It was once the Vatican that had the most important eyes and ears in every corner of rural Italy.
Now churchgoing is waning and politicians hunting votes increasingly depend on another power-broker with that kind of all-pervasive reach: Coldiretti, the country’s leading farming union.
In a highly fragmented country, Coldiretti is one of the few power networks to run nationwide, down the whole mountainous boot, from the Alpine villages of Trentino to the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria. Since its creation in 1944, it often acted in lockstep with the Vatican to drum up support for the centrist Christian Democrats against the post-war surge of Communism, and it now claims a massive web of influence based on 1.6 million members and 800 regional offices.
The mandatory labels are an unambiguous testament to the sway of Coldiretti
Securing Coldiretti’s matrix of rural voters at election time comes at a high price, however. Over the past decades, the union has extracted benefits for farmers from governments of every political hue, including health insurance, pensions and — more recently — a landmark tax cut.
Buoyed by these domestic victories, Coldiretti is now making demands that trigger alarm on the global stage.
Led by 37-year-old Roberto Moncalvo, the farmers are at the vanguard of a well-oiled, but highly contentious, campaign to enshrine the “Made in Italy” label for the country’s most cherished foodstuffs, from pasta to tomatoes. Steered by Coldiretti, Italy’s government rolled out mandatory origin labels for dairy, pasta and rice over recent months, even though Rome’s legislation could spark battles with both the European Commission and major international farming powerhouses like Canada and Brazil.
Members of the Italian farmers union Coldiretti demonstrate on March 7, 2017 in Rome for more assistance following an earthquake that hit between the Marche, Abruzzo, Umbria and Lazio regions in Italy | Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images
Compulsory origin labels are one of the most hotly contested topics in food policy. The European Union argues that they should be voluntary, and that obligatory labels pose a threat to the single market by encouraging consumers to buy local. Ottawa complains that the labels are simply protectionism, intended to bolster Italian farmers by turning consumers against durum wheat from the plains of Canada (from which more than half of Italian pasta is made).
Calling the shots
Given these sensitivities, the mandatory labels are an unambiguous testament to the sway of Coldiretti: Italy’s government decided it was better to risk years of international legal tussles rather than disappoint the farmers. Legally, Rome was supposed to clear its labeling move with Brussels first, but didn’t. Major agricultural exporters such as the U.S., Canada and Brazil have also raised their concerns about Italian labels at the World Trade Organization.
“Straight up, Coldiretti has power,” said Paolo De Castro, a former Italian agriculture minister who is now a lawmaker who sits on the European Parliament’s agriculture committee. “If I look overall at their relationship with the government in the last 10 or 15 years, the role of Coldiretti has been central both for governments on the center-right and center-left. The question now is how they continue to influence a growing movement to support ‘Made in Italy,’ not only at national level but, most importantly, at EU level.”
De Castro said “Made in Italy” labels are not protectionism but simply provide consumers with information they have every right to know
Italy’s centrist parties are descendants of the post-war Christian Democrats, which unraveled in the major tangentopoli bribery scandal in the early 1990s. The historian Salvatore Lupo describes the union as having been both a “creation” of the Christian Democrat movement and an “important pressure” group on the party.
Like many Italian policymakers, De Castro said “Made in Italy” labels are not protectionism but simply provide consumers with information they have every right to know. “It is very important to improve knowledge for the consumer. If canned tomatoes are coming from China they should not be labeled as Italian tomatoes,” he added.
In an interview, Moncalvo was happy to take the credit for Italy’s sledgehammer approach to labels.
“We have built all the social discussion on mandatory labels of origin … We have built this discussion in the years of 2001 and 2002 and it was at the base of our alliance with society and consumers.”
The farmers’ friend
The labeling bills won the group huge support in rural areas where farmers are concerned about possible cuts to their EU subsidies following Brexit, and rice farmers fret over cheap imports from countries like Thailand and Cambodia.
Always a force to be reckoned with, Coldiretti has been riding a wave of confidence since 2015. During Milan’s World Expo that September, then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi addressed a 30,000-strong crowd waving yellow Coldiretti flags to tell them the government would implement a new policy exempting farmers from having to pay an unpopular property tax known as IMU.
“It’s the largest tax exemption in agriculture of the last 50 years,” Moncalvo said proudly, adding that Renzi had never previously engaged with his association during his political career. The following year, in an identical flag-waving rally, Renzi announced to farmers that he would roll out origin labels for milk.
This year, Coldiretti also successfully convinced large food processors such as Ferrero — the maker of the confectionary items Nutella and Kinder Surprise — to join a new association called Filiera Italia, to fight so-called traffic light labels in France and the U.K. These warning labels slap the color red on highly sugary, fatty or salty foods, putting Italian products such as olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano in the danger zone.
“All their policies are geared to give the Coldiretti brand a greater value” — Mario Guidi, former president of Confagricoltura
Representing some 75 percent of Italy’s farmers, the union has also fought strongly against the illegal employment of agricultural workers for little pay and recently participated in the launch of a research center called Osservatorio Agromafie to raise awareness about the role played by the mafia in the agri-food sectors.
Playing to the crowd
Coldiretti’s critics, however, accuse it of spreading a populist, negative message on issues such as pesticides, genetically modified crops and even the recently concluded EU trade agreement with Canada, CETA. Many farmers fear big EU trade deals with heavyweight meat and grain exporters such as Canada.
“All their policies are geared to give the Coldiretti brand a greater value, as seen with their [negative] stance on [the pesticide] glyphosate and CETA,” said Mario Guidi, the former president of Confagricoltura, a union representing large agricultural enterprises. “Ninety-nine percent of the agricultural sector knows how important the herbicide is, but Coldiretti provided no vocal support to the herbicide as it did not want to aggravate the political parties opposing it.”
Coldiretti banners hang from the Milan Stock Exchange, where pig farmers held a protest in 2011. In front of the building stands a 36-foot-tall sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan, middle finger extended skyward | Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Though Guidi recognized Coldiretti had become the No. 1 Italian agricultural organization, and that its work impresses politicians on both sides of political spectrum, he doubted the union was really at the service of farmers and was more dedicated to its own advancement.
“What have they actually achieved for farmers?” he asked. “Nothing, but for Coldiretti a lot.”
Moncalvo has pushed back hard against accusations that Coldiretti is on the make, and denied Italian press reports accusing one of its most senior officials of earning millions of euros.
Its raison d’être, he said, is to defend the interest of local farmers and consumers. The EU trade agreement with Canada was a clear example of a case where Coldiretti was willing to strike out against Rome.
“We praised [Italian Agriculture Minister Maurizio] Martina for his support for origin labels and we marched against the government when they announced they intended to ratify CETA,” he said.
“Our rationale is that we present proposals and we praise those who support them, as it was the case with origin labeling … We attack whoever supports policies that we disagree with.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.
This article is part of the special report Leveraging Food Labels.