A Talk With Romano Prodi – PART ONE

05 May 2004

Europe is evolving. Its political leaders are changing and it is expanding. The unification process involves complex issues and harmonization is a demanding task.

Agriculture remains one of the areas that demands most attention from legislators and politicians: we are facing a situation where an extreme focus on productivity has had devastating effects, wiping out products, cultural values and skills.

Yet we still possess regions which have conserved traditions and sustainable production methods; ten new countries are about to enter the Union, countries where the number of small farmers is still a significant proportion of the population.

We are gradually becoming a single entity split by a huge divide. On one side we have large-scale agribusiness in the most industrialized and urbanized regions and on the other we have ancient farming practices which are still managing to survive.

President Prodi, what do you think about the “Terra Madre” meeting, with 5,000 people coming to Turin, representing food-producing communities from all around the world?

Many of these people will be coming from societies with significant domestic problems and very different social systems. They will need to be able to contribute original solutions, otherwise there is a risk that the meeting could slide into generic and unconstructive complaints. They might well be fully justified and serious, but on their own they would lead nowhere.

It will therefore be important for people to describe how they have followed their traditions in producing food, how they have managed the biodiversity around them, what small innovations they have introduced, how they adapt to market requirements, how they have organized their work within the family and the community.

But I would like to repeat: it is essential that the event avoids becoming a forum for merely making demands. There will be a frighteningly large number of people, many of them facing a daily struggle for survival or, even worse, real hunger. There is a risk that an organization such as Slow Food, which was created and based on the search for high gastronomic quality, might end up struggling to manage the occasion.

It is certainly a move that involves uncertainties, but we have to some extent already implemented changes. When we set up our Presidia in Brazil, it is not Brazilian haute cuisine we are seeking to defend, but the traditional products of humble farming communities: products which are disappearing because they cannot develop in the face of invasive global commerce. The problem is that we have to get away from a Eurocentric way of looking at taste: what we like doesn’t necessarily appeal to people living in a jungle. Every culture has a different identity, also as far as food tastes are concerned. A different food culture may be poorer and completely incomprehensible to us, but it is definitely connected to the biodiversity of the region where it has developed. It will most certainly be of value and satisfaction for that community because it is in accordance with people’s tastes, customs and rituals.

Replacing this specific food culture by a Western industrial product has a devastating effect. It creates a dependency which, in the absence of external economic resources such as money, can even lead to starvation.

Even in the most straitened circumstances, food habits have crucial importance.

Your approach is certainly innovative and has worked well in the rich West. It remains to be seen whether it will be as successful in situations where there is a different cultural background. Perhaps the cultural aspects would need to be considered as a first priority: Terra Madre may be useful in this respect.

In any case, it is also important not to only think about the countries facing the most dramatic problems. I would suggest, for example, creating a special section for the ten countries preparing to join the European Union.

These countries have a mainly family-based farming structure which is profoundly different from the pattern found in the other fifteen countries of the EU. Their traditional farming systems will face a considerable shake-up on entering the EU.

It will be necessary to provide them with help and support on how to react and how to operate without succumbing to fear and anxiety. We had more time to adjust to the single market; unfortunately they will have to do it in just a few years. As things stand there is a risk of destroying an immense cultural heritage and productive tradition. Your experience and your approach can serve as an example: spreading awareness of traditional products within the country and abroad; restoring dignity to producers and encouraging them not to abandon farming; enabling them to earn a fair income from their work. These people are not able to continue farming just by virtue of its cultural value.

Poland, for example, will be joining the EU with 37% of its population still engaged in agriculture. More or less like the situation in Italy in the Second World War: it would be desirable to avoid a situation where they turn their backs on this productive potential with all its values (which could teach us a lot) in order to drive for modernization at all costs, however legitimate their aspirations.

I am beginning to sense the first signs of a certain apprehension in these countries. While they are hopeful that the flow of money they receive will be a significant economic benefit, they are very wary of the EU, fearing that they will have to make sudden traumatic changes. They are afraid of losing power and dignity.

We both share a dream of a generous Europe, less a Europe of nation states and more a united entity, with individual countries open to trade and proud of their identity but not answerable only to themselves. Do you see further difficulties arising with the new accessions?

The problem is not so much a question of supposed cultural domination, but due to a simple historical fact. The European Common Agricultural Policy and other policies are a consequence of the rules established by the first countries which set it up. And it is obvious that new member countries have a strong concern about being in some way colonized. It will therefore be essential to provide a way for them to maintain their traditions, products and identity: in other words their diversity.

It is a delicate situation: there are trade regulations that will not always be favorable to their interests. Harmonization can lead to standardized patterns of consumption, as occurs with all forms of cultural colonization. Western business people are well aware of the advantages these new markets can offer: it is no coincidence that many of them have already been transferring businesses to the East. Business structures in the new acceding countries will have to beware of being “taken over” by those from the West which are more developed and have greater experience.

It is important that what you are proposing – people defending their distinctive way of life by their own means – is a counterweight to the pressures of standardization. This can be achieved by people supporting their cultural traditions and through institutional aid given to small farming activity in particular regions.

Adapìted by Ronnie Richards

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