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martedì 15 luglio 2014

An Italian Story

di Antonio Saltini

 Maize and moths

Many politicians in Italy (and perhaps elsewhere) take it as a rule that convenience determines truth: that is true which guarantees consensus, votes and power, whilst something which might be received with scepticism, indifference or even aversion cannot possibly be true. For any true son of Machiavelli, what is true must be useful.
Having covered matters relating to agriculture throughout my life, I have often had to ponder upon the notions and ideas put forward by one of the powers-that-be in Italian agriculture - Tiberio Rabboni, the Chairman of the Agricultural Department in the region of Emilia - whose mind has recently been exercised by the increasing damage that the moth Pyrausta nubilalis causes to maize crops. Unfortunately, not only does that creature feed upon the plant’s caryopses, but its droppings provide nutrition for a whole family of microscopic fungi which, in their turn, through catabolism release some of the most virulent natural poisons we know amongst vegetable substances (for example, fumonisins, which can interrupt the transmission of folic acid between pregnant mother and foetus, causing irreparable neurological damage in the new-born infant – a phenomenon which is tragically common in Mexico, where maize tortillas are often eaten in place of bread).

Ethical Journalism, Moths and Microfungal Pathogens

Who can forget the twists and turns in the logic of the comments Tiberio Rabboni published in the March 2007 edition of “Agriculture”, a periodical of which he is, technically, the editor? The piece went under the high-sounding title of “Clean-Fuelled Agricultural Journalism” – though it failed to identify those sources of information which were belching out less desirable emissions – and in it Rabboni dwells upon an interview he had given to the suitably deferential Association of Agricultural Journalists in his own region. The aim of the piece was to demonstrate what objective, reliable and illuminating journalism should look like. And in pursuit of this worthy task, Rabboni illustrated how, together with his illustrious journalistic colleagues, he had tackled the theme of how to protect maize crops from the above-mentioned parasitic moth and the host of pathogens it brought with it. Unfortunately, the premise on which the whole discussion hinged was the claim that “there are no types of maize immune to the action of the moth”, hence the battle against the parasite had to be fought using “traditional agricultural methods”. But everyone knows that there are types of maize immune to attack from such pyralides. The difficulty arises from the fact that they are genetically modified, and thus one has to repress all mention of them; “clean-fuelled agricultural journalism” seems to require that one “doesn’t let the simple farmer know” certain things. After all, the “simple farmer” is not so simple that the following thought might not occur to him: “If such types of maize exist, why don’t you let us grow them?” Having made the claim that only traditional means were available to fight the moth, the article then dedicates entire pages to illustrating what such means might be. Fortunately, even in an article written by the chairman of a Regional Agricultural Department there are some shreds of truth, and in outlining this range of agricultural practices, Rabboni admits their scant efficacy. With more than a little linguistic obfuscation, this recognised inefficiency then leads to an apparent acceptance of the use of insecticides. But how can one make such a recommendation in the pages of a periodical which is intended as a hymn to “natural” biological forces? Setting aside the fact that those same “natural forces” can produce poisons more powerful than any concocted in a chemical laboratory – think of cobra venom or amanita toadstools – such heresy is a cause of no little difficulty for the writers of the article. Hence, with great cunning, they simply neglect to draw up a list of the various anti-parasite preparations that might be used. The fact is that nearly all the insecticides authorised for use on crops which might end up being fed to livestock are, after repeated disappointments, recognised as being ineffective. Hence, the unspoken recommendation seems to be that the farmers in Emilia should get on and “do what they have to”, using prohibited substances where need be. So much for “clean-fuelled agricultural journalism”!

The Grim Consequences of a Torrid Summer

From Machiavelli to Tiberio Rabboni, anyone with his own philosophy of truth must apply that philosophy with a certain coherence. The acid proof of the coherence of the principles outlined in the proclamation of “clean-fuelled agricultural journalism” is to be found in a 2013 article in the same periodical, where Agriculture Department Chairman Rabboni proclaims the joyful news that “the maize affected by the drought can be used to produce energy”. It was an article that had been eagerly awaited by the entire farming community of the Po valley, which – due to the long hot summer of 2012 – had seen infestation by Pyrausta nubilalis reach unprecedented levels: in the maize that was already struggling due to the lack of water, the moths multiplied prodigiously, leading to an equally prodigious proliferation of the pathogens that feed upon their droppings. My own contacts with one of the most modern agricultural testing laboratories in the Po Valley had, in November 2012, enabled me to discover that a good 30% of the samples submitted for examination were irreparably contaminated and thus, by law, had to be destroyed. Assuming it to be unlikely that such a mass of maize should simply be destroyed, a straightforward calculation showed that if the figure for this laboratory’s catchment area were repeated throughout the Po Valley, then one would need 100 bulkers - each of a capacity of 80,000 tons – to “cut” the infected maize (and thus lower its pathogen levels); the cost of each such load – given that the United States has tripled the price of maize over just four years – would be around 8 million dollars. 
The truly mysterious thing in the reasoning put forward by Signor Rabboni was that all the maize to be imported from the USA would itself be GMO. Hence, we could have grown it in our own fields – not only avoiding the damage caused by the moth and its attendant parasites, but also producing a quantity of maize much closer to our national needs. Indeed, the most recent GMO maize produced by the American grain industry actually contains genes that make it resistant to drought, so even the effects of the torrid summer would have been obviated. In early August 2012, for example, the world’s press had announced the disastrous effects of the hot summer on productivity levels in the Corn Belt. But then, in the last week of that month, clouds from the Atlantic brought rain to Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota, where the new GMO maize had not withered and died but simply closed its stomata (rather like cacti in the Californian desert) in order to block all biological exchange with its surrounding; once the ground became soaked with rainwater, those stomata opened up again and each acre of maize began to produce the quintals of carbohydrates necessary to fill its caryopses. True, there would no longer be the record crop that had been forecast that spring, but the USA would produce enough to satisfy domestic requirements and to supply foreign buyers (that is, those who could afford the new prices). The incredible aspect of the whole story was not that we had to buy maize from the USA (Italy has always made up its shortfalls in production through purchases in Chicago). It was that, as a result of the loathing for science shown by the often ignorant (even mendacious) environmentalist lobby, Italy was importing 3-4 times the amount it usually did; was forced to buy GMO maize (none of the maize now cultivated in Iowa and Indiana is the old natural-fecundation hybrids) and pay three times the usual price for the privilege. All this while Italian fields could have produced such maize themselves – in even greater quantities and at no risk of damage from moths and micromycetes. 

Ethical Coherence and the Cost of Lies

Once the maize in the Po valley had been harvested, it was established just how much would, by law, have to be destroyed because infected. However, thereafter, the hundreds of thousands of quintals stored in the hoppers of private farms and cooperatives became a sort of state secret; the “cupola” that decides on such matters considered that this was something that did not concern the Italian public, and no journalist should report on the issue. The veil of secrecy thrown over information regarding the contents of these hoppers remained intact right up until April this year (2013). One can only imagine how, during those six months, increasing pressure for some sort of solution had been exerted by all those who were holding stores of maize that were not only unwanted but also illegal (the tests to verify the state of that maize had been carried out, even if the results had been “protected” as a state secret). And thus one has some idea of the relief those self-same people must have felt when, in the April issue of Sig. Rabboni’s magazine, they read the reassuring headline: “The Maize affected by the Drought Will be Used to Produce Energy”. It is a comment that reveals the full versatility of his approach to the facts: when it suits he will deny the existence of maize that is immune to Pyrausta nubilalis, when it suits he will deny the very existence of that pernicious moth. Just look at that expression “Maize affected by the Drought”. The fact is that any such maize would simply have withered caryopses that were low in starch content; nevertheless, it could be fed to any form of livestock without posing a threat to the animals themselves or to anyone who ate their meat. The same, of course, was not true of maize that had been infected with microtoxins. There is the rub: that the Po valley maize was unusable because infected – and that the whole thing could have been avoided by cultivating GMO maize (the same maize Italy was now importing to make good the shortfall in home-gown maize) – was considered a a subject that could “pollute” the happy tranquillity of the Italian public. Lo and behold, the disturbing information could – in line with the spirit informing “clean-fuelled agricultural journalism” – be spun in a totally different manner: the infected maize had become a profitable source of fuel for the generation of electricity. In the twentieth century still one of the most fertile regions in the world, the Po Valley has been cannibalised by sprawling development, with some parts even becoming sites for power stations. Whilst the senselessness of such decisions has often been criticised, Sig. Rabboni here stands as the stalwart champion of society’s future well-being, dismissing those who are the “enemies of progress” and eagerly promoting the creation of large plants to convert agricultural produce into electricity. Thus, he could now turn on ignorant and ill-intentioned critics, pointing out how the foresight shown by his region meant that this particular cloud would have a silver lining: in Italy - a nation that is forced to acquire abroad a large part of the power it consumes - the maize “affected by the draught” would become a source of precious electricity. What remains a very well-kept state secret, however, is the cost of this electricity when compared with that from other sources. A nation’s citizens must always be told the truth but, as we have seen, when that truth becomes awkward and inconvenient, it loses its claims to veracity; at that point one has an ethical duty to deny and dissimulate. 
In line with the far-sighted inter-regional agreement promoted by Sig. Rabboni, the amount of maize destined for the generators was – according to the article in “Agriculture” - 350,000 tonnes; the amount I had calculated in autumn was ten times higher – perhaps I over-estimated, but I doubt that the figure cited in the article really corresponds to the amount of Po valley maize that has to be destroyed. Furthermore, even if it were close to the truth, the figure proposed raises a problem that even those with a glimmer of political honesty must address.
An antique in terms of genetic development, the maize cultivated in Italy not only provides favourable conditions for the proliferation of such parasites as the Pyrausta nubilalis, it also shows no resistance to drought conditions. Allowing that the amount to be incinerated is “just” 3.5 million quintals, when we look at our poor overall production we have to ask ourselves: from June to the next harvest (in September) what are we going to feed the pigs and cattle in this major area of livestock production? How much maize will we be obliged to import solely in order to avoid having to slaughter a good half of the livestock raised in the Po Valley? The right to full and complete information may not coincide with the spirit of “clean-fuelled agricultural journalism” but it is definitely an essential component in any true democracy. And it is in pursuit of such complete information that we would like to pose the Chairman of the Regional Agricultural Department a few questions. How much maize will Italy have to import this year? Given that Chicago now sells only GMO maize, how can Sig. Rabboni guarantee that the DNA of the maize we import will not have undergone manipulation? And if, as seems inevitable, the imports will actually be GMO maize, how many millions of dollars will it have cost us not to produce that self-same maize in the fertile fields of the Po valley? At the risk of appearing to lack clear-sighted – Machiavellian – realism, we not only ask those questions but also expect Tiberio Rabboni to answer them.

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