agricultural systems

9In its Resolution of 27 April 2017, the European Parliament stressed the fragmented nature of knowledge of the agricultural reality, complaining that, while there is a wealth of information available on land ownership – provided by the Farm Accountancy Data Network FADN, the Eurostat Farm Structure Survey and the Integrated Administration and Control System IACS – there is still a lack of adequate data processing techniques for examining the environmental and social aspects of the rural world.

  • 4 Already presented at the GIAHS Project Meeting of FAO in June 2004 and applied to the comparativ (...)

10The GECOAGRI-LANDITALY methodology is characterised precisely by its integrated, diachronic and cross-scale (from local to global) approach; the different parameters used in the research – first of all those of the production units – help not only to interpret the complexity and originality of the rural world but also, and above all, to propose targeted and sustainable interventions for contemporary society4.

11The itinerary of investigation is developed through three successive phases: empirical-descriptive; experimental interpretative and evaluative-application. Although distinct as each provides for the processing of different data and parameters, these phases are consequential and complementary; the progression in fact moves from the knowledge of the complex rural reality up to the formulation of application interventions.

12The empirical-descriptive phase leads to examine the external characteristics (environmental, technological, political) and structural features of the agricultural systems present in the territory under study. These aspects allow us to know: which enterprises actually govern the primary sector of that territory; how agricultural activity and production is organised and what evolutionary drives have transformed or tend to transform it over time.

13The experimental-interpretative phase examines the economic and social characteristics of the area with appropriate data processing regarding: the cultivation and breeding choices adopted by the farms; the gross saleable production of crops and livestock; the destination of products and the type of commercial networks. The analysis leads us to measure the density and productive intensity of the cultivated areas; to calculate the economic weight of the different types of holdings; to identify the cultivation and/or multifunctional systems that have been adopted over time, while the title to the land, together with the commitment required – in terms of annual working days – the different types of production systems and the demographic structure of the agricultural tenants help us to outline the social reality of the area examined. In this second phase of investigation, it is therefore possible to establish the different levels of sectoral and territorial functionality that characterise rural spaces, shaping the same forms of the landscape.

14The third evaluation and proposal/application phase examines: territorial characteristics (settlement forms and types of dwellings; levels of services and communication networks; tourist attraction capacity) and cultural characteristics (quality and typicality of local products; food traditions; heritage and cultural and historical events). The examination of all these aspects thus makes it possible: to assess the development potential of each rural area; to identify its strengths and weaknesses; to recognise its current development trends; as well as to assess the opportunities and risks associated with any measures that are intended to be carried out on the territory.

  • 5 The themes of the methodology can be distinguished by:
    - external features: natural environments,
    (...)

15It is a path of research, only apparently complex, that can be applied both ex-post (using data from surveys conducted in past decades) and ex-ante (projecting the observed changes to future decades), to foresee how the organisation and development of an agricultural region will change. Materials, elements and parameters to be used are in fact available thanks to the official data of census surveys and/or surveys and monitoring, commissioned in various capacities by national and international organisations and bodies. In addition to this valuable information, it is always advisable to add those obtained from direct surveys on the territory and/or from interviews with local operators. For convenience and to economize space, we consider it appropriate to outline in footnote5 only the thematic areas and to refer to the bibliography for any further details on the parameters and sources that can be used in the methodology (Grillotti Di Giacomo, 1992; 2000a; 2000b).

  • 6 As we cannot analyse them all here for reasons of space, we refer to the numerous studies publis (...)

16To account for the evolutionary trends in European agricultural systems we will use only one of the characteristics of the methodology which is the “structural” one because it investigates the farm through its constituent elements. The reason for the use of this specific characteristics is justified because the entire methodological itinerary is based on the preliminary construction of the graphs of the agricultural systems and related cartograms at regional and national scales (empirical-descriptive phase) useful for highlighting any anomalies that must then necessarily be investigated in depth through the examination of the remaining characters. The agricultural systems chart represents an initial “wake-up call” index and indicator of a reality that, in order to be then diagnosed/interpreted and treated with application proposals, needs further analysis through other characters (interpretive and evaluation-application phases)6. The interpretation of the structural characteristics of agricultural systems involves the examination of three parameters:

  • 7 As Grillotti Di Giacomo (1992, p. 124) remarks “the farm with its autonomous management of resou (...)

171) the percentage of the number of businesses out of the total number of businesses operating in the territory, divided by size classes.
2) the percentage of the farm area available to the farms of the different size classes (FA) on the total agricultural area of the examined territory.
3) the percentage of the cultivated agricultural area (CAA) by the farms of each size class on the total farm area of the territory (weighted CAA). In particular, this last measure is very useful in detecting the attitude of farmers regarding the productive potential of the lands at their disposal: the percentage of CAA will in effect be higher as well as the care of the land7.

  • 8 The farms were divided according to the amount of their area. A distinction has been made betwee (...)
  • 9 There is a situation of congruence when the difference between CAA and FA never goes beyond 5% i (...)
  • 10 The inconsistency occurs when the difference between CAA and FA is between 5-10% in micro; 10-20 (...)
  • 11 The specularity is verified when the deviation between CAA and FA always exceeds the above thres (...)

18The graphical representation of the three different values restores “the agricultural reality of a political-administrative space” by placing the farm at the center of the investigation, which becomes “a true microcosm in which the entire problematic nature of the rural world is summarized” (Grillotti, 2018, p. 211), while the crop density (ratio of CAA to FA) of the different farm size classes8 that characterize the agricultural system returns us the value of congruence9, incongruence10 and specularity11 of the different systems. We will therefore define each agricultural system through two parameters: that of the size of the farm and that of the difference between the available agricultural area and the area cultivated.

  • 12 The nomenclature of territorial units for statistics (NUTS) has been developed by the Statistica (...)
  • 13 Data from the Eurostat database was used for the construction of the graphs of the agricultural (...)

19The research and analysis potential of this methodological tool also appeared invaluable when we applied it to the study of agricultural systems in nine European states: Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, United Kingdom, Romania and Spain. The choice of the level of analysis was dictated by the geo-spatial classification of Eurostat NUTS212, which corresponds to the Italian regions, the German Regierungsbezirke, the Spanish Communidades autónomas and the French Régions. Data13 provided by Eurostat, concerning the hectares of cultivated areas (CAA), are in fact only available on this scale of detail which also allowed us to compare 171 regional agricultural systems.

20It should also be noted that the level of analysis offered to us by NUTS2 is functional for the assessment of regional agricultural realities and, above all, for the formulation of usable proposals in relation to the application of local policies. The graph of the agricultural system has been constructed for each area examined and the comparison between the various graphs has highlighted the decisive prevalence of farms of larger size which cultivate less than 50% of their total area (inconsistent macro agricultural systems).

21The 171 agricultural systems of the nine European countries analysed through the GECOAGRI LANDITALY methodology give us, at a first glance, a plurality of useful information to better understand the dynamics of agricultural structures both in terms of function and sector.

22The predominant model of the agricultural system of the countries analysed results in being that of macros where the largest percentage of the Cultivated Agricultural Area (CAA) is concentrated in companies that manage over 50 hectares. Then, with respect to the relationship between CAA and FA which gives us the crop density or how much of the land available for the farming business is actually cultivated, the prevalence of the typology of not congruent macro systems emerges (Fig. 1-b) (out of 171 agricultural systems analysed as many as 64 are incongruent or rather the difference between SAC and SAT is between 15% and 40%) followed by the specular model (Fig. 1-c) and to a lesser extent the congruent one (Fig. 1-a).

23The agricultural system characterized by macro farms indicates a predominance of farms over 50 ha and, above all, in the variations of inconsistency and speculation, alarm bells can be seen in relation, not only to land concentration but also to practice of the so-called “artificialization” where the land no longer acquires a land value but a financial one. The complexity of these phenomena always deserves further investigation starting from spatial variables and historical, social and cultural determinants, as the GEOCOAGRI LANDITALY survey methodology itself provides.

  • 14 The graphic representation of agricultural systems in the United Kingdom, for example, is also j (...)

24The prevalence of macro systems, for example, in some regions of Northern Europe (Fig. 2 and 3) is the result of a plurality of factors ranging from environmental to territorial and political ones, such as, for example, the lack of land reforms aimed at a more reasonable redistribution of cultivated land14.

25The problem in many cases, in addition to the persistence of the macro corporate structure declined towards the prevalence of speculation and inconsistency, is also represented by its management. These types of farms are often associated with cultivation not suited to food security but to energy security. In Britain, as Kay et al. reminds us (2015), large estates have been devoted to biomass. In France, where the post-war land policy had favoured the small farmers, there are currently weaknesses that can be read through the macro-specular and incongruous systems. Practices that can conceal agricultural artificializations, such as, in fact, is currently found in the French agricultural landscape where the land is put to non-agricultural use to increase its value. The effects of these artificializations lead to the loss of land (every year more than 60,000 ha of agricultural land in France are lost) and to the structural change of the farms (in 1955 80% of the companies had an extension of less than 20 ha, the current average is about 80 ha) as well as the loss of the labour force (from 2005 to 2016, according to Eurostat data, there was a percentage change of employees in the primary sector of -17%).

  • 15 If we analyze, however, the agricultural land available to farms, we note that the small ones (le (...)
  • 16 This is particularly true in East Germany, where the privatisation of State land and the deregula (...)

26In Germany the number of farms has decreased (from 2005 to 2016 a reduction of 25%)15 and witnesses the process of land concentration also by foreign Germany investors who invest not so much in agriculture but rather in bio-energy crops16.

  • 17 In this regard, a comparison with Eurostat statistics (2016) reveals some data that confirm the d (...)

27Post-communist Bulgaria and Romania are also affected. In Bulgaria, as a result of post-communist agrarian reform, there was first a phase of land fragmentation which was answered by a “re-concentration” (82.4% of the farms are over 100 ha) favoured by local laws and strongly desired by new private landowners (arendatori), financially strong, who have bought large land for speculative purposes ranging from tourism, mining and industrial type agriculture (Franco, Borras, 2013). In this case the structural organization of the macro agricultural systems in the different declinations becomes an indicator for the concentration of land and for the land grabbing17.

28In the dual agricultural system (macro and medium) of Romania, we can, instead, trace the dynamics of the primary sector starting from the post-communist phase which has led to the dismantling of cooperatives with the result of a family agriculture whose echoes can be traced right into the current landscape of medium-sized agricultural systems and an industrial agriculture that finds its manifestation in the system macro agricultural, as confirmed by some quantitative data (percentage change 2005-2016): decrease in farms (-13%), decrease in primary sector employees (-10%), decrease in the farms characterized by family farming (-14%) (Eurostat, 2016).

29The Spanish countryside also characterized mainly by macro agricultural systems and medium-large systems, where medium and large farms prevail (Fig. 1-f), has been suffering for some years from an important land concentration. The detailed study of Marco Aparicio et al. (2013) on the Andalusian case (Fig. 1-b) clearly exemplifies the problems of the Spanish agriculture: decrease in farms, increase in their size, abandonment of land by small owners, consolidation of land ownership. All these problems can be read in the graphic representation of the Spanish agricultural systems between speculation and inconsistency.

30From the monotony of the macro systems that have absorbed the landscape of some Northern European states making them structurally univocal and in some ways uniform, we move on to the changing Italian structural types, the Portuguese and those of Greece’s small and medium-sized congruent ones.

  • 18 This type of system is becoming a rara avis in the European landscape, not only for the typology (...)

31The cartography (Fig. 2) gives us a picture of a the spatial distribution of medium-small and micro systems related to southern Europe (Fig. 1-g, 1-h, 1-i, 1-l). In particular, Greece becomes a kind of paradigm state where we can observe the congruity of micro and small systems (Fig. 1-i, 1-l)18.

32Italy is a laboratory where the different agricultural systems can be observed: from macro to medium-small. The regional scale certainly does not allow us to analyse in greater detail any dystonia that instead occur on a larger geographical scale, as we have seen in other studies (Grillotti Di Giacomo, De Felice, 2021). We will only highlight for Italy the transition from micro-small to medium-large farming systems.

33The decrease in companies (a loss of -32% from 2005 to 2016), in particular of micro companies, the negative percentage change in the workforce (-36% between 2005 and 2016) and in family farming are the signs of a latent and inexorable decline in the primary sector.

34The diachronic analysis of European agricultural systems confirms the important land dynamism to which, for some decades, the countryside of the old continent has been exposed, increasingly uniform by the land concentration process both in the structural organization of farms and in the forms of the rural landscape. The evidence of the acceleration of this phenomenon is shown by the comparison between the cartographic representation of European agricultural systems at the beginning of the Nineties of the Twentieth Century and the end of the first decade of the Third Millennium (Fig. 2 and 3). The two images show, in a lenticular way, the transformation of the countryside into a North Atlantic Europe characterized by macro agricultural systems, which are contrasted by the medium-small and micro-ones of Mediterranean Europe. This structural and functional variety (Fig. 2), expression of historical-cultural traditions and different political events, has been gradually erased. Micro farms, the icon of southern European countries, have been absorbed by medium-large ones, as shown in the second cartogram (Fig. 3), and the biodiversity of typical local crops has been sacrificed to monocultures that have low operating costs, optimizing yields and, however, removing the farmers away from the countryside; in other words, by sacrificing territorial functionality to sectoral functionality.

Figure 1. The agricultural systems of some European countries.

Figure 1. The agricultural systems of some European countries.

Source: EUROSTAT data (2013), processed by the Author using the GECOAGRI LAND ITALY methodology

Figure 2. Agricultural systems in Europe, 1998.

Figure 2. Agricultural systems in Europe, 1998.

Source: Grillotti Di Giacomo, 2000a

Figure 3. Agricultural systems in Europe. Eurostat (2013).

Figure 3. Agricultural systems in Europe. Eurostat (2013).

Source: Cartographic elaboration by the author

Large land concentrations and family farming in the global/local dialectic during COVID-19

  • 19 If we take, as an example, two foods for excellence, rice and wheat, we discover, in effect, tha (...)

35From the forced isolation due to the norms of distancing adopted in the States of the entire planet, a new local/global dialectic has arisen that deserves to be interpreted on both levels of observation. The two spatial dimensions of the large and small geographical scale, the near and the distant, have been confronted, in full pandemic both in relation to the widespread process of land concentration and land grabbing of agricultural systems, in relation to rural areas and the agri-food sector. Above all the latter has stripped down its potential and its weaknesses which in the past were neglected or decidedly ignored. At a global level, the lack – and in too many cases even the absence – of the necessary commercial dynamism, which we were convinced would fully enjoy all the agri-food products guaranteed by that free market of intercontinental spaces, has emerged, imposed at every latitude by the global development model. In the second half of March 2020, on the other hand, we saw the speedy closure of the trafficking of essential food such as rice and wheat19. The dimension of the global space was thus immediately shown as a prisoner of the pandemic, ready to shut down relations and trade and completely deaf to the need to cope with the common enemy.

36At the local level, on the other hand, the difficulty has emerged, for the typical local specialities and for the production at “Km 0”, to succeed in occupying those market shares that have become critical to the large-scale organized distribution; in other words, the difficulty in reaffirming, with the necessary immediacy, their capacity for widespread supply.

37Unprepared to cope with the new market demand, family farming has therefore failed to take advantage of that sudden, unexpected increase in demand. The virtual connection networks – with the possibility of promoting quality local productions and home deliveries of artisanal agri-food products – have appeared fragmented and insufficient. So too many farms have had to struggle not only to promote their products but also the value of their availability and quality.

  • 20 If the effects that it can produce for sustainable agricultural development are clear (FAO, 2014 (...)

38Despite this, everything that happened to the primary sector during the COVID-19 pandemic shows how and to what extent it is possible – starting from and through agriculture – to propose a new model of sustainable exploitation and guaranteeing food security. As it has been repeatedly stated (De Felice, 2020), family agriculture20 is, in fact, strategic and fundamental for agri-food sustainability. It is also able to fight hunger and poverty by guaranteeing food security and food safety, especially in times of crisis, including the pandemic, because it is widespread in every region of the world and more directly related to the basic needs of each human community.

  • 21 According to the European Economic and Social Committee, “1% of farms control 20% of the Europea (...)

39The family-run business must be protected also for its environmental, territorial and landscape functions and because in recent decades the rural world is witnessing, as seen, an accelerated change in the structural organization of companies both in terms of size and in relation to their form of management (Grillotti Di Giacomo, De Felice, 2019)21. Family farming is increasingly being the real opponent in contrast with land grabbing and speculative farming. The countryside is growing without farmers and the land without more crops. In the last decade, European rural society has lost 4 million farmers and over 3 million jobs, thus jeopardizing food security, natural balances and social peace (COWI, 2018), the latter elements strategic for sustainable agricultural development also and above all in times of crisis.

  • 22 Italy with its countryside being run by family farming and with its 7,903 municipalities, with t (...)
  • 23 Although Italy imports 54% of food raw materials, it boasts among European countries the highest (...)

40The process of marginalization of traditional countryside is taking place not only on a global scale, but also and above all in the reality of individual places, a dimension of which Italy offers emblematic examples22 that represent real models to be promoted to reaffirm, together with the beauty and variety of inhabited centers and agricultural productions, the qualitative and quantitative primacy of traditional rural landscapes23.

An emblematic example: the Italian agri-food sector in the COVID-19 pandemic

41Starting from 23 February 2020 – first decree law on the containment and management of the epidemiological emergency from COVID-19 – social distancing measures, limitation and/or suspension of goods and people transport services have been implemented in Italy, giving life to a new geography of space, where the border not represent a meeting and place for exchange, as the etymology of the word teaches us (cum fine), but the limit for people to move and for goods to be exchanged.

42In this new status quo, the agri-food sector has also experienced a different dynamism characterized, on the one hand, by the strengthening of some local production chains and, on the other, by obvious distortions and vulnerabilities. The effects and dynamics generated by the COVID-19 experience urge the need for a structural change in the agri-food chain at different geographical scales in both the production phase and in that of distribution and marketing (Grillotti Di Giacomo, De Felice, 2020).

43The European Commission in the document A Farm to Fork Strategy reiterated, as already repeatedly stated in the literature (Grillotti Di Giacomo, 2018; De Felice, 2018) how important and strategic it is, even in a pandemic phase, such as that of COVID-19, to have “a robust and resilient food system that works in all circumstances and is able to provide citizens with a sufficient supply of affordable food” (European Commission, 2020).

44The Italian agri-food system, limitedly to the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, has responded to new demands by proving to be resilient in the short term, but highlighting at the same time a number of systemic and structural fragilities that in the long term could compromise the food security of the population.

  • 24 The sales of the Italian agri-food supply chain in 2017 stood at 538.2 billion euro with 3.6 mil (...)
  • 25 In 2018 there were 156,118 foreign employees in agriculture (17% of the total employment in the (...)

45Observing the Italian agricultural system – which has been showing a positive24 economic trend for some years – the strategic role of foreign immigrant workers25 emerged immediately. With the measures for the containment of the epidemiological emergency, there has been a gap in the Italian countryside especially for the seasonal workers – in 2018 in Italy they were 450,686 (Ministero del Lavoro e delle Politiche Sociali, 2019) – who were unable to work, putting crops at risk and increasing prices (ISTAT, 2020).

46The restriction for moving on a national and international scale has had a significant impact on import-export, leading, on the one hand, to a shortage of food (in Europe, for example, there has been a significant drop in imports of rice, which has led to the consumption of stocks in the main European producer countries, such as Italy), and on the other hand an excess, in producer countries, at the risk of losses (avocados in Australia, fish products in France, potatoes in the EU). In this phase, the value of local agriculture has also been rediscovered through the cultivation of vegetable gardens, functional to ensure a subsistence agriculture, so much so as to be recognized and included in the decrees for the containment of the virus, meeting both food and leisure needs.

47The multifunctional agriculture sector, which finds its most accomplished expression in the agritourism sector, has suffered a deep crisis at this stage due to the national social distancing decrees that have prevented all forms of touristic activities.

48However, the population remains strongly committed to large retailers both through e-commerce (there has been a 160 % increase in online sales in 2020) and large supermarket chains (27 % increase in 2020). Local grocery stores have also recorded a 40 % increase in sales (ISMEA, 2020).

Figure 4. Type of suppliers of 5 different foods during the pandemic.

Figure 4. Type of suppliers of 5 different foods during the pandemic.

Source: authors’ elaboration on data from the direct survey of Italian households’ eating habits before and during the pandemic

Figure 5. Type of suppliers of 5 different foods during the pandemic.

Figure 5. Type of suppliers of 5 different foods during the pandemic.

Source: authors’ elaboration on data from the direct survey of Italian households’ eating habits before and during the pandemic

49The pandemic has changed, especially in the first phase characterized by uncertainty and fear with consequent rush to stocks, also the type of purchases, favouring the long-term ones. UHT milk was preferred to fresh pasteurized, canned fruits to fresh ones and the consumption of raw materials grew (flour + 213% compared to previous year, yeast, eggs, sugar), for the preparation of home-made food, an opportunity for many families to rediscover the pleasure of cooking and, at the same time, paying a greater attention to food and waste.

50In contrast, the ovine, bovine and partly swine meat, along with the wine sector, suffered from the closure of HO.RE.CA. (Hotel, Restaurant, Catering).

51Resilience has therefore been the immediate response of the Italian agri-food system to the first phase of the pandemic, pursued also thanks to the timely adaptation of the supply chain, but in the long run it will not be able to guarantee adequate food security as the Italian agri-food system is strongly linked and dependent on the global market by importing 54 % of food.

52Therefore, this experience confirms, that it is necessary, even in the pandemic phase but not only, to implement a transition towards an agri-food model declined to the advantage of family farming, guarantor and protagonist for centuries of food safety and quality, economic, social and cultural sustainability.

The rural landscape as an economic and social recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic

53“Everything that, with a healthy method of cultivation, makes the land more beautiful in most cases, not only increases the production capacity (as happens when olive trees and vines are planted in good order), but makes it easier to sell and makes the price go up” (Varrone, De Re Rustica, 1, 4, 2-3).

54It is not simply “The beauty that will save the world”, famous phrase taken from The idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; the recommendation of the illustrious Reatino to the farmers of the classical world actually predate the route taken by our contemporary society, finally arrived to consider the rural landscape as a concrete factor of economic development of the territory; embodied expression and at the same time guarantee the quality and sustainability of that same development (Grillotti Di Giacomo, 2018).

  • 26 Two documents, drawn up on an international scale, clearly indicate the route that has seen the (...)

55If Marco Terenzio Varrone spoke for the benefit of the individual conductor and his private interests, today we know that his statement refers to the whole and much wider cultural and social sphere of primary activity. Contemporary society, emerging from industrial infatuation, has in fact attributed to “beautiful rural landscapes” the status of “heritage of the community”, indeed “of all humanity”, that is to say of the past, the present and future generations, as well as international conventions and political agreements26.

  • 27 Consider the spread of oilseeds and in general of non-food crops (sunflower, soya, rapeseed) as (...)

56The rural landscape, which has always been the scientific paradigm of the geographical survey, can and should therefore become a normative and applicative tool of management and administrative and political territorial planning, also because the assumption “rural equals healthy and beautiful” is not at all or true everywhere. Too many agricultural areas have suffered the effects of land and production speculation and have been attacked by the extension of specialized monocultures, annual and otherwise, repeatedly denounced for ecological failures and appeared with the lockdown suddenly weak even on the economic-commercial front27.

57The “landscape factor” can then help us to recognize and denounce the squalor of speculative desertification and can also help producers and consumers to overcome the risks that emerged in all evidence in the market of quality products. Quality and uniqueness “condemn” in fact – or rather should condemn – every “special” food to be circumscribed to a few elitist and niche markets, should force it to remain “limited in time and space” because it is obtained only in specific territorial areas and consumed exclusively in certain seasons of the year.

58However, the exploitation of the premises by the global market is becoming increasingly heavy. For example, the planetary distribution of some specialities of the food industry (sausages, cheeses) is inexplicable – therefore, to attest and guarantee the uniqueness of a typical quality product against any counterfeiting and/or imitation, it would be sufficient to refer to the territory in which it is obtained, to the document “rural landscape” which, in its concrete extension, certifies the production area and safeguards the commercial income of the farming community. A process unequivocally denounced by geographers and eventually acknowledged and incorporated into the reform of the CAP 2023-2027 (European Union, 2021), where it is clearly stated that the first goal is to provide more targeted support to farms. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced us to have respect for places and times, has taught us that the safeguarding of health and future productivity – ours and the entire planet – will have to counteract pollution, frenetic rhythms, desertification, the stress of the soil and the hydrogeological disruption; it will therefore be obliged to reckon – even without wanting to – and to combine with the historical memory and local traditions.

59The COVID-19 virus has made us understand that the concept of quality of life and healthy lifestyle can no longer be separated from the renunciation of “too much and now”; the care of the fields and the environment requires and teaches us to respect the “slow time” of nature’s rhythms; the time that the wise and patient farming tradition has ingeniously employed, through the centuries, in the single places. And the rural landscapes, heritage of all humanity, document this farming culture by making us rediscover – in the long processes from which every particular “fruit of the land and the work of man” – the colours, flavours, scents and eating habits, from the agricultural year.

  • 28 Unfortunately, eating habits, place names, settlement forms and millenary traditions have been l (...)

60In the second half of the last century, we have unfortunately witnessed a process of homogenization of cultivation, technology, landscape and even of the very cultural fabric of our lands28; energies and incentives have been engulfed by the strongest agro-industrial systems, to the disadvantage of the residential agriculture of proximity and the assiduous, capillary presence of the farming families in the rural spaces. Today we know that crops that are less in need of farmers, desertify the agricultural areas, while those that are most in need of labour and working days trigger local development and valorisation processes also according to the demand for infrastructure and services.

  • 29 “If in the past order and beauty were opposed to the fear of hunger and famine, today they count (...)

61The expressive power of these rural landscapes conveys culture, education and security because it is not only a guarantee of future quality and productivity, but also of the solidarity and generational pact established between farmers and consumers 29.

62Acquiring a new idea of territory is therefore equivalent to introducing public and private actions to reclaim our extraordinary traditional landscape heritage; this new awareness will to represent the only real positive legacy that the COVID-19 pandemic has left us.

Discussion: the agricultural spaces and the teaching of the COVID 19 pandemic

63What we have argued so far leads us to consider the agricultural world as a potential reservoir of innovative offers, useful for building new social relations and for creating a new economy that is slower, less aggressive and, ultimately, fairer and more sustainable.

64Based on the survey itinerary that we presented and applied to European countrysides, it is not at all difficult to recognise the territories where processes of desertification are taking place from those being developed.

65The first are characterised prey to the concentration of land dominated by the annual monocultures and the intensive stabled livestock rearing-undoubtedly unattractive or even desertifying and the second with which agricultural areas are better known to conserve biodiversity and cultural traditions. Indeed, we can observe that it is the same harmonious forms of their rural landscapes that document it and attract interest and attention in every historical phase.

  • 30 It is essential to learn this ability to read, at several levels of observation. It can in fact c (...)
  • 31 According to the report of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy (2019) seasonal workers amoun (...)

66The dramatic experience of the COVID 19 pandemic has also forced us to become aware of the importance of bringing producers and consumers closer together to ensure food safety and environmental sustainability. We are therefore called, precisely and especially as geographers, to interpret the imbalances that have made and make this relationship no longer healthy and fruitful. And we are also called to draw a new geography of space – or rather of spaces – because, if on the one hand the pandemic has widened the geographical horizon to embrace the entire terrestrial globe in a contagion and a need for scientific and socio-collaborative policy that can know no boundaries, neither theoretical, nor ideological, nor political, in other respects severity of infections and optimal solutions to stem them have found explanation only by observing the peculiar characteristics of individual local realities. Complexity, speed of transmission, concentration in precise territories and generalized presence of the pandemic in every country in the world, therefore suggest to examine this, as other contemporary phenomena, using observational tools that – as the graphs of agricultural systems – allow comparisons in time and space and allow the adoption of the transcalar perspective, typical of the geographer30. The different scales of observation can help not only to eradicate today Covid 19 virus and tomorrow other serious viral diseases, but also to address the socio-economic consequences of complex phenomena such as land concentration and homogenization of agricultural systems. The COVID 19 pandemic has therefore made the geographical analysis transcalar metaphor and a warning for giving rise to a new ecology (human and integral) and new political-social relationships to be woven both on a planetary scale and at a local and even interpersonal level. Indeed it has a paradigmatic to observe what is happening in the spaces of the agro-food industry where the two spatial dimensions of the large and small scale, of the near and far are constantly combined and, in the midst of a pandemic, have faced rediscovering previously neglected and/or abandoned potential and fragility. We can and must start all over again from the primary sector and the rural areas not only because during the pandemic they have already played a strategic role for society – ensuring the essential supply for the survival of families in isolation – but above all because we are finally aware that our health is linked the health of the environment and the countryside. The agri-food at the time of Covid-19 has placed us with two opportunities to be seized, also at different geographical scales. The first consists in looking beyond the national horizon of the economic and social spaces by opening our borders to other European and non-European countries, to expand trade flows and to recognize the indispensable contribution of immigrant labour to the cultivation of our fields and the harvest of their fruits31; the second consists in redesigning the horizon of our basic needs, entrusting the demand for quality food products to the trusted supplier, generally the one topographically close to our home or, thanks to the network, that of the short chain that daily brings farmers, even topographically distant, to our table. The Common Agricultural Policy and contemporary society will be able to grasp this important historical moment and treasure the lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us.

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Notes

1 Boccaccio sets the Decameron away from the city, besieged by the plague, in the countryside where the beauty and wholesomeness of nature together with the quality of the delicious food and excellent wines (day before) ward off the risks of contagion and disease (Boccaccio, 1995).

2 Although we do not deal with it here, it is worth mentioning that the current unfair phenomenon of land grabbing by economically strong groups and societies at the expense of weaker human communities and/or those living in developing countries has led to forced migrations, wars, riots and social struggles. Mortality from hunger and malnutrition increased even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. The FAO report (2017) mentions that “after a decade of decline, world hunger is on the rise: the estimated number of undernourished people rose from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016. This sad news comes in a year when famine affected parts of South Sudan for several months in 2017 and situations of food insecurity [...] affect other conflict-affected countries, notably Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen” (FAO et al., 2017).

3 Where the power of human intervention has in fact been exercised with arrogance on the conditioning of nature, human intervention has produced irreversible damage, that today undermine the health of the environment and the very possibility of continuing to produce in many areas of Western and emerging countries. Among the recurrent phenomena we remember pollution of the deep groundwater from the percolation of the herbicidal and fertilizer chemicals scattered on the fields; desertification of the flat areas deforested and exposed to the wind action; overproduction and the difficulty of placing surplus food products on the markets of rich countries, and conversely, increased demand and the inability of poor countries to purchase.

4 Already presented at the GIAHS Project Meeting of FAO in June 2004 and applied to the comparative analysis of agricultural systems of European and non-European countries, the GECOAGRI-LANDITALY survey methodology (SIAE Repository 10 January 2007, Directory number 2007005663) has two fundamental characteristics: it is rooted in the concrete reality of the individual regions, because it examines their agricultural areas starting from the companies that structure the territory organizing activities and relationships; can be applied simultaneously at different geographical scale and repeated to examine the same territory in different historical periods. This flexibility not only allows the comparison of geographically distant and diverse agricultural realities, in terms of size and economic organization. It also makes it possible to grasp the transformations that have occurred in the past and the evolutionary trends in progress to make useful proposals for application.

5 The themes of the methodology can be distinguished by:
- external features: natural environments, agricultural policies and technological innovations;
- structural characteristics: type and number of agricultural holdings, farm area (FA) and Cultivated Agricultural Area (CAA);
- economic characteristics: cultivation and production systems, gross saleable production (GSL) of crops and livestock, type of supply chain and timing of marketing of products (daily, weekly, seasonal; local, regional, national, global), possibilities and ease of access to agri-food production;
- social characteristics: title to land, demographic structure of holders, agricultural year and number of average working days per hectare of CAA, demographic structure of holders and labour, levels of services used by enterprises and present in rural dwellings;
- territorial characteristics: variety of the rural settlement (centralized, nucleated, scattered), land and field layout, cultivation cultural characteristics:
- cultural traditions and biodiversity, specialities and quality of agri-food products, place names, sacred ceremonies and rural festivals, local markets and traditional festivals, local rites and songs.

6 As we cannot analyse them all here for reasons of space, we refer to the numerous studies published by the Inter-University Research Group (Grillotti Di Giacomo, 1992, 2000b; Morelli, 1993, 1996; Moretti, 1993, 1995, 1999; Scarpelli, 1993, 1996; Di Carlo, 1993, 1996; Trischitta, 1993; Grosso et al., 1994; Massimi, 1994; Falcioni, 1995, 1998; Loi, 1996; Truffelli, 2000).

7 As Grillotti Di Giacomo (1992, p. 124) remarks “the farm with its autonomous management of resources, production choices, organisation of work and land layout constitutes the first and smallest geographical element capable of globally and concisely expressing the complex problematic nature of agricultural reality”.

8 The farms were divided according to the amount of their area. A distinction has been made between micro (0 to 2 ha), small (2 to 5 ha), medium (5 to 20 ha), large (20 to 50 ha) and macro (over 50 ha) holdings.

9 There is a situation of congruence when the difference between CAA and FA never goes beyond 5% in micro-companies, 10% in medium and 15% in large.

10 The inconsistency occurs when the difference between CAA and FA is between 5-10% in micro; 10-20% in medium and 15-40% in large.

11 The specularity is verified when the deviation between CAA and FA always exceeds the above thresholds (note 9) of the inconsistency.

12 The nomenclature of territorial units for statistics (NUTS) has been developed by the Statistical Office of the European Union (Eurostat) in order to provide a single and uniform division of territorial units for the production of regional statistics. The EU’s territory is divided into three different geographical levels:
- NUTS 1 corresponds to the main social-economic regions with a population of between 3 and 7 million;
- NUTS 2 are the basic regions for the application of regional policies with a population between 800 and 3 million people;
- NUTS 3 are small regions for specific diagnosis, with populations between 150,000 and 800,000 people.

13 Data from the Eurostat database was used for the construction of the graphs of the agricultural systems, 2013 available on the page https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/data/database

14 The graphic representation of agricultural systems in the United Kingdom, for example, is also justified because this territory, already from the medieval period, was subject to a process of land grabbing from farmers that intensified in the following centuries, as Kostrowicki (1983, p. 64) reminds us, “when the growing need for wool by the manufactures of Flanders made sheep farming highly profitable. It was then that the English lords began to gather their lands in compact blocks scattered among the fields of the farmers”. The organization of the English rural landscape, therefore, for its history and for the political and social dynamics, has assumed its own physiognomy and a clear identity characterized, in fact, by the large size of the large estates to which then corresponded the large corporate structure.

15 If we analyze, however, the agricultural land available to farms, we note that the small ones (less than two hectares) lost between 1990 and 2007 about 103,560 hectares compared to the large ones (with more than 50 ha) that instead have gained 3.4 million hectares of agricultural land.

16 This is particularly true in East Germany, where the privatisation of State land and the deregulation of the land market have led to significant investments and to an increase in the value of agriculture and increase in land speculation.

17 In this regard, a comparison with Eurostat statistics (2016) reveals some data that confirm the distortions of the Bulgarian agricultural system: from 2005 to 2016 farms decreased by 59% while the utilized agricultural area increased by 60%.

18 This type of system is becoming a rara avis in the European landscape, not only for the typology of the medium-small and the micro but also for the congruity. This congruity can be found in Eurostat (2016) data relating to the percentage change of companies that consume more than 50% of final production within their farms: from 2005 to 2016 they increased by 300%.

19 If we take, as an example, two foods for excellence, rice and wheat, we discover, in effect, that these foodstuffs were hoarded already from the last weeks of March 2020. With regards to rice, producers and traders in the East of Vietnam and Cambodia rather than export, preferred to increase stocks, certain that their selling price would have increased significantly on the market. On the other hand, price volatility at this critical stage also affects other products: in addition to cereals, Argentina has increased export taxes by 5% on oilseeds (soya in particular), available on the page: https://www.agenzianova.com/a/5e66e84e48fbf5.54592346/2842952/2020-03-09/argentina-al-via-protesta-settore-agricolo-contro-aumento-tasse-esportazioni-3

20 If the effects that it can produce for sustainable agricultural development are clear (FAO, 2014), its nature and definition is not so well shared – “the family farm is obscure especially in the definition” writes Droving (1956, p. 99) – so much so as to accommodate under the same institution structures often distant by type and function. 36 definitions of family farming have been collected from political bodies, non-governmental organizations and academia (Garner, O Campos, 2014).

21 According to the European Economic and Social Committee, “1% of farms control 20% of the European Union’s agricultural area, and 3% of these farms control 50%, while 80% of farms control only 14.5% of this area” (Comitato Economico e Sociale Europeo, 2015). In addition to the dimension that changes, often in a relationship of cause (increase in the size of the business) and effect (change in title of ownership), it is also the running of the business that loses the direct management in favor of the indirect or, while retaining it, degrades its functions and, consequently, undermines the economic, social and cultural values which the agricultural family institution holds.

22 Italy with its countryside being run by family farming and with its 7,903 municipalities, with the countless centers, villages, hamlets and inhabited centers, spread with touching beauty in every altimeter of the national territory, offers – and not only to the Italians – better living conditions in its rural areas than in those urbanized. We have rediscovered that there are, and are within reach, places and living traditions that are optimally usable, today more than in the past decades, thanks to the spread of computer communication networks, the presence of services on the territory and the possibility of carrying out many remote work activities.

23 Although Italy imports 54% of food raw materials, it boasts among European countries the highest added value generated by agriculture. In 2019 the surplus reached just under 32 billion euros, a quantitative record, despite of a much lower total cultivated area than in other large EU states. See: https://www.istat.it/it/files//2018/05/Andamento.economia.agricola.2017-1.pdf (last visit: December 2022).

24 The sales of the Italian agri-food supply chain in 2017 stood at 538.2 billion euro with 3.6 million employees and an added value of 119.1 billion, making it the leader in the national economy (The European House, Ambrosetti et al., 2019).

25 In 2018 there were 156,118 foreign employees in agriculture (17% of the total employment in the primary sector) of which 36% from the EU and 63% from non-EU countries (Ministero del Lavoro e delle Politiche Sociali, 2019).

26 Two documents, drawn up on an international scale, clearly indicate the route that has seen the growth of the new concept of rural landscape: the UNESCO World Heritage Convention has been adopted by the General Conference of Member States in 1972 and ratified by National Law n° 184 on 6 April 1977; the European Landscape Convention was opened for signature by the Member States of the Union in October 2000 and ratified by national law n° 14 on 9 January 2006.

27 Consider the spread of oilseeds and in general of non-food crops (sunflower, soya, rapeseed) as well as viticulture and hazelnut growing on entire provincial areas of Lazio, Veneto and Southern Italy.

28 Unfortunately, eating habits, place names, settlement forms and millenary traditions have been lost, along with songs and folklore festivals that marked the seasonal rhythms of social life and work in the fields.

29 “If in the past order and beauty were opposed to the fear of hunger and famine, today they counteract the hydrogeological instability and soil desertification; they restore the stress of deafening city life; they reassure the future fate of humanity; they raise a dam of environmental respect” (Grillotti Di Giacomo, 2007, pp. 47-80).

30 It is essential to learn this ability to read, at several levels of observation. It can in fact constitute the winning weapon that allows – simultaneously and with the same purpose – both to act promptly and effectively implementing useful interventions to circumscribe (here and now) timely and well localized outbreaks in individual areas (the magnifying glass of the large geographical scale); is to observe the pandemic in its complexity, therefore from afar, through the correlations between the various territories and the different phenomena observed at small geographical scale (the telescope of Filelfo Pirandelliana memory of the novel Remedy: geography) to be able to develop strategic interventions valid anyway and everywhere.

31 According to the report of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy (2019) seasonal workers amounted to 450,686. In the XXV report of the ISMU Foundation (2019), the presence of irregular workers without a residence permit or a permanent residence is denounced, amounting to 562 thousand units (ISMU Foundation, 2019). Many of the latter are seasonally occupied in the fields from the north to the south of the peninsula.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. The agricultural systems of some European countries.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/docannexe/image/58211/img-1.jpg
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URL http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/docannexe/image/58211/img-2.jpg
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URL http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/docannexe/image/58211/img-3.jpg
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URL http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/docannexe/image/58211/img-4.jpg
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Crédits Source: EUROSTAT data (2013), processed by the Author using the GECOAGRI LAND ITALY methodology
URL http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/docannexe/image/58211/img-5.jpg
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Titre Figure 2. Agricultural systems in Europe, 1998.
Crédits Source: Grillotti Di Giacomo, 2000a
URL http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/docannexe/image/58211/img-6.png
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Titre Figure 3. Agricultural systems in Europe. Eurostat (2013).
Crédits Source: Cartographic elaboration by the author
URL http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/docannexe/image/58211/img-7.jpg
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Titre Figure 4. Type of suppliers of 5 different foods during the pandemic.
Crédits Source: authors’ elaboration on data from the direct survey of Italian households’ eating habits before and during the pandemic
URL http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/docannexe/image/58211/img-8.jpg
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Titre Figure 5. Type of suppliers of 5 different foods during the pandemic.
Crédits Source: authors’ elaboration on data from the direct survey of Italian households’ eating habits before and during the pandemic
URL http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/docannexe/image/58211/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
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Référence électronique

Maria Gemma Grillotti Di Giacomo et Pierluigi De Felice, « COVID-19 pandemic: warning for the sustainability of European agri-food systems »Belgeo [En ligne], 4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 06 mars 2023, consulté le 21 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/belgeo/58211 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/belgeo.58211

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Auteurs

Maria Gemma Grillotti Di Giacomo

President GECOAGRI LANDITALY
ORCID 0009-0006-0669-2409
mariagemma.grillotti@gmail.com

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Pierluigi De Felice

University of Salerno, Department of Humanistic Studies
ORCID 0000-0002-9604-255X
pdefelice@unisa.it

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