FORUM – Coffee With A Kick

17 Jun 2003

On May 28 last, in Codifiume, an agricultural village on the border between the provinces of Ferrara and Bologna, a tragic series of coincidences led to the death of a local farmer. A quantity of insecticide accidentally ended up in a coffee pot, killing Giancarlo Zanella, 56, in the drawing room of his life-long friend, Marino Quacchio, 55, owner of the Green Rabbit farm.

The story of the two farmers poisoned by a herbicide that they had mistakenly brewed up as coffee was neatly pigeonholed by television, radio and press news editors as a ‘tragic fatality’ and, once the necessary crocodile tears had been shed, was quickly forgotten. I think this is wrong. I think the event merits rather more consideration. To start with, rather than cruel fate, I think we are looking at a predictable consequence of insane agricultural practice. Huge quantities of highly poisonous substances, whose sale and use are in theory controlled by stiff regulations, are now found not only on every farm but in any house anywhere that has a garden or a bit of land. They are bought, handled and spread on the ground with sublime nonchalance and they are swapped with those of neighbors and relatives, as if they were tomato plants or lettuce seeds.

For those like me who often drive along the road linking Asti and Cuneo, in what was once the fertile valley of the River Tanaro and where now the last remaining growers hold out against the invasion of hypermarkets, factories, quarries and viaducts, there are frequent glimpses of old men (the work is light and close to home, so ideal for the elderly) diligently spraying ditches and courtyards, gardens and vegetable plots, eliminating every hint of unwanted growth without a second thought. What then for the numerous vines that in spring suddenly turn from bright green to a burnt reddish color, giving passers-by the impression that the area has been napalmed?

Coffee made with herbicide is the result of a perverse rationale based on intensive monoculture in farming, one that declares a war on weeds where nothing is spared, a war that is fought with such force that it resembles ethnic cleansing. It’s the rationale of a multinational industry that first won over the farmers then colonized the collective mentality, to the extent that the contamination has spread even to small allotments, those belonging to people who work them ‘so we know what we’re eating’. In this fight without quarter, once the chemical aggressors—which are not just herbicides but insecticides, pesticides, desiccators and fungicides—have dispatched the grass and weeds, they find new enemies in parasites and small animals of all types. It’s an endless pitiless spiral. Yet these chemicals have become everyday substances, ones so habitual that everyone gaily ignores the risks they pose to the environment and man’s health. So that cup of coffee, instead of a tragic fatality, becomes an exemplary parable of modernity and the aberrant relationship—more conflictual than symbiotic—that we enjoy with nature.

One more thought, this time sensorial. What sort of taste must a herbicide have? How can someone make an espresso coffee and be so distracted that they drink it down without picking up something—in the color, aroma or taste—that’s wrong, something strange, something off key? What’s up with our palates? How many Taste Workshops, how many Masters of Food do we need to rebalance the relationship in our society between an elite who split hairs over the bouquet of a wine and the overwhelming majority whose idea of eating is to swallow any old rubbish without thinking?

Giovanni Ruffa is the editor-in-chief of the journal Slow

Adapted by Maureen Ashley

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