COVID-19 And Closed Borders: Italy's Agriculture At Risk

In the country hit hardest by coronavirus, a shortage of seasonal workers who couldn't cross the border has set of a spiral of trouble for farmers across Italy.

Rosarno, a Senegalese immigrant picking oranges in Calabria in February
Rosarno, a Senegalese immigrant picking oranges in Calabria in February
Stefano Liberti

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.

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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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