More Enlightened Attitudes Please

02 Nov 2006

On a recent trip to the United States I was able to see at first hand how many American opinion leaders regard issues associated with the sustainability of food production as one of their top priorities. Too often when these problems are raised here in Italy and it is suggested that we should discuss new alternatives to avoid irrevocably damaging global resources, one’s words risk echoing in a vacuum like a fruitless mantra.

But when you speak to any audience in America, you are met with standing ovations and you can immediately appreciate the level of understanding, concern and awareness surrounding the issue. It is the country most focused on a fast way of life, and maybe for this reason it seems that people there are the first to realize that our present ways of production and consumption are creating disastrous situations. Many top American managers are already perfectly aware of the problem, they have thoroughly analyzed the situation and are working out what to do and how to find sustainable and feasible approaches.

But when I go to conferences and meet people at all levels in Europe and Italy, I increasingly find that if you reveal your doubts and suggest new economic principles may be needed to assure a better future, and at least control agribusiness, most of my listeners will laugh at the idea. They begin to talk about niches, that the examples I provide are only relevant to small-scale ventures that could not possibly be as ‘efficient’ as the industrial system, they would not be able to generate the same growth and wealth that we have created so far.

If you talk about Presidia that have saved products, breeds and varieties from extinction, the automatic response is to talk about an unproductive economic niche; if you suggest relocating food production to eliminate waste and provide better quality food, people object that it would be a nice utopia but is not economic in practice due to the way the present system is organized. And the people responding in this way are often recognized and high profile academics, economists and industrialists.

But I firmly believe that the industrial system of food production, in terms of what it has become and what it has done to destroy resources, is in fact not efficient at all, and I sincerely hope that sustainable systems of production will never achieve the same level of ‘efficiency’.

In order to discuss these changes, so important for our future, we should take a step back and try not to reason using current economic criteria: we should have the humility to understand that waste and pollution are costs that fall on society. Under the present system, the wealth of some is transformed into impoverishment for all.

It seems that the simple but revolutionary concepts I outline are making more of an impact in America—the land of theocons, neocons, free enterprise and efficiency at all costs, indiscriminate wealth and inhuman managerialism—than they are in Europe. That should give us pause for thought. But something that we should particularly recognize is that in both Europe and in America, there are huge numbers of people who from time immemorial have applied these concepts every day. They are the human beings who produce food in the poorest countries and are involved in small-scale but valuable subsistence economies.

They have maintained a symbiotic relationship with the Earth and nature, which is able to produce benefits without causing irreparable damage.

Some of them, about 6,000 representatives, were hosted for Terra Madre in Turin from October 26 to 30. I think that if people looked at them with a Eurocentric perspective, based on growth economics and the Western approach as the only possible way, they failed to understand much of what they were seeing. A humbler attitude would be appropriate, we should stop thinking that our way of generating wealth is the only one worth associating with the concept of development. These people show us that sustainable approaches already exist, and that they are feasible and beneficial. But we will never understand them if we don’t first change our habitual ways of thinking.

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

First printed in La Stampa on October 15, 2006

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