Italy's prized pesto at risk as basil prices plunge

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The Pra' basil variety, grown in Liguria, is at risk due to plunging prices. Photo: Mohammed Hammad
12:06 CET+01:00
A key ingredient in the traditional Genovese pesto could disappear from Italian tables as plunging prices for a basil variety, cultivated in the Ligurian area of Pra', drive its producers out of business.

"Things have been bad for years,” 80-year-old Pra' basil farmer Francesco Ratto told The Local.

“But at the moment it's terrible. In spite of its quality it is currently the cheapest basil on the market."

The basil, which has been grown on the gently sloping hills around Genoa for centuries, is protected by an EU DOP label of origin, but currently sells for just €0.60 a bunch.

Prices have been driven down by industrial competition from farmers growing other varieties for use in the cheap jars of inferior green pesto which feature on supermarket shelves across the world.

“Nobody makes traditional Genovese pesto at home anymore,” Ratto lamented.

“My basil used to make what was the food of the common man, but nowadays our traditional Genovese pesto is considered a high-end gourmet item.

“The price of the other key ingredient - pine nuts - has been high for years too, which has been another factor in our downfall.”

Italy's agriculture confederation, Confagricultura, has raised the alarm in a bid to ensure the unique flavours of Pra' basil will not be lost from Italian tables.

“Farmers of Pra' basil find themselves facing a real crisis,” the confederation's regional director, Andrea Sanpietro, told Il Secolo XIX.

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“And it's affecting what are generally small, family-run farms.”

Today, the basil is grown by just 100 small-scale producers like Ratto, who runs his farm with his wife. Ratto is aware that retirement is looming and doesn't know what will become of his business.

“The future is not good: at the moment I'm making €12 to €15 a day and with winter coming on, I need to turn the heating on in my greenhouses, which I can't afford to do at all.” 

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