Pesticide ban strikes Italy’s famed apple region to its core

Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni

As Günther Wallnöfe walks across the meadow where his cows are grazing in this mountainous corner of northern Italy, the pesticide battle lines are clearly visible.

There are apple orchards on both sides of the meadow – one using organic methods, the other applying synthetic chemical pesticides. “But we have a good relationship,” Wallnöfer, an organic dairy and vegetable producer, says of his conventional farming neighbour. “He takes care to limit the drift of pesticides as much as possible.”

The work to make the small community of Mals pesticide-free is an ongoing battle.

Almost eight years ago, the municipality, feeling let down by state and EU laws on pesticides, took things into its own hands. Agriculture in Mals, a village close to the Swiss and Austrian borders, had become intensive and with it, came more pesticides. The rural community was determined to push back. In 2014, they held a referendum in which three quarters of the residents voted to radically limit the use of pesticides.

Credit: Alicia Prager
Farmer Günther Wallnöfe campaigns against the use of pesticides in Mals, South Tyrol.

An unwanted record

The result alerted not only conventional farmers who already had fruit orchards in Mals. It also woke up the whole province of South Tyrol, where the apple industry has an annual turnover of between €500 million and €600 million. Half of all apples consumed in Italy are produced here, and 10 per cent of those consumed all over Europe.

The organic share of 14 per cent is relatively high compared to the European average, and most farmers use an integrated approach, where pesticides are limited. Nevertheless, the majority of plantations still rely on them in vast quantities. 

According to the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), around 62.2 kilos of pesticides per hectare were sprayed in South Tyrol in 2016 – a national record. Such numbers can be misleading, as they include harmless pesticides used in organic production, but they still dwarf the Italian average of 6.6 kilos per hectare.

Suspension – and a ruling in Rome

Dozens of farmers appealed the decision, arguing that it was not within the municipality’s mandate to hold the referendum. The local administrative court agreed and soon suspended the ban. Now, the decision is before Italy’s highest administrative court with a final ruling expected by the end of the year.

While the community awaits a decision from Rome, debates in the state parliament in Bolzano, the regional capital, persist. “Mals brought the topic really high up on the agenda,” says Green Party politician and former Mals resident Hanspeter Staffler.

The Greens want to increase support for organic farming in Alto Adige, as South Tyrol is called in Italian, and introduce rules for distance between land, including organic and protected areas, where synthetic pesticides are used. They also want South Tyrol to comply with targets for ecological compensation areas, such as hedges, large trees or fallow land.

The discussion for reforms stretches across party lines. “We are facing challenges that we want to confront. The question is just with which strategies,” says Arnold Schuler, councilor for agriculture, forestry, tourism, and civil protection in the centrist SVP party.  

Data gaps

A new action plan will be presented in September outlining “sustainable” projects in the region, including measures for milk, wine and fruit production. “One of the most important steps will be to gather new data for South Tyrol, as well as instruments for a broad dialogue with inhabitants,” says Schuler, who himself grows apples using an integrated approach.  

Staffler agrees that better data collection, a problem across the EU, is a must. But he believes the debate is often used to delay much needed reforms. “I have worked on a detailed proposal for the systematic monitoring of pesticides, and already in the committee it was rejected by the SVP,” he says.

In parallel, the EU Commission has sparked a discussion with its proposal to limit the use of pesticides by 50 per cent. The document was published on 22 June, after many delays and fierce opposition from agricultural stakeholders and a number of member states. Apple farmers in Alto Adige are now asking themselves how this target can be met without production falling.

‘Difficult’ to reach EU targets

“We are already at a level where it will be difficult for most growers if another 50 per cent of substances are banned,” says Harald Weis, chairperson of the cooperative Roen, whose 600 members supplied 54,000 kilos of apples in 2021. “In recent years, many substances have been banned, and we have a limited choice of crop protection products.”

Cooperative members are now using organic and natural products as well, though. “In addition to this integrated approach, we also produce and sell organic apples,” says Weis, although the higher costs and limited market make sales more difficult for members. 

Martina Hellrigl is also dealing with demand issues. She works with Vinterra, an agricultural cooperative in Mals which grows organic vegetables and cereals on 4.5 hectares and runs an associated restaurant. “It is a pretty tough business to sell our vegetables,” she says of Vinterra, where land borders a conventional apple orchard. “It would be easier to market near a bigger city than here. But demand is increasing.”

Hellrigl, while encouraged by the regulatory plans from Brussels, says improved spraying techniques and methods to avoid pesticide drift locally are only short-term solutions. “We can’t continue with this way of production,” she says. “That is why we are searching for alternatives to this system of monocultures.”

Credit: Alicia Prager
Martina Hellrigl in her garden in Mals, South Tyrol.

Butterflies return

Her fellow farmer Günther Wallnöfer says that although conventional apple crops remain in the area, cooperation with these farms is much better than before. Even if Mals’ pesticide referendum is declared invalid, the community has gained from it, he says, with more people now adopting cooperative and organic production methods.

Similar initiatives elsewhere have followed. Although a referendum on synthetic pesticide use in Switzerland was rejected last year, city-wide bans in Italy, Denmark and Belgium of certain pesticides point to an increasing appetite across Europe to address the issues.

Meanwhile, the referendum vote is also benefiting other farmers in the region. Resource-rich apple producers from outside have for years been able to buy up land from long-standing cattle smallholders, but the uncertainty now surrounding pesticide use in Mals has slowed purchases.

“My grandparents had cattle,” Wallnöfer says, while walking his 20 cows towards the barn. “And we want to continue with that.”

The farmer points to a few red-spotted burnet moths that sit on the meadow flowers. “We only had them at higher elevations four or five years ago,” he explains. “Now, they’re coming back down.”

There is no final answer to why the burnet moths are back. But for Wallnöfer, they give hope that pesticide exposure has indeed been reduced. “Our work is starting to bear fruit,” he says.