Italian cuisine

Why a taste for Italian food could become an expensive habit

A tasty tomato-mozzarella salad could soon cost us more. Image: Shutterstock

IIt is hot in northern Italy, too hot even, to the point of seriously endangering the agricultural crops essential to all kinds of Italian recipes known and loved around the world. Among these products are risotto rice, famous in the region, but also tomatoes and olives, whose harvests could seriously decrease.

Italy has not seen this for 70 years. The north of the country is experiencing a severe drought, with the state of emergency declared in five regions: Piedmont, Veneto, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. This dramatic situation is notably due to the fact that these Italian regions have experienced very little rainy weather since last autumn. Italians didn’t see much snow last winter, while spring was particularly warm. As a result, more than 30% of national agricultural production is threatened by drought, according to Coldiretti, the country’s largest agricultural union.

First there is the rice. The famous starchy varieties – starting with the arborio, which gives a creamy risotto – are grown in the provinces of Pavia, Vercelli and Novara. About 95% of Italian rice production comes from this agricultural area between Lombardy and Piedmont. The Po Valley is the largest rice-growing area in Europe. It offers a real reserve of water essential to all the farmers of the region. And rice cultivation there has a long history, practiced since the first half of the 15th century, and canals to drain the marshes have made the work easier. It is even said that this network of canals was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. According to figures published by the French Ministry of the Economy, Italy is the leading rice producer in Europe. In 2018, some 1.6 million tonnes of rice were grown there.

Tomatoes and olives also at risk

While northern Italy is associated with rice cultivation, it is not the only crop threatened by drought. Sicily may be famous for its luscious citrus fruits and sun-kissed tomatoes, but Italy’s northern regions are also home to fruit and vegetable crops. And harvests could be halved compared to 2021. According to a UK importer (Eurostar Commodities Ltd) of tomatoes and rice, speaking to trade publication The Grocer, the foodstuffs they plan to ship will be no only more expensive but also rarer.

And that’s not all. Italian olives – the main appetizer – could also be in short supply. The harvest could be about 30% lower than last year. However, if this could raise fears of a drop in Italian olive oil production, it should be noted that this situation is not new. The production of this kitchen essential is now subject to very high annual variability, with a drop of 50% in 2014 and 60% in 2016, according to data from the French Ministry of the Economy. And it is not only for the production of northern Italy, but for the national production, half of which is ensured by the region of Puglia in the heel of Italy. However, drought is not the only culprit. Since 2013, the olive groves have suffered the effects of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which causes the trees to dry out. In France, olive growers in Gard are experiencing the same problem.

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