09/06/2022 – Event / Thaifex / Interview / Bioagri Co-op / Organic / Italy
Spearheading Italy’s sustainable F&B development
Over more than three decades, non-profit organisation Bioagri Co-op has spearheaded Italy’s organic movement. Representing over 5,100 operators – both food growers and processors – the organisation plays a key role in promoting organic produce and advancing sustainable F&B development. Food & Beverage Networker caught up with Mr Riccardo Cozzo, President of Bioagri Co-op, at the recently held THAIFEX Anuga Asia show in Bangkok to learn more about the wide-reaching activities of this dynamic co-operative, alongside its goal to strengthen the market presence of Italy’s high-quality organic produce in Asia.
The EU has serious ambitions when it comes to boosting Europe’s organic food production and sales. As part of its Farm to Fork strategy, the bloc’s European Organic Action Plan has set a target of 25 per cent organic farmland by 2030. Organic market analyst Ecovia Intelligence believes demand stimulus will be the key to achieving this target.
Over the past couple of decades (2000-2019), organic food sales have increased from €8 billion to €42 billion. Despite this rapid spike, organic products still represent less than four per cent of food sales in Europe, while organic agriculture represents 8.1 per cent of European farmland. Organic farmland and food production will therefore need to be ramped up in the years ahead – and a key component underpinning that will be the task of elevating consumer demand and building consumer trust in organic foods.
In accordance with such goals, the Italian parliament has approved a new law creating an ‘Organic Made in Italy’ label and national strategy to support organic production throughout the agricultural sector. The new law acknowledges the unique role of organic production for social development and environmental sustainability. It also provides funds for organic farming research and supports new strategic agreements among producers. Certainly, Bioagri Co-op – Italy’s pioneering organic food co-operative that established itself as a non-profit organisation and set out to promote such produce even before the organic movement itself was firmly established – has been buoyed by the introduction of this new legislation, which promises to give a boost to its activities both within Italy and globally.
Interestingly, while growth in the organic sector has proved impressive in recent years, Asian markets are noticeably outperforming the global uptake trend, amidst growing consumer awareness of the health benefits of organic food. Indeed, organic market analysts at Ecovia Intelligence report that growth in organic sales in Asian markets is currently registering around 15 per cent per annum. Certainly, this rise in demand has not escaped the notice of Bioagri Co-op’s chief, Riccardo Cozzo, whose pioneering organisation was back at THAIFEX Anuga Asia this year to promote a wealth of Italian organic produce to the flourishing regional market of South East Asia and beyond. Food & Beverage Networker’s Editor, Sarah Pursey, sat down with the co-operative’s boss to learn more about its activities and growth strategy.
Q. Could you tell me a little about your organisation’s origins and its development over the years?
Riccardo Cozzo: “We founded Agri-Co-op back in 1984 – at the very beginning of the organic farming in Italy. At that time, we had to communicate the concept and try to demonstrate that a new system of production was possible and feasible. It meant we were involved a lot on promotion alongside research and field trials surrounding organic farming practices. As part of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM), we worked actively to define organic agriculture norms and regulations. Indeed, we were engaged with preparations behind ensuring the European regulation in 1993 for organic farming.
“Initially, our organisation was associated predominantly with farmers. However, step-by-step, we started to engage with processors. And now our organisation comprises many processors that produce all kinds of typically Italian food products that are representative of the Mediterranean diet.”
Q. Could you please describe the array of products that Bioagri Co-op represents today?
“We have several companies that produce extra virgin olive oil, others that produce balsamic vinegar, and also a variety of wines – all emanating from the most typical regions of production.
“We have a variety of products made from cereals – chiefly the typically Italian product of pasta, produced from durum wheat (mostly in the central and southern part of Italy). There are then also products made from normal wheat, such as biscuits and other baked goods.
“We help promote many fruit-based products, including jams, marmalade and juices, alongside products made from vegetables, including pureés and sauces – for example, from the artichoke (a typical Italian vegetable) and the tomato (one of the most important ingredients in Italian cooking).
“We obviously also promote a selection of Italian cheeses – including Parmesan – that are specific to particular regions or provinces of the country. Then there are the array of meat products, including prosciutto ham and salami.
“Many such products have geographical indications (GIs) – that is, the products are assured and certified in terms of their origins. That link to the territory is increasingly important to consumers – and it’s really a value-added factor for the companies that we represent. It means there is essentially a ‘double-link’ for such produce – a link both with the kind of agricultural techniques that are utilised, and with the area from which those products originate.
“Another very important aspect is that such products are made using traditional methods. For example, our cheeses are fermented products that must be matured using natural yeast – after their initial production, they must be kept for maturation in a specific area and under specific conditions. For us, that’s real cheese.”
Q. What are the major sales channels for those Italian organic products that the co-op promotes today?
“In Italy, and in Europe more broadly, there are specialised shops dedicated to selling organic produce – although over the past decade, the major supermarket chains have all dramatically increased their selection of organic products. So, the most important growth channel at present is undoubtedly supermarkets, but there are also direct sales as well. Likewise, looking at the picture internationally, in new markets we started out selling via specialised channels, although now – step by step – it is increasingly the big supermarkets where we are seeing uptake, so organic is definitely becoming more of a mainstream trend.”
Q. Geographically speaking, where are your main markets today?
“Italy definitely remains our strongest market at present – representing 50–80 per cent of sales. However, most of our companies already have a strong national market presence, so they are actually looking to strengthen their presence internationally – especially in Europe – and we’re supporting that internationalisation. Our businesses have a strong presence already in Germany, and in northern Europe more generally. Then, there’s the United States – a very large market in which Italian products are obviously already well known.
“One task is to try and help companies to better present their products. This is often a critical point for our Italian companies – they are so used to the fact that the domestic consumer already knows their product, yet this can mean they are less adept when it comes to knowing how to present their product and brand to the international consumer. We therefore assist them to present their product in the right way, in a way that highlights the qualities of the product.
“While northern Europe – especially Germany – and the US have been strong export markets for our products to date, over the past six years we have increasingly started to focus more on promotional activities in Asian markets. Five or six years ago we had a promotional project in China, after which our companies commenced exports to there. Although postponed due to pandemic disruptions, we shall be running another project focused on exports to China next year. Elsewhere, in South East Asia, in recent years prior to the pandemic we’ve seen encouraging export activity to Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.”
Q. What are the future plans and prospects for Bioagri Co-op?
“Over the past few years – especially within the last year – our organisation has started to operate and focus a lot on Italy itself, particularly in light of a new policy, which very much supports the production of organic goods within Italy. We believe this dynamic will also strengthen support when it comes to promoting to the consumer – in terms of increasing awareness of the benefits of organic. So, we shall be engaged in a lot of activity within Italy itself first and foremost, because we believe that when there’s a strong local market, it’s better also for exports. It means that first the product is appreciated locally – and that local appreciation creates an additional value when it comes to exporting.
“Thereafter, of course, we will be focusing more on increasing promotion of exports to the fast expanding Asian markets. We believe that Asia is very dynamic, and a very innovative market. We combine tradition (how the products are produced utilising traditional processes) with innovation – innovation related to the quality of the product in terms of packaging, and in terms of the preserved nutritional value through using different techniques. For example, the organic sauces our companies produce are made not using intense heat but rather by combining low temperature treatment with vacuum packaging, in order to provide a long shelf life – that is, achieving this via techniques that don’t spoil the product quality or flavour.
“All such factors are very much appreciated by the dynamic markets of Asia, we believe. We therefore have several research projects in Italy focused on developing those aspects – we’re collaborating with various universities in Italy on a number of innovations, from the farm processing level upwards. And we will transfer this knowledge to our producers so they can further enhance the quality of their products.”
Q. What has been your experience of THAIFEX Anuga Asia 2022?
Our organisation has exhibited at THAIFEX Anuga Asia perhaps five times previously, so we have quite a bit of experience of the exhibition. We are happy to have returned to the show in Bangkok this year, as unfortunately it has been a challenge for us to promote the international activity of our members over the past few years. We’ve been thoroughly impressed with the show so far. We’ve received a lot of visitors to our stand – and not just from Thailand, but also interesting contacts from a wide range of other countries. Therefore, I would say this exhibition – which is really the first major international show after the pandemic – has already proved to be quite a dynamic event with many participants, and we’re happy to be part of it.”
For more details on the activities of Bioagri Co-op and the array of organic products that it represents, visit: bioagricoop.it/en
THAIFEX Anuga Asia returns to Bangkok from 23–27 May 2023. For more details and early-bird deals, visit: thaifex-anuga.com/en
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