Wheat cost turns up heat on Italian pasta

Spaghetti in a pot

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The push for bio-fuels is one of those win-lose things. We get more environmentally-friendly ways to power our lives, but we have to pay more for the main ingredients of those fuels — corn or sometimes wheat.

And it's not just us, either. For centuries, Italians have been major consumers of a special kind of hard wheat that makes their pasta taste so good. Megan Williams reports from Rome those rising prices won't go down easy.


Megan Williams: Too much. That's what Italian homemaker Gemma Zavota says about the 20-plus percent price hike in pasta soon to hit Italy.

Like millions of Italians, Zavota's been feeding her family daily plates of steaming spaghetti, fettucine and linguine for decades now. It's cheap, healthy and filling, she says. But for a food so common it's come to define Italian cuisine, such a big price hike will be tough to swallow.

Homemakers aren't the only ones worried about the swelling pasta prices.

Mario Rummo: If the price move up 5 percent a week, you can imagine in a product like pasta that is made only with 100 percent durum wheat semolina, is a tragedy.

Mario Rummo is the beleaguered head of the Italian Pasta Association, the union that oversees the quality of pasta in Italy. He says not since 1973, when Israel went to war with Egypt and Syria, have costs risen so sharply.

This time round is not war, but an onslaught of factors. New customers in North and South America looking to convert wheat for bio-ethanol. China and India eating more bread and less rice. And a bad wheat crop in Italy this spring.

To make matters worse, Italy buys about 60 percent of its durum wheat — that's the hard semolina used to make its world-renowned pasta — from Canada and Syria. Now Canada's predicting a poor harvest next month, and Syria's backing out of contracts with Italy because other countries are offering to pay more.

Rummo: It's easy on this particularly moment to make a speculation. You know, durum wheat or cereals is a commodity product, is like gold or like petrol, you know. Especially when there is a shortage, it's very easy to make speculation and make a lot, lot of money.

Rummo says that while other countries have been willing to settle for lesser-quality pasta made with a mix of slightly cheaper grains, Italians will stick with the costly durum wheat.

Rummo: In fact, we have a law in Italy. It's name is purity law, that said that pasta can be made in Italy only with durum wheat. Because this is the wheat that produces the best result in terms of, you know, pleasure and quality.

Indeed, retired school teacher Mariella Cresci says even on her fixed pension, she wouldn't considered cooking anything but the best quality durum wheat pasta.

Mariella Cresci: Surely, because it's better to cook, it's easier to cook, the taste is surely better than other pasta.

Rummo of the pasta association says it's important to keep things in perspective. One pound of pasta still costs less than a buck — a meal ticket that's tough to beat anywhere.

In Rome, I'm Megan Williams for Marketplace.

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