In the early 1980s the organic farming movement of Italy was small and scattered among many regional and local groups. Many active organic development projects, especially in Sicily and southern Italy, were managed by foreign organizations, mainly German and Dutch. These projects provided raw materials and fresh organic products for the faster growing northern European markets, but they had little or no connection with the local organic pioneers, and referred to foreign standards and certification.
In January 1983, with the participation of the main leaders of the pioneering Italian organic movement, the cultural association AAM TerraNuova organized a national conference in Rome. It was agreed at the meeting that there was an urgent need for common organic agriculture standards and certification criteria. It was felt that the IFOAM Basic Standards should be used as a framework. The title of the event was ‘Cos’è Biologico’ or, in English, ‘What is organic?’, a name that was maintained for a subsequent meeting in Bologna and for a National Technical Commission that was established later. The National Commission ‘Cos’ è Biologico’ acted as a democratic umbrella for the growing movement, which consisted mostly of regional and local groups of organic and biodynamic farmers, technicians, and consumers. The Biodynamic Association, Suolo e Salute, and BioAgriCoop were part of the Commission.
The first Italian Organic Agriculture Standards were published in 1986. By that time more regional associations, cooperatives, and consortia had been formed, sometimes with an internal certification system based on the newly defined common standards. Many of them also acted in the marketplace, trying to organize trade in foreign markets, but also establishing local markets and connections with shops in the cities of the north. There were many partnerships between these actors, starting with the definition of common criteria for certification and developing into a commercial relation.
In 1988 the Commission founded the Italian Association for Organic Agriculture, AIAB. Through AIAB a national system for supervision was established and most of the regionalorganizations were granted recognition. Like AIAB, most of the regional organizations founded in the 1980s refer to IFOAM in their statutes and legal constitution. Consequently the IFOAM Basic Standards were used as a reference together with the Cos’è Biologico / AIAB standards in the first proposal of a National Law on Organic Agriculture, presented by the Green Party in 1988.
The Italian organic movement’s active participation in IFOAM started only by the end of the 1980s. The first international conference of Organic Agriculture in the Mediterranean Countries AgriBioMediterraneo, in Vignola in 1990, attracted most of the organic movements’ representatives of the Mediterranean Region. This was the start of a series of conferences in the following years, which gave birth to a coordinating initiative and developed into a regional group in IFOAM. The active participation in the IFOAM EU regional group gave more chances for the Italian movement to exchange know-how on the issues of standard setting, certification, and agricultural policymaking and lobbying.
In these early years the organic movement felt an urgent need for a law. Initiatives to build a national market for organic products were hampered by authorities who considered the unregulated organic market ‘illegal’ or ‘fraudulent’. Pushed by alliances of organic farmer, consumer and environmental organizations, some regional governments set up legislation for organic agriculture with rules mostly based on the standards of the Cos’è Biologico Committee / AIAB. Some support for promotion, market development, extension, and experimentation was included. Cooperation with the authorities in writing the rules and procedures made the organic sector more and more effective on both the regional and national levels, which was a good start at the time of the implementation of the EU Regulation on organic agriculture.
The lack of state support in the early days meant that the private sector had to rely on itself to cope with the rapid growth of the organic movement in Italy. The older grassroots associations invested a lot of resources to organize the production, distribution, and promotion of organic products for the domestic market. Without this small but highly motivated organic sector, the growth of the organic movement in Italy would never have reached today’s level. The strength of the organic movement in Italy has been the ability of the producers to build effective alliances with the growing number of consumers and with the environmental movement, and to communicate and interact with IFOAM.
Case Studies in Italy
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