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FARMING

Why farmers in Puglia have turned to cannabis

In the fields around Taranto, Puglia, more and more farmers are sowing fields of cannabis in a bid to save their precious soil which has been rendered unsafe thanks to years of pollution from Europe's biggest steel plant.

Why farmers in Puglia have turned to cannabis
(T) Ilva steel factory in Taranto and (B) a cannabis plant. Photo: Mario Laporta/Justin Sullivan/AFP

The 15 million square metre Ilva steel plant provides some 14,000 local jobs but the plant has wreaked untold damage on the region by spewing toxic emissions into the air for decades

The emissions have caused severe problems for farmers within a 20km radius of the steel plant who can no longer farm their land. The problem is dioxins: a series of carcinogenic compounds which are released into the atmosphere by heavy industries and then fall to earth, building up in soil.

Things became so bad in 2008 that Puglia's regional government ordered local farmers Vicenzo and Vittorio Fornaro to cull their flock of 600 sheep as sky-high dioxin levels in the grass had left the animals unsafe for human consumption.

“It was the worst day of my life,” Vincenzo, who has just planted his second cannabis crop, told La Stampa,

“We had to decide whether to stay and fight, or head to pastures new.”

The cannabis revolutions started in 2011 with the creation of CanaPuglia, an association seeking to help pollution-hit farms facing ruin turn things around by planting bumper crops of the five-leaf plant.

“Cannabis roots are capable of cleaning the polluted soils by absorbing all manner of pollutants, from radioactive compounds to heavy metals and dioxins,” CanaPuglia president Claudio Natale told The Local.

The extraordinary ability of the plant to not only survive in pollution-hit soils, but also to clean them, was discovered in the early 1990s by agriculturalists carrying out experiments in the radioactive earth around Chernobyl, Ukraine.

“The plant is very effective at reducing dioxin levels and as a result there are now around 100 farmers living around the Ilva plant who are experimenting with the crop,” Natale explained.

“More and more hectares are being planted each year.”

Farmers are growing a legal variety of the Cannabis Sativa plant which contains extremely low-levels of the psychoactive compound THC.

While this makes the plants useless for recreational smoking, they still have plenty of more interesting uses such as producing hemp fibres, bio-fules, animal feed and insulation.

Should cannabis production in Taranto take off, the area could become a hub for all things hemp in Italy.

Local building company, Vilbrotek, is already experimenting making materials from hemp, while one of two hemp processing plants in Italy is in Taranto.

“It's likely to be a long road to recovery,” said Natale. “Cannabis crops have a very low value and our farmers can't survive on this alone.”

In 2012, the Ilva plant was seized by Italian magistrates who accused its – the Riva family – of crimes against public safety.

Since then, both the factory and the Italian government have been accused by the European Court of Human Rights of causing thousands of deaths by flouting rules on emissions and pollution.

It could be years until anyone is condemned but crops are growing once more in the fields around Taranto.

“My mother died of a tumour and I had to have a kidney removed,” said Vincenzo, “But now the winds have changed and we are taking back our land.”  

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FARMING

Italy’s wine production falls by nine percent after year of extreme weather

Italian wine production dropped by nine percent in 2021, new figures show, as winemakers across the country continue to suffer the effects of extreme weather.

Italy’s wine production dropped by nine percent in 2021
Italy’s wine production dropped by nine percent in 2021. MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

According to the latest preliminary figures published by the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) and shared by the agricultural association Coldiretti, global wine production is also set to drop to 250.3 million hectoliters in 2021, seven percent below the average for the past 20 years.

This is the third consecutive year that the world’s total wine production will fall below average levels, highlights Coldiretti, with the 2021 harvest just above an all-time low of 2017.

The OIV shared its data at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, where world leaders are currently meeting to discuss strategies to combat the effects of the climate crisis.

READ ALSO: Hundreds of youth activists protest climate inaction ahead of Milan summit

Harvesters lift a box full of Nebbiolo grapes, which are used to make Barolo wine, in Barolo, northwestern Italy on October 18, 2018.

Harvesters lift a box full of Nebbiolo grapes, which are used to make Barolo wine, in Barolo, northwestern Italy on October 18, 2018. MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

The drop in production levels is down to “late spring frosts and overall unfavourable weather conditions” linked to climate change, Coldiretti said in a press release on Thursday.

Extreme heatwaves, forest fires, hurricanes, floods and storms have battered Italy throughout 2021, damaging crops and creating havoc for farmers.

In October the country was hit by 20 severe weather events in one day, including tornadoes, hailstorms, windstorms, and torrential rainfall that caused damage to cities and countryside across the peninsula.

READ ALSO: Italy hit by 20 ‘severe weather events’ in a day as Liguria sees record rainfall

A man drives a vehicle through a field of Nebbiolo grapes during the harvest in the Langhe countryside in Barolo, northwestern Italy on October 18, 2018.

A man drives a vehicle through a field of Nebbiolo grapes during the harvest in the Langhe countryside in Barolo, northwestern Italy on October 18, 2018. MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

The storms “devastated fields, pastures, stables and agricultural vehicles as well as blocking roads and causing landslides and landslides in the countryside,” Coldiretti said.

The group estimated that Italy’s agricultural industry has lost €2 billion so far this year as a result of extreme weather events.

Despite the hit to its wine production levels, Italy remains the largest producer of wines globally, followed by Spain and then France.

READ ALSO: Italian wine production drops sharply after year of extreme weather

France’s wine producers have reportedly suffered particularly bad losses in 2021, seeing a 27 percent reduction in its harvest compared to 2020 following a year of severe frosts, summer rains, hailstorms and diseases.

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