Farmers fear on their land as hazelnuts spread across the hills of Italy

Giacomo Andreucci, who runs a small organic farm in the hills north of Rome, said he feels like he’s part of a dying breed — thanks to the chocolate spread loved by millions.

The land around where it was grown in the municipality of Vignanello was cultivated with a varied mixture including olives, vines and hazelnuts.

But recently, under the leadership of Ferrero, the Italian company that makes Nutella, many of the surrounding valleys have been converted to intensive hazelnut farming, with monocultures replacing grass pastures, small farms, and rows of vineyards.

“Hazelnut cultivation has become so widespread, causing such rapid change in the ecosystem around us that nature can no longer sustain it,” said Andrushi, walking along a path on the farm where he grows a range of crops.

“Hazelnut trees are now planted everywhere . . . and they are absorbing all the resources of our earth.”

Ferrero, maker of Nutella, aims to increase production of Italian hazelnuts by 30 percent to 90,000 hectares by 2025 © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The changes Androschi frowns on include a range of global topics, from food security and international supply chains to growing environmental concerns.

Ferrero’s decision to restock some of its nut supplies from Turkey, its main supplier and world’s largest producer, came in response to calls from manufacturers to shorten supply chains, boost local production, and raise sustainability and labor rights monitoring.

“Consumers in general are becoming more aware of how their products are produced and where it comes from,” said Ishan Das of Freeworld Trading, a UK nut trader.

But Ferrero’s shift has raised environmental concerns and divided local communities into those who welcome the opportunity to maximize their income versus those who believe the resulting monoculture will create an environmental dead end.

Hazelnuts have been grown around Vignanello since the 1960s. But under a 2018 plan called Progetto Nocciola Italia, or the Italian walnut project, Ferrero has set out to increase national production by 30 percent to 90,000 hectares by 2025.

Pressure has been building on the world’s largest buyer of hazelnuts to increase domestic purchases, with Italian politicians criticizing the privately owned group for its reliance on Turkish supplies. Ferrero also faced competition from Italian food group Barilla, which launched a spread made with “100 percent Italian hazelnuts.”

Ferrero said her resettlement plan focuses on areas where hazelnut orchards can be combined with other crops, adding that she also wants to prevent uncultivated farmland from being abandoned.

Tree map showing global hazelnut production for 2019

But environmental experts point out that this has led to local farmers planting walnut trees where they do not grow naturally, such as near the sea. Intensive farming can also deplete aquifers and rob native species from their habitats.

“The more we pursue this approach, the more we move toward the point of no return,” said Goffredo Filipec, an environmental researcher at the University of Tocia in Viterbo.

Ecologists also say that monoculture helps spread plant diseases and insects, leading to increased use of pesticides and herbicides. However, the Italian government’s national recovery plan has an agricultural component worth 6.8 billion euros, part of which seeks to promote organic farming, improve biodiversity and reduce the use of chemicals.

“When there is biodiversity . . . you have a perfectly balanced system,” said Fernando Testa, an agricultural technician who works at Vignanello.

Ferrero strongly rejects allegations that her actions harm the environment.

“Hazelnut cultivation does not destroy the Italian countryside. In fact, the country has a long history of cultivating hazelnuts and is one of the major producing countries, with Italian hazelnuts being used by companies in many industries.

The company said it has brought together agricultural experts and scientists to address sustainability challenges and that it has promoted best practices through its sustainability programme. Many Italian farmers also welcomed the income provided by walnut cultivation.

“This controversy is surreal,” said Lorenzo Bazzana of Coldiretti, the Italian farmers’ union. “Monoculture, be it wheat, corn or vineyards, is nothing new… It is up to each entrepreneur to make his own choices, and it is his responsibility to follow the correct farming methods.”

Producers protest Ferrero in Rome in 2018: monoculture is believed to spread plant diseases and insects, leading to more pesticides and herbicides. © Stefano Montesi / Corbis / Getty Images

The controversy in Italy comes as the global nuts supply chain faces increased scrutiny. While Ferrero Watching sustainability Of its supplies, California almond growers have faced a backlash due to their extensive use of water, while cashew nut supply chains from Africa to South Asia have raised concerns about labor practices.

Growing more nuts in Italy helps Ferrero shorten some supply chains and increase their ability to monitor. It currently buys a third of Turkey’s annual crop, which represents 65-70 percent of the world’s hazelnut production, as well as sources from Chile and Georgia.

But as the hazelnut industry in Italy escalated, pressure increased on farmers to maintain a high-quality supply.

“The market has to be fed constantly. She wants the perfect hazelnut and she wants it fast,” said Marcello Lagermante, who started growing hazelnuts in Vignanello in 2017.

While surveying the farms around him, Andreuchi said he understands his neighbors’ motives but fears what that might mean.

“From an economic point of view, now [this] It is the best thing there is. When a major company arrives, the local community focuses on a product that pays off. “Jobs and wealth are created,” he said.

But what do we leave for future generations? If we continue to plunder the land as we do, then there will be nothing left but the desert.”

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