Near the north-eastern Italian town of Pordenone, where the fertile plain stretches between Venice on the Adriatic coast and the foothills of the Alps, one man has been waging a lonely battle against superstition.
Giorgio Fidenato is an unlikely warrior. He is a small-holder farmer, growing maize (corn), tomatoes and soybeans on just five hectares of cultivated land that was handed down to him from his father.
But Fidenato is also a campaigner. As chair of the local farmers federation he pushes for more sustainable agriculture and lower pesticide use — an effort that has driven him into an unlikely confrontation with environmentalists and even the Italian state.
Maize is an important food in the region. The local staple is maize-derived polenta rather than the more famous Italian pasta, which is derived from durum wheat.
In southern and central Europe, maize is frequently attacked by the European corn borer, a pest that eats the plant, damaging both stalks and ears.
The resulting ear damage can then promote infection by Fusarium fungus, leaving toxic fumonisin compounds in the maize seeds. These toxins have been shown to cause health problems in animals, and are correlated with human throat cancers in parts of the world where fumonisin contamination is a serious issue.
Unfortunately, one of the global hotspots for the fumonisin toxin is Pordenone province in northern Italy, where Fidenato grows his maize crop. Scientific studies have shown that this region has the highest mortality rates for oral pharyngeal, and oesophageal cancer in the whole of Europe.
In order to reduce the risk of fumonisin health effects, the European Commission has set maximum permissible levels in maize-based foods. In practice for farmers like Fidenato — and indeed across all of Italy, France and neighboring countries — this means controlling the European corn borer with potent insecticide sprays.
In an interview with the Alliance for Science, Fidenato was clear about how much he disliked spraying his crop. "I do not like to spray because when you spray you cannot enter the field for two days. Also the wildlife dies; you cannot see any insects, even wild rabbits are impossible to find after the spray."
Fidenato knew there was a solution to spraying: maize containing the insecticidal protein Bt, which has been cultivated for decades in North and South America, and was approved for cultivation by the European Union in 1998.
Large areas of the insect-resistant maize, known as MON810, are cultivated in Spain — nearly 130,000 hectares in 2016. Smaller areas of the maize are also cultivated in Portugal, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
However, because it is classed as a “GMO,” insect-resistant maize is highly controversial in Europe. Farmers who try to cultivate it in order to reduce pesticide applications are persecuted and even taken to court, and national governments such as Italy and France have introduced bans to try to prevent farmers from exercising this choice.
Fidenato is no exception. When he first began to grow MON810 maize, anti-GMO activists invaded his field and destroyed it. "They aimed to intimidate me, and believed that if I feared for the safety of my property and my family, I’d quit growing GMO crops," he remembers.
However, Fidenato, like many farmers, did not appreciate being bossed around by activists based in the big cities. His pleas about reducing pesticide fell on deaf ears — the environmentalists, it seemed, would prefer farmers to keep on spraying insecticides rather than cultivating the much-feared GMOs.
Although he lost that year's harvest, thanks to the vandalism, Fidenato was determined to replant. He sought permission from regional authorities, and when that was denied, from the government in Rome. Again he was turned down. "They said no. But without any reason — only with superstition, without any scientific or legal evidence."
Now Fidenato was battling not just Greenpeace, but the Italian state. But he refused to be intimidated. "Because I read very well the European law, the European treaties, I can see that I can sell the GMO plant because it was allowed in 1998. There was an Italian law issued in 2001 [against MON810] but if you read the [European] treaty that Italian law is not legal."
Fidenato, now allied with other farmers from the region, spent the next two years arguing his case in Italian courts. In September 2012, the highest legal authority in Europe, the European Court of Justice ruled — in a different case involving the Italian branch of the international seed company Pioneer — that a de-facto GMO ban maintained by Italy in defiance of due process was illegal.
Undaunted, the Italian government responded with yet another GMO ban in 2013, now claiming the right to do so because of the precautionary principle and “emergency” food safety concerns related to GMOs. The Italians submitted documents purporting to show new scientific evidence of health concerns about genetically engineered maize. These were dismissed by EFSA experts within just two months as being without scientific validity, but the Italian ban nonetheless remained.
Seeing that the Italian government had failed to produce any real scientific evidence against GMOs, Fidenato and his farmer allies were determined not to back down. They pressed their case all the way up to the European Court of Justice (ECJ)[vii]. And on Sept. 13, 2017, much to everyone's surprise, they won.
The ECJ's judgment was significant, because it determined that member states like Italy could not impose bans in flagrant violation of due process. Nor could they invoke the “precautionary principle” to reject the advice of the EU's own scientific experts at the European Food Safety Authority and thereby ban GMOs based on what the court caustically called a "purely hypothetical approach to the risk based on mere assumptions which have not yet been scientifically verified."
Speaking about his reaction to the decision, Fidenato smiles ruefully. "It is like a soccer match. I say Giorgio Fidenato 2, Italy zero!"
However, his victory may already be moot. In 2015 the European Commission, following decades of pressure by activists, Green parties and member governments under pressure from powerful anti-GMO groups, hoisted the white flag and passed new legislation allowing member states to ban GMOs without the need to provide any valid scientific evidence. Instead, vague concerns like "town and country planning," "land use" or "public policy" would be sufficient.
Fidenato challenged this new EC directive once again in the European Court of Justice, but in June 2017 the court refused to rule on his case because too much time had elapsed since the new directive had been adopted.
So now Giorgio Fidenato is back where he started. He plans to continue his campaign by planting insect-resistant GE maize MON810 again next season in order to avoid having to spray the insecticides used by other farmers across Europe to control the ever-present European corn borer.
He tells the Alliance for Science: "Next year I plant GMO again because I want to go to the court in Italy and pass it to the Italian court to make a question to the European court if this directive is in respect of the European treaty. So now I am in battle. I am struggling again for this reason."
Meanwhile, as Fidenato is well aware, livestock across Europe will be fed on millions of tons of imported genetically-engineered (GE) corn and soybeans grown by farmers in other countries that are not dominated by the same anti-GMO hysteria prevalent in Europe.
Europe therefore depends on GE crops to be food sufficient, but largely prevents its own farmers from growing them in defiance of both global scientific opinion and its own experts.
How long this absurd situation continues may well depend on the outcome of this one Italian farmer's lone battle against the powerful forces blocking biotechnology. Giorgio Fidenato's fight to defend science and reduce the dependence of European farmers on chemical pesticides is not over yet.
As he concludes, in broken but passionate English: "I am not a politician. I am happy what I did because I love farming. I love my farm, and I think about my old parents and the hard work that made me study and graduate. And those things give me the..." here he struggles to find the word, "the responsibility, the moral responsibility to struggle. Because it is not possible that arrogant people, that ignorant people, should drive our lives I think."