The organic sector in Italy had a significant, but uneven growth in the last decades. A rapid expansion phase occurred from 1990 to 2000, followed by a period of stagnation between 2000 and 2014. Subsequently, there was a return to moderate growth until 2021. Notably, the organic land management expanded by 77% between 2001 and 2021. In 2021, the overall organic and land area under conversion to organic was 16,7% of the utilized agricultural area (UAA), which is the second highest share after Austria (FiBL, 2023). In 2020, the expansion of the organic market reached a 1712 million EUR revenue, represented mainly by packaged food and beverages (Global Organic Trade Guide, 2023). The total share of organic food sales in Italian food expenditure was 4% of total food sales. The geographical distribution shows that 51% of the organically cultivated land are in four regions: Sicily, Puglia, Calabria and Emilia-Romagna (SINAB, 2020). The two main land use types in organic agriculture are arable land (48.5%) and permanent grassland (27.9%), with a high share of permanent crops (23.6%) compared to the other focus countries (EUROSTAT, 2023b).
Italy has a considerable share of organic in its farming area that is linked to its role as a top-exporter for organically produced high quality food. Although organic and established farmer associations share a commitment to family farming, key limitations persist to growth of the domestic market. While limited resources and coordination across the AKIS hamper innovation and capacity building in the sector more generally, market actors have broadly failed to coordinate and communicate in sufficient ways in support of domestic market development and in raising consumer interest and awareness. This may be partly grounded in the heterogeneity of and conflicts in the farming community. However, and despite existing demand side-oriented policies through public procurement (e.g. school canteens) or consumer organisations’ support (Slow Food movement), the political environment in Italy seems also too passive to overcome the structural problems behind the insufficient regional and cross-sectoral coordination. The regional differences regarding the importance of organic farming are considerable and reflected in different degrees of political and technical support by regional governments.
KEY DRIVERS AND BARRIERS FOR THE ORGANIC SECTOR DEVELOPMENT
Organic farming is established and institutionalised on the policy level in Italy. The state relations are described as generally supportive, with certain supporting measures in line (e.g., subsidies) but overall passive. Italy has had a focus on supply-push strategies for many years. Demand-pull strategies are in place, e.g., public procurement strategies, but several barriers are seen in the overall organic market development. These are often due to a lack of coordination, cooperation and communication between organic farmers and/or relevant market players or with consumers, resulting in in a low level of consumer awareness for organic products. In contrast to Austria and Denmark where large retailers have great market power and outreach, specialised grocery stores are a very important distribution point for organic foods in Italy. Organic products in these stores compete with food labels of traditional specialities and/or labels with geographical indications which hamper the development of the organic food market in Italy. However, such traditional specialities are also available in organic quality (e.g., pasta, olive oil), which has boosted organic food exports from Italy. Experts from Italy report an increased resistance and continuous lobbying against organic farming from different actors within farming system, especially agricultural policy as well as the scientific community.
AKIS in Italy
The AKIS for the organic sector in Italy can be described as a thematic sub-system of the main AKIS. AKIS actors engage in organic agriculture through research, innovation, education, training and consultancy according to a regional setting, with fragmentation throughout the country, and relying on local, regional and national actors with their local branches. The work carried out by national and local networks only partially compensates for the lack of public support (financial and human), with differences in quality between regions and production sectors. However, considering the multi-faceted and integrated nature of organic agriculture, Italy’s organic provisions in AKIS are too fragmented and unstructured to ensure an effective knowledge exchange among AKIS actors across regions and sectors. There are no national funds specifically allocated to the tasks to be performed by AKIS for organic. Even though the capacities and tools to provide more comprehensive support are available for several AKIS actors, they are not used in an organised way to provide well-structured, integrated support. There are shortcomings in the management and overall logistics of support services.
Policy background of AKIS relevant to the organic sector
An AKIS to support the organic sector in Italy is dealt with under both the Italian National Action Plan for Organic Farming and Products (2005, renewed in 2008) as well as in the 2014-2020 CAP framework. The new CAP Strategic Plan aims to:
• Support cooperation among already existing AKIS actors, especially among the independent regions;
• Support active cooperation between research and consulting facilities;
• Set new coordination bodies to support AKIS in all provinces;
• Strengthen the research and knowledge creation through research funding and the actors’ involvement in practice-oriented research;
• Review the bureaucratic system and ease farmers’ conversion to organic;
• Continue data collection and monitoring schemes;
• Support risk management especially of newly introduced diseases
Knowledge creation, research and innovation
Orientation of organic farming research towards practical needs is the key idea behind recent multiple, but not always systematic, co-constructive approaches to research in Italy. Knowledge transfer between research and practice, on the other hand, works well in these cases and knowledge exchange between research and advisory services has improved significantly, especially through programmes like the EIP-AGRI, PIF (Integrated Supply Chain Projects), and RDD (Rural Development Programmes). In the absence of a national e-infrastructure, several platforms provide knowledge exchange with a limited scope and for a specific audience. The lack of continuity of the efforts and a shared vision for the future of the sector undermines effective collaboration on research and innovation in the Italian AKIS.
Education and training
The most important bottleneck to training and education for organic farming is the lack of availability of constant and permanent public educational and vocational programmes on organic farming. Organic farming only occasionally appears in the curricula of undergraduate and post-graduate courses. Training programmes available on organic farming are sporadic, lacking innovative approaches to attract both students’ and agricultural producers’ attention to organic farming. In recent years, some universities have introduced courses on sustainable agriculture (e.g., the University of Perugia, and the University of Milan) that included organic farming practices and principles, and others have introduced a specific course on organic agriculture production (e.g., University of Padova on organic vegetable production), but these are not permanent. Initiatives for technical training and updating advisors and organic inspectors are usually initiated and implemented by third sector operators (e.g., Federbio). Among such initiatives, it is worth mentioning the ‘Academia Bio’ developed by Federbio (Federazione Italian agricoltura biologica e biodinamica), which provides specialised training programmes, coaching and technical assistance in classroom setting or on-farm to farmers, processors and consultants. It operates in close collaboration with training centres, universities, agri-food companies, and associations.
Advice and consultancy
Very few advisory bodies provide assistance to organic farmers, especially when it comes to specific services for small-scale organic farmers. The availability of organic advisory services depends on competent and dedicated people and includes production-oriented technical assistance as well as support for sales and direct marketing.
The organic advisory services available are mainly provided by private bodies. However, there are also public support services, depending on the availability of regional funds and political support. Bottlenecks include fragmentation of the system, lack of dialogue among actors, and lack of a common and systemic way of thinking. The provision of advisory services is still not multidisciplinary, as there is insufficient interaction and dialogue between research actors and those responsible for knowledge dissemination. Advisors tend to focus on rather narrow areas, limiting their attention to certain crops or themes (e.g., soil fertility, plant disease) while failing to provide more comprehensive support. Efforts at regional levels are unable to influence other regions due to the lack of collaboration with inter-regional AKIS actors. There is the need for a better national and interregional cooperation.
After Ireland, Italy is the country with the second highest organic aquaculture production. In Italy in 2020, 10,167 metric tons of organic aquaculture products were produced, which account for around 8% of the total aquaculture production. While this share was higher than EU-27 average (6.4%) in 2020, it is lower than that of organic farmland (16 %) in Italy. Aquaculture production growth in Italy was constant and considerably higher than that for the EU with the production value in 2020 being seven times higher than that in 2012 (1,379 metric tons).
The production of organic mussel is by far dominant also in Italy, accounting for about 80% of the total organic aquaculture production. The other species produced organically are: Japanese carpet shell, Rainbow trout, European seabass, Gilthead seabream and Oyster. While the number of organic aquaculture farms was relatively stable in Italy between 2014 and 2017 (41-42), more producers entered the market since 2018.
Key barriers and drivers of aquaculture development in Italy
Overall, a certain demand for aquaculture organic product (especially for shellfish) does exist and is expected to grow due to environmental and health concerns, but it still appears as niche market, especially due to lack of knowledge regarding aquaculture farming and lack of public awareness. A marketing strategy is still pending that employing a range of different communication channels (e.g., internet and social medias) targets the right audience and informs consumers about organic aquaculture practices as to increase the demand and willingness to buy. Complementary to increasing demand, the accessibility of organic product in places that potential consumers have access (e.g., supermarkets, large fishmongers, or organic food stores) is a key supportive factor. Organically produced fish feed suitable for different species remains a key hindering factor for organic aquaculture development in the country (Sicuro, 2019). It was also found that the price relation between organic and conventional products is still not always sufficient to support the extra costs of the organic aquaculture (EUMOFA, 2022b). High bureaucracy, cost of certification and competition with other sustainability labels (e.g., ASC, MSC) are further key hindering factors.
Knowledge and innovation systems within aquaculture
Organic aquaculture research programmes have been already initiated in Italy, involving both research and practice. These initiatives address technical aspects and consumer perception. However, a more strategic and consistent approach is necessary for the development of the sector. Furthermore, while aquaculture farmers receive consultancy support in the certification process, training is scarce. The current advisory system lacks focus on market integration, branding, or marketing strategies, essential for the sector’s success. Given the fragmented network of actors and the limited interest in organic aquaculture from private advisory services, greater institutional commitment is required.