Home Thoughts From Abroad

20 May 2003

My work often prompts me to think about the crazy situation that has developed in Italy as a result of the dominance of agribusiness and the food industry. I often notice how people are increasingly ignorant about food issues – how food is produced, processed and eaten. My thoughts are reflected in the dispiriting situations or irresponsible business behavior I often speak about in this column. Issues such as the monoculture which is destroying the countryside, the devastating effect of standardization on biodiversity and traditional knowledge, food that is harmful for the environment and our health, or dubious business practices that never consider the crucial cultural importance of food. However, after a visit to Britain, I have to recognize that Italy isn’t as bad as some places. We have our failings and we’ve made mistakes but things are definitely better here than the wasteland I found over there!

The pleasant English countryside we picture in its gentle, green landscapes unsullied by architectural blight, is acutally on its knees. After mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease, the country’s few quality producers are struggling to survive, and everyone is having to pay the price of a ravaged food culture. In London you see food being sold at every street corner, but you have a job finding something decent to eat. Everything – from the traditional fish and chip shops to the flood of franchises of every sort, from the questionable restaurants to the pubs – exhibits almost a pit-stop attitude to food: eating as a fast refuel. It is definitely of profound concern that the Michelin guide should end up awarding its famous stars to crowded, trendy eating places that have nothing to do with the healthy, traditional concept of what a restaurant should be (not to mention the food itself, which is hard to commend and exorbitantly expensive). Then you hear stories of English kids confessing at school that they don’t even have a kitchen at home because it’s considered a waste of space. Incredible! Such a state of affairs would be inconceivable in Italy.

The few quality cheese, quality meat or traditional food producers have to make a slog of two to six hundred kilometers every week to go and sell their food at London markets. The fact is that they can’t find customers locally. That’s crazy!

It’s a bit easier for them in London, the only place where they can get a good price and where there are still a few people who recognize the value of their products. Entering a typical supermarket is a traumatic experience for your average Italian: all you see are rows of all types of precooked food in set sizes.

At this point, the flag-wavers among us will be starting to congratulate themselves, thinking how much better off we are in Italy and what good quality food we get from our farmers. In fact, the reason I’m describing this bleak situation is because it should serve as a warning to people infatuated with ever-increasing productivity and supporters of the choices made by agribusiness. Large-scale agriculture and a lack of awareness about raw materials is leading us straight down this path. In Britain they envy us and are great admirers of our food culture.

Some British enthusiasts are trying to recreate a food culture. They are struggling to make raw milk cheeses: there are only three raw milk Cheddar cheeses in the whole country (excellent quality, true, but submerged by tons of sliced industrial stuff). They are valiantly defending the few types of native breeds saved from standardization and epidemic. Associations for the defense and protection of small farmers have even been founded in towns and cities.

Before we congratulate ourselves, I would first think hard about the choices we are making and act before it is too late.

First published in La Stampa, issue of 18 May 2003

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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