GMOs in Italian Artisan Foods: Traditions Impacted by Biotech?

By Andrea Lorini
Andrea Lorini
Andrea Lorini
June 30, 2013 Updated: July 1, 2013

FLORENCE, Italy—Parmesan cheese and other beloved Italian food exports give the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in Italy international breadth. Though GM crops are banned from Italian fields, much of the country’s livestock is fed with GM soy imported from Brazil and Argentina.

On May 21, the Italian Senate unanimously voted against permitting GM crops in the country. On May 31, GM crop developer Monsanto retreated from production in Europe due to lack of demand. Products in Italy must be labeled GMO if they are more than 0.9 percent GM—this does not apply, however, to products derived from animals fed GMOs.

Fabio Veronesi, president of the Italian Society of Agricultural Genetics (SIGA), wrote in an email, “To think of Italy as a country that is GMO-free is misleading. We do not cultivate [GM crops], but we use products derived from GM plants.”

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Is GMO Food Necessary in Italy?

In 2012, Italy imported about three million tons of soy, 85 percent of which was GM. Giulio Usai, an economist at the national animal feed association ASSALZOO, said Italy faces a great shortage of domestically produced crops suitable for animal feed. 

Eggs, milk, cheese, and meat are precious ingredients in Italian cuisine, and Italian cuisine is precious to the Italian economy. 

The European Union (EU) awards various certifications to regional foods—foods of a high quality that are unique to certain regions and cannot be reproduced outside of those regions. Italy has more of these certified products than any other EU country. 

Italy has 254 of these products, France trails considerably behind with 197, and Spain follows with 162. Italy reaps 12 billion euro ($15.7 billion) each year from the sale of these products, 35 percent of which is earned through export. 

Various types of cheese particular to regions in Italy, Prosciutto, and other animal products account for a large portion of these certified foods

Giuseppe Politi, president of the Italian Farmers Association (CIA), said blocking GMOs has become “an issue of a competitive advantage that we want to maintain.”

“We want to defend ‘Made in Italy,’” he said. Politi said consumers do not have a positive perception of GMOs, and he thinks flavor and quality may be damaged in the GM process. 

Politi wants to see the revival of efforts to promote domestic feed production.

Currently, Veronesi said, “if Italy were to stop importing transgenic soybeans [for animal feed], it would no longer be possible to produce, for example, the Parmigiano [Parmesan cheese].”

Greenpeace has a different view. Greenpeace in Italy has a campaign to rid Parmesan of genetic modification. The campaign website states that non-GMO feed is “available in sufficient quantity not only for the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but for the entire Italian needs.”

A GMO-free industry in Italy would require farmers to rely less on soy while integrating alternatives produced in Italy, such as lupine, alfalfa, field beans, peas, and other Mediterranean legumes.

In addition to supporting domestically grown feed, the CIA supports efforts to develop Brazilian agriculture away from high-density monoculture and toward the model of small-scale Italian farms.

Studies on the Effects of GMO in Italy

A 2010 study at the University of Naples showed fragments of modified DNA from soy feed ingested by nanny goats were transferred to their kids through their milk and were present in the kid’s organs.

Increased levels of lactic dehydrogenase (LDH) were found in the goats fed GM products. LDH increases cell metabolism. The study was unable to conclude definitively that the GM diet accounted for the LDH increase. No adverse health effects were shown, but the conclusion states “the longer term consequences to health following GM food intake merit further consideration.”

The conclusion also notes the varying and sometimes conflicting results of studies on the health effects of GMO food. 

The study references earlier research, stating that most experiments have shown no clinical effects or abnormalities in organs or tissues. However, a 2002 study by Dr. Manuela Malatesta of the University of Urbino and her colleagues found a similar increase in cell metabolism among mice fed GMOs. The increased metabolism may have contributed to irregular nuclei formation.

Raffaella Tudisco of the Department of Animal Science and Food Inspection at the University of Naples and her colleagues also hypothesized in 2006 that GM soybean feed affected the cell metabolism of enzymes in rabbits. Tudisco also worked on the 2010 University of Naples study.

Andrea Lorini
Andrea Lorini