Foto: Nicolò Minerbi / LUZphoto

"Expedition BeyondTomorrow" The Organic Industry

The reputation of organic food has taken a beating. The new trend is local. But is that more sustainable?

Harvesting quickly in the mild Sicilian springtime sun, the workers at the lemon plantation near Syracuse don’t talk much. They have to be quick and precise with their small cutters as they snip lemon after lemon from the trees. Experience helps too. Because lemon trees carry flowers, ripe and unripe fruit all at the same time, it isn't easy for the uninitiated to immediately tell which fruit are ready for harvest and which are not: They are all bright yellow.

But with some of the workers coming from families that have worked on the plantation for generations, there is no shortage of experience. The workers fill hundreds of buckets in a shift, filling crate after crate. A truck stands by to drive the crates to the packing hall, where -- in a cloud of lemony aroma -- they are washed, sorted and packed. Just two days later, they are already on the shelves of health food stores and supermarkets in Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe.

The lemons grown on the 200 hectare (494 acre) Campisi Italia farm in southeastern Sicily are organic. But can you still buy them with a clear conscience? By the time they reach a wholesaler in Hamburg, for example, they have traveled 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) in a semi-truck. Can that still be considered sustainable? And are organic products from Italy still credible in the wake of several fraudulent labeling scandals?

Andrea Moschella is pained by such questions. He is the fourth generation of his family to direct the operation, though with his long hair, full beard and down jacket, he doesn't exactly look like the stereotypical Sicilian farmer. He looks like he would be more at home in a big-city club than on a lemon plantation. His father was a farmer as was his grandfather and great-grandfather, but Moschella left Sicily and moved north to Florence, where he studied graphic design, before his homeland pulled him back.

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Now, the 32-year-old explains how controversial his father’s decision was to switch to organic farming in the 1990s, a time when the technique was considered rather exotic in Italy, as it still is today. Today the farm carries the EU organic seal, GRASP social practice certification and, for the last eight years, the even stricter certification granted by the German organic agriculture association Naturland. That made perfect sense for us, says Moschella. The requirements are stricter than those from the EU, but we were meeting them anyway.

But some customers only want to pay for the less rigorous certification, particularly supermarket chains that also buy from lesser quality operations. The result is that Sicilian Naturland lemons also end up incognito on the shelves of discount supermarkets like Aldi.

Foto: Nicolò Minerbi / LUZphoto

What is good? Doubts about the organic sector

 But is it even acceptable to buy organic products at a discounter? Wouldn't produce at such cheap prices have to be grown under the same industrial conditions as conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables? Is it sustainable to buy organic tomatoes that are packed in plastic containers?

For years now, the amount of agricultural land devoted to organic farming in Germany has stagnated, despite booming demand for organic fruits and vegetables. The result is rising imports from, among others, gigantic farms in Eastern Europe with a huge amount of agricultural machinery but a small number of workers.

Increasingly, the produce also comes from areas of the world where hardly anything grows naturally: potatoes from desert nations like Egypt and Israel, cucumbers from the edge of the Sahara Desert and tomatoes from greenhouses on the arid southern coast of Spain. Small organic farms that shun agro-chemicals and treat their workers and the environment with respect hardly exist in such places anymore.

Water usage in particular has increased dramatically. Naturland is adding the responsible handling of resources to its list of certification requirements, along with the social standards it already mandates. The EU seal, by contrast, makes no additional demands. Organic can also mean massive water usage and wage dumping.

The 50,000 lemon trees belonging to Andrea Moschella are incredibly thirsty. The plantation is crisscrossed with irrigation systems, with each individual tree requiring 30,000 liters (7,925 gallons) from April to August. Still, lemons are native to the area and they don't grow in northern climes. Buying local is not an option with citrus fruits.

But the idea of organic has also long incorporated the promise of a better world. The idealists of old, though, were swept away by success. Sales of organic products in Germany have quadrupled since 2000, and the demand could only be met with the help of mega-farms. The question is no longer organic or conventional? but small farm or industrial? A farmer belonging to the Demeter association of organic producers recently complained: I would never buy organic products at Aldi because those products are produced in the same industrial manner as conventional products.

The fact that his complaint isn't entirely accurate can be seen in Sicily: The lemons from Campisi Italia will likely soon carry the Demeter seal as well, but they will still be available at Aldi. Young organic farmers, whether in Italy or Germany, are more pragmatic than their predecessors. When a discount supermarket chain wants to buy their strictly certified harvest, why not?

But can consumers be sure that organic produce from Italy is farmed in an ecological manner? In September 2007, SPIEGEL wrote: If you're looking for problems with organic products, the easiest place to find them is Sicily. Even today, Italy is considered vulnerable to labeling scams and fraud. The most recent case was in 2011, when an international forgery ring was discovered that had, over several years, mislabeled 220 million worth of conventional produce as organic and sold it in the EU.

One senior official in the German organic sector says off the record: "We have actually lost Italy." What he means is that state monitoring there is unreliable. German organic farming associations like Naturland or Bioland have responded by performing their own additional checks. And there are indications in Sicily that things have changed as a result.

Foto: Nicolò Minerbi/ Nicolò Minerbi / LUZphoto

Germany pushes down the prices. The disgruntled pragmatist

Roberto Giadone has no patience for the sweeping criticisms of Italy. The guilt for the cheating scandals, he says, lies with the wholesale buyers who aren't prepared to pay fair prices. Giadone spent years working as a bookkeeper, far away from agriculture. In 2000, he left office work behind and has since devoted himself to the growing of carrots, tomatoes and peppers at his organic farm in southern Sicily called Natura Iblea. Business is good. He now has sales of 6 million and he supplies supermarkets all across Europe.

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Germany, though, is a difficult market. Aldi wants to pay prices for organic carrots that hardly cover production costs, he says. And they want them to be straight as an arrow! Growing organic carrots is expensive: Without herbicides, the fields have to be weeded by hand. Despite low Sicilian wages, costs are at least 20 percent higher than spraying. It´s no wonder some people try to take shortcuts, Giadone says.

Still, the consistently high demand from wholesalers guarantees farmers like Giadone consistent business. "Usually, we have problems filling all our orders", he says. But he too has felt the pressure from cheaper competitors, particularly in Egypt and Morocco, where there has been huge investment in organic farming -- though Giadone doesn’t believe monitoring there is up to snuff.

Giadone is still able to pay social security and health care benefits for his workers in addition to the standard local wage. "Hey, how much money do you make each day?" he calls out to a field hand. "Fifty-three euros!" the worker calls back. "Net," the boss replies. The conditions are exceptional when compared to the pay received by tens of thousands of workers elsewhere in Sicily, not to mention in other fruit and vegetable farming regions..

Foto: Nicolò Minerbi / LUZphoto

No defense against exploitation? The union man  

The city of Vittoria is located an hour's drive west of Giadone’s carrot fields. If you take the coastal road, you'll drive for dozens of kilometers past a landscape that has disappeared beneath plastic -- greenhouses from the sea to the horizon. Giuseppo Scifo has his office in Vittoria. He works for the Italian union association CGIL and doesn't have much time. He never does. A picture of Che Guevara hangs on one wall of his office and Marcello Mastroianni faces him from across the room. In between them, Scifo fights for the rights of workers.

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"The greenhouses are the fault of the supermarkets," Scifo says. The quality standards they demand can only be achieved under plastic. Shape, color, taste: There are norms for everything. Buyers, for example, order tomatoes with a diameter of between 40 and 47 millimeters (1.6 to 1.8 inches), with a rating of five on the color scale.

Almost half of the tomatoes harvested here go to Germany, with 10 percent of them organic, Scifo estimates. The prices are extremely low because labor here costs next to nothing. Some 25,000 workers slave away in the greenhouses of the Ragusa Province for a daily wage of around €20.

Most of them are Romanians, who have been coming to Italy since their country became a member of the European Union in 2007. "They are completely dependent on their boss at the farm and pay vastly inflated prices for room and board." The union has a hard time even coming into contact with the workers and has started a free bus service to Vittoria for that purpose. They hope to be able to establish some form of interaction during the rides. The union, after all, can only do something about the exploitation if one of the workers files a legal complaint.

That seldom happens, says Scifo. And workers usually only file complaints if they haven't received any pay at all. The chances for success of such cases are uncertain and it takes ages for them to get to court. A current case was opened on March 31, 2015 and only received a hearing on Feb. 16, 2016. It takes one-and-a-half years for the money awarded to finally arrive. The work is arduous, says a suddenly tired-looking Scifo. He also doesn't necessarily believe that higher prices for produce would change much: "It's not just a couple of problem companies that exploit. Top-end farms with the best clients do so as well."

Foto: Nicolò Minerbi/ Nicolò Minerbi / LUZphoto

Small farmers need supermarkets too – the organic veteran

Giovanni Favacchio was careful to establish his farm, L'Orto Biologico Cucco, far away from industrial operations. In the Vittorio region, conventional and organic farms are often located right next to each other, with pesticides seeping into the ground and into the groundwater. Favacchio wants nothing to do with it. The 65-year-old has spent decades farming tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini using purely organic methods. He says that he went into organic farming because he wanted to stop spraying chemicals onto his fields.

Favacchio, who has a weathered face and a crooked smile, had his farm certified by Naturland to strengthen his brand. As a rule of thumb, the stricter the certification standard, the higher the prices you can demand. You also, of course, end up with inspectors making more frequent visits to your farm, but Favacchio is happy to see them. The constant organic falsification scandals also have consequences for those farms that obey the rules.

His farm is small, but Favacchio is still able to make a decent living and can offer his workers socially insured jobs. In the high season, he employs up to 70 harvesters, who have to reap 750,000 kilos of cherry tomatoes between August and February. Picked in the morning and packed at midday, the produce is already in northern European supermarkets by the next day.

The small farm in southern Sicily delivers to all of the well-known names in the foodstuffs sector: Netto, Edeka, Rewe and Aldi in Germany; Carrefour in France. It is a traditional farm masquerading as a mass production outfit.

So what now? A search without answers  

The situation in Sicily reveals the entirety of the dilemma facing the organic sector and consumers worldwide. On the one hand, there are small farm operations that exploit their workers, whether they are growing organic produce or conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables. And in the greenhouses -- which cover entire regions with plastic tarps -- organic tomatoes are harvested right next door to conventional ones.

On the other hand, there are also farmers both young and old who are pursuing the ideal of organic farming. They take good care of their produce, treat their workers responsibly and meet strict quality criteria. But they also sell some of their strictly certified fruits and vegetables to discount supermarket chains and have suffered from the loss of trust in organic products. They disapprovingly pack their goods in sealed plastic boxes in accordance with EU regulations -- so that organic produce is not mixed together with conventional produce in the stores.

The frontiers between good and bad no longer run between organic and conventional, and not even between health food stores and discount chains. It's not even possible to clearly determine whether it is better to buy non-organic local produce than fruits and vegetables transported thousands of kilometers from growing regions in the south.

Studies on the carbon footprint of foodstuffs are inconclusive: A cherry tomato that is transported 2,000 kilometers north from Sicily in a packed semi-truck may be responsible for fewer emissions than a conventionally farmed one driven to market in a van from the countryside. Driving your car 30 kilometers to a farm shop in the countryside can destroy the entire carbon footprint calculation.

Weather-worn organic farmer Favacchio doesn't believe such questions are valid. Why should someone prefer chemically treated vegetables over his organic zucchinis? Of course they might be cheaper and may not have traveled as far, he allows, "but look at the ground beneath where a greenhouse once stood. Nothing grows there anymore." For the environment, organic farming is without question the better option.

It is likewise more ecologically sound to only buy those sorts of fruits and vegetables that grow naturally in season. But in Germany, shopping carts would be largely empty for a period of months, laughs Roberto Giadone.

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Few would be willing to do without tomatoes for the entirety of a northern European winter. And, it should be pointed out, transport routes are reversed in the summer, when the Sicilian greenhouses are too hot. During the hot season, Giadone buys tomatoes from northern Europe for his clients in the south. But is it really necessary to buy new potatoes from Egypt already in February? Or fresh apples in April?

Andrea Moschella believes that organic produce will come out on top because of its quality -- even in Italy, where demand is lower. That helps explain why one Italian wholesaler buys a huge number of lemons from his farm, but only wants a small part of the shipment to be labeled as organic. He sells the rest as conventionally farmed produce.

This multimedia report is part of the project Expedition #BeyondTomorrow .

Author: Nicolai Kwasniewski

Photographer: Nicolò Minerbi

Coordination: Anna Behrend, Jule Lutteroth

Programming and infographics: Chris Kurt, Michael Niestedt

Videos: Anne Martin, Theresia Schneider

Picture desk: Nasser Manouchehri

Fact checking: Almut Cieschinger, Klaus Falkenberg

Final editing: Dörte Karsten

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