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ROME (Reuters) - Italy's mafia has infiltrated huge swathes of the country's agriculture and food business, earning more than 16 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in 2015 from the industry, according to a study released on Wednesday.
The report by Italy's agricultural association, Coldiretti, the Eurispes think-tank and Agro-Food Criminal Observatory said organised criminals were taking advantage of the prolonged economic downturn to seize control of farmland and firms.
"They are creating a crisis for the image of Italian food in the world, they are putting the health of consumers at risk and putting our environment at risk," said the head of Coldiretti, Roberto Moncalvo.
"Above all they are suffocating the business and economic fabric of many honest companies that are being jeopardised by this criminal activity," he told reporters.
The study showed the influence of crime gangs reached right across the country, but they remained especially powerful in their traditional southern bastions, such as Sicily.
In one area, Ragusa, famed for its year-round production of tomatoes, it said mobsters had a total stranglehold on agriculture. Contacted by Reuters, the town council of Ragusa declined to comment on the report.
Only four of Italy's 102 provinces showed no sign of illegal activity in the agriculture sector, said the study, which was unveiled at a conference attended by the justice minister and a number of the nation's top anti-mafia prosecutors.
Coldiretti said the gangsters made money in numerous ways, including by counterfeiting prized products like virgin olive oil and buffalo mozzarella to stealing entire herds of animals and whole crops. They had also muscled in on distribution and sales networks, leading to price hikes for consumers.
The report said turbulence in the banking sector and the fall in bond yields meant that some investors were offering funds to illegal agricultural operators, making unorthodox investments that it termed "money dirtying".
The World Bank estimates that agriculture accounts for some 2.2 percent of Italy's gross domestic product and employs roughly four percent of the work force.
Coldiretti is urging the government to strengthen the legal framework to defend the nation's farmers from mafia gangs, saying the sector could generate much more wealth if it was freed from organised crime.
Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Dominic Evans