VERONA — Andrea Fasoli can't harvest his produce. From his fields in the province of Verona, the small-farm owner is sounding alarm bells about the agricultural sector, which is being hit extra hard by the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic, which has killed more people in Italy than any other country, is also keeping people shuttered inside, closing borders and preventing virtually any movement. Seasonal workers who come regularly to Italy, especially from Eastern Europe, have stayed at home, leaving Italian farms without sufficient manpower.

Fasoli cultivates the white asparagus of Mambrotta, a prized output from his land. Due to its special characteristics, the vegetable must be harvested by hand with a particular knife, which requires the constant work of multiple farm hands. "Every year, I hire 25 agricultural workers, all from Romania. They come here for the harvest period, from March until the end of May. This year there are only five of them, who arrived before the borders were closed."

The consequence is ripe asparagus without the workforce to harvest them. "Today, my family, the few workers who are here and I are doing what we can. But I don't know for how long we can carry on. We'll probably be forced to let the products rot in the fields."

A sign of what's to come.

Throughout Italy, many farmers are facing the same dilemma as Fasoli. This year, about 370,000 workers — mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland – will be missing, according to Coldiretti, the country's largest famers association.

"We're a sign of what's to come, because we're already harvesting," notes the Veronese farmer. "Today, workers are missing for asparagus harvest, but tomorrow they'll be missing in apple orchards, for planting season and for all the other crops," asserts Fasoli. "It's going to get really get bad."

The bleak situation could further deteriorate in the face of possible interruptions of the production supply chain, warns Giuseppe De Filippo, manager of the Futuragri farming cooperative in the southern city of Foggia. "We risk business shutting down next month," said De Filippo, who sells asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes and melons farmed by Futuragri members. "In addition to the lack of workforce, we also face the issue of packaging sheds. We're adopting all safety standards and keeping the necessary distances. But if one of our workers tests positive for coronavirus, our warehouses will rightly be closed."

The agricultural production sector is suffering significant damages. Although the sector has succeeded in guaranteeing food supply chain, turnover is declining due to a series of factors. Restaurants have closed, and the demand for fresh products has dropped as consumers are more likely to stock up and purchase dry goods.

The emergency "Cura Italia" decree provided several measures to support the sector: 100 million euros to support agricultural or fishing companies forced to suspend their activities, 100 millions euros for access to financing, advance payments from the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy and a 50 million euro increase of the EU's FEAD budget to ensure food distribution to the poor.

White asparagus from Italy — Photo: Futuragri Facebook page

The threat on the horizon is frightening and affects us all. What if the country can no longer produce food due to lack of workers? Now more than ever, this crisis makes clear the incontrovertible fact that Italy's food industry is largely based on foreign workforce, who today are unable to cross borders.

"The situation is serious, emergency solutions must be put in place," says Romano Magrini, head of labor policies at Coldiretti. "That's why we ask to reintroduce vouchers in agriculture as well as the possibility of employing workers facing redundancy or people working in other paralyzed sectors such as tourism and food service."

The threat on the horizon is frightening and affects us all.

According to Magrini, it would only be "a temporary measure to give a new breath of life to agriculture." Also, worthy of consideration to fill in the manpower gap are the thousands of foreigners whose asylum applications have been denied.

Unprotected, often forced to live in informal and undignified settlements — all the more dangerous in this period — they could be legalized as workers. That's the proposal coming from the left-wing agro-industry union Flai-Cgil and others such as Terra! and Oxfam.

A petition has been submitted to President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella and several cabinet ministers for the regularization of such workers, stipulating a seasonal employment contract. The written plea reads: "It would be a fair measure safeguarding the national interest during this difficult period in which any damage to agriculture and its function of protecting Italian food security would cause dramatic harm."

Stefano Liberti is an Italian journalist and film director, whose work includes the documentary "Soyalism" and the book "Il grande carrello".

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