This country item is part of the Overview of Community Supported Agriculture in Europe, edited in 2016 by the European CSA Research group.
- Authors: Chiara Aurora Demaldè has a PhD in the sociology of food and sustainability. She is an independent researcher and activist. Chiara is a member of GAS Lola in Milan.
Adanella Rossi is a researcher at the University of Pisa in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment. She is a member of Tavolo RES (National Network of Solidarity Economy) and referent of the Research Area. Adanella is a member of CSA CAPS in Pisa.
Stefania Colombara is a member of the “Food sovereignty” working group in Tavolo RES (National Network of Solidarity Economy), and a coordinator of the regional district Parco Agricolo Sud Milano. Stefania is a member of GAS Mediglia in Milan.
- Common definition
CSA experiences in Italy are conceived as groups of farmers and citizens–consumers that cooperate in a common project of food production that respects agroecological principles and social justice. Consumers normally share the economic risks with the farmers and give them financial support by paying in advance. In some cases, consumers are not only buyers but contribute directly by working in farm activities.
In Italy, there is a strong tradition of Solidarity Purchasing Groups, called Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale (GAS), that is very close to the common definition of CSA. The core vision of GAS refers to the principles of solidarity, mutuality and sustainability; this core vision underpins the relationships between group members and farmers. The close relationship with the farmers is generally characterised by friendship, trust, transparency, respect and fairness. The financial support is reflected in fixing fair prices (that meet both the farmers’ needs and are affordable for the consumers) and, in many cases, in various forms of advance payments and funding. In the last two decades, GAS has contributed to the spread of a different approach in the production–consumption relationship.
This research incorporates feedback from Italian GAS.
Italy’s territory covers 302,073km² with 60.7 million inhabitants (Istat, 2014) and a density of 201.21 people/km². The country is characterised by a hilly territory (41.6% of the total area), followed by mountainous areas (35%) and plains (23.2%).
In Italy the GDP was €25,400 per capita in 2013 (-6.6% since 2000). Italian families have a net disposable income of €2,419 monthly, of which €468 is spent on buying food (Istat, 2012). Data by region of residence differs significantly by age, nationality and gender.
In 2013, Italian farms numbered about 1.5 million, occupying 992,000 work units (1,620,844 active farms in 2010 with 12,856,048ha cultivated). The agricultural system is generally characterised by a strong presence of small units: 80.7% companies employing less than a unit of work and 88.6% with a turnover of less than €50,000. 96.7% are individual companies and 97.5% are owner-managed. Subsistence farms that produce exclusively for their own consumption account for 10.4% of the total.
The number of organic farms registered for cultivation and breeding is 45,162, corresponding to 2.8% of the total number of farms in Italy. The average area used for organic farming is 18ha per farm, higher than the average for the conventional plus organic which is 7.9ha. There are big differences across the Italian regions – in the South and Islands the area is even greater (43.3ha in Sardinia, 23.7ha in Basilicata, 22.8ha in Apulia). 70.9% of the area used for agriculture in the South is dedicated to organic farming (Istat 2010-2012). In Lombardy there are 1,442 organic farms, satisfying less than 10% of the demand of organic products (€300,000,000 per year).
History and characteristics of CSA
How did CSA develop? Dynamics?
To describe the dynamics, it is necessary to distinguish between CSA and GAS experiences.
The first CSA created in Italy is the Caps (Comunità agricola di promozione sociale – Farming community for social promotion), in the area of Pisa. Starting as a group of more than 100 families, it currently involves 20 families. It is the first example of CSA where the members organised as a group. It was established with the respectful aim of advancing the GAS experience. Its main goals were to support a farmer, by ensuring him/her a fair and steady income, and to participate in farming activity according to a ‘co-production approach’. Therefore, the members discuss the annual production activities and the economic aspects with the farmers and participate in farm activities by doing some hours of work.
In the last few years, other similar associations or cooperatives were created. Arvaia, in the area of Bologna, is currently the most important experience of CSA in Italy. It is a cooperative composed by citizens and organic farmers, cultivating public land rented from the Municipality. At the beginning, in 2013, there were three paid people working on the farm, now there are ten. Its main purpose is cultivating the land through collective management, mainly for the members’ food consumption or to support the activities of the cooperative. The cooperative manages a market and a small shop. The members plan the annual production activities together and, based on the budget, advance-fund them. The members can visit and see fields and crops and are asked to contribute to the work on the basis of half a day each year.
In terms of the development of GAS, there has been an incredible boom in Italy: from 1994 to 2004 there was a steady growth, reaching a total of 150 units registered in 2004. From 2005 onwards the development has been stronger, with the number of groups duplicating every three or four years. Nowadays, there are more: about 1,000 units registered and it is estimated that there are as many units again – or even more – that are not registered.
What is understood by CSA?
The model of CSA in Italy is that groups of farmers and citizen–consumers cooperate on a common project of food production that respects agroecological principles and social justice. Consumers share the economic risks with the farmers and give them financial support by paying in advance. In some cases, consumers are not only buyers but contribute directly by working on the farm. In Italy, however, the most important reality is that of GAS (see below).
Are there different types of CSA?
Although in recent years some project-experiences have developed in strict adherence to the CSA model, in Italy, there is a stronger tradition of Solidarity Purchasing Groups called GAS (Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale). GAS have many shared aspects that are close to the common definition of CSA. The core vision of GAS is stated above.
From the website of the National Network of Solidarity Economy (www.economiasolidale.net):
“A GAS chooses the products and producers on the basis of respect for the environment and the solidarity between the members of the group, the traders, and the producers. Specifically, these guidelines lead to the choice of local products (in order to minimise the environmental impact of the transport), fair-trade goods (in order to respect disadvantaged producers by promoting their human rights, in particular women’s, children’s and indigenous people’s) and reusable or eco-compatible goods (to promote a sustainable lifestyle).”
According to the responses of the Census, GAS are characterised by having a direct partnership (97%) but they do not seem to be committed to sharing risks, responsibilities and rewards, or to establishing a formal contract between producers and consumers. It is considered important to have a formal or informal agreement (68%) but fewer respondents assigned importance to establishing a long-term agreement (30%). The situation is different with CSA, where the members’ commitment is greater. The aim of providing quality food is common to most respondents (96%), as well as the production of food in an agroecological way (92%).
Over and above the results of the Census, it is important to underline that the relationships between producers and consumers are generally very close. Consumers and producers coordinate with each other on many of the decisions of the production process (type of agricultural produce, prices, forms of delivery, problem-solving and so on). So, even if there are no written contracts, the commitment of GAS members is very intense, as they participate emotionally and materially in supporting the producers, even financially (in many cases GAS have saved a local producer from leaving his/her activity thanks to financial support and pre-payment campaigns).
More generally, GAS have become an instrument of community-building that promotes change in production and consumption practices towards a fairer and more sustainable food system. In this sense, Italian GAS are particularly effective as communication vehicles, as they work as platforms of exchange for knowledge and specific information on agroecology, environmental impacts, social justice, and solidarity economy. In the last two decades, GAS have indeed contributed to a wide strengthening of critical consumption and to the spread of a different approach to the production–consumption relationships even beyond their world. GAS contribute to the development of civic engagement and political awareness among their members. They operate as important instruments of solidarity economy and sustainable development. They are involved in ethical financial initiatives (i.e. Banca Popolare Etica, Mag2 Finance), thereby giving economic support to third sector actors; moreover, they support the various campaigns organised by various organisations and movements. For all these reasons, they are widely acknowledged as spaces fostering citizenship and building civic responsibility.
Type of produce and distribution method
Typically, GAS are a platform for buying food and, to a lesser degree, other common consumer items (clothes, shoes, cleaning products, cosmetics, water filters). However, new initiatives are emerging aimed at the collective buying of services (i.e. car insurance, energy).
According to the results of the Census, the food that is produced and distributed most is fruit, vegetables and honey (from 80% to 90% of the total respondents), followed by meat and eggs (about 70%), while less then half of the respondents included bread (40%).
The distribution appears to be mainly organised through collective pick-up points (85% of the respondents) and only to a much smaller extent by home delivery and pick-up at farms (respectively 25% and 28%). Only 5% of the respondents practice self-harvesting.
Most of the GAS are informal organisations, although there is a national law that recognises them if they are constituted as formal associations. The Census confirms this information. Some CSA are formal organisations, formalised associations or cooperatives.
Italian CSA and GAS do not have an umbrella organisation, but there are synergies with the local networks (i.e. inter-GAS), or with other local actors within the solidarity economy movement, for example Distretto di Economia Solidale (DES – District of Solidarity Economy) or Rete di Economia Solidale (RES – Network of Solidarity Economy). All DES have converged in a national structure called Tavolo RES Italia (Italian network of solidarity economy). There are 14 DES registered and more than 20 networks that are formally linked to Tavolo Res and its charter.
According to the Census, half of the respondents are part of the national network of GAS or a solidarity economy organisation. Others are connected to local (municipal) or regional networks of GAS or solidarity economy organisations.
In general, all members of GAS organise all the logistics of taking orders and distributing food as well as managing collective activities on a voluntary basis. In every GAS some members work as direct representatives of the various farmers: they set up and prepare the material for the order, deliver the order to the farmer, organise the logistics for the distribution and payment, check that all the procedures work correctly. In big GAS, the working structure is frequently clearly articulated with a precise definition of roles and tasks.
Every month – more or less – there are internal meetings and periodically there are visits to the farms. The farmers are welcomed to participate in the meetings and, often, special events are organised to facilitate the communication between producers and consumers (explaining the characteristics and growing challenges, knowledge-sharing, etc.).
In addition to the management of supplies, GAS usually share other activities such as: discussions or public debates on specific issues, training activities, support for particular campaigns or participation in events organised by other organisations at local or national level, barter and other forms of exchange, etc. All these strengthen the relationships between members. The practical sharing of food values supports a special kind of social interaction. It is very common that GAS organise meetings and events where people sit together around a big table, enjoying food and conversing about the food itself. This practice is very important for the exchange of knowledge and to support individual change in food consumption habits.
The data gathered through the Census more or less confirms this kind of organisation. The relevance of buying shares emerges (79% of respondents); this is in accordance with the modalities characteristic of the GAS experience. The willingness to invest money in the farm appears to be less significant however: it is practiced by only 15% of respondents. More than a quarter of respondents are involved in managing the deliveries. More than two thirds of them (64%) are involved in decision-making. About half attend open days/social events and participate in other forms of internal interaction.
Organic farming is one of the requirements considered by GAS members when choosing a producer, and it is one of the basic principles defined in the National Charter. However, in many cases, GAS choose producers with no official certification although they apply the principles of organic farming to their cultivation/production. The reason is that small farms often have to overcome financial and bureaucratic obstacles to obtain certification, and prefer to forego it even if they are effectively organic in their production method. In these cases, the social control carried out by the local networks is the means used to guarantee requirements are respected.
CSA and GAS are both strictly linked to agroecological principles in farming practice; organic farming is preferred but there are also cases in which biodynamic techniques are adopted. In the census more than 97% of respondents affirmed that they produce and distribute organic food (be it certified or not).
The link with the land and the awareness of its value are considered essential. For this reason, most of the GAS organise regular meetings with the farmers and visits to the farms. These visits reinforce relationships but of course also increase the citizens’ knowledge of farming practices. CSAs such as Caps and Arvaia do encourage members to participate actively in cultivating the land and supporting the farmer in the field so that they can learn about land management (fertility preservation, weed control, etc.) and become aware of the difficulties linked to the production of organic vegetables.
In Italy, CSA appears in a national context where Solidarity Purchasing Groups (GAS) have already prepared the terrain for local projects and actions linked to the solidarity economy, agroecology and critical consumption. In the last 5 years, the first CSA-like initiatives were mostly created starting from the efficient structure – formal and informal, material and cultural – of the GAS national network. As CSAs are aimed at providing support to farmers, they can be considered the natural evolution of GAS because GAS are traditionally seen as consumer-centred initiatives with a strong personal engagement with the farmers but without a formal commitment towards them. The Italian CSA movement is small and undeveloped compared to the growth of GAS, but it is, however, exerting its presence on the world of GAS. There are in fact signs of an evolving process that is moving towards the creation of a more general model; this model is characterised by a stronger commitment in relation to the sharing of responsibilities and risks. This represents an emerging debate within the GAS world.
The evolution from a GAS model to a CSA model is not easy because citizens are used to approaching cooperation with a consumer-driven perspective and many farmers have already set standard agreements with GAS. Nevertheless, much could be done to promote a shift in this sense and to help the spread of information about this model. First – as CSA is not well known – it would be necessary to communicate clearly in all the national territory about what CSA is and which characteristics define it compared with GAS. At the same time, people could be helped by creating the right conditions and giving concrete support to implementing this change.
Istat (2012, 2014).
National Network of Solidarity Economy. www.economiasolidale.net