Sustainable Agriculture: from Malaysia to Siberia

03 Dec 2003

The International Slow Food Congress held in Naples at the beginning of November officially authorized the Slow Food Association to organize a large meeting of food producer communities from around the world in October 2004. Concurrently with the next Salone del Gusto in Turin, at least five thousand people will be meeting in the Piedmontese capital. Most of them will be small farmers but there will also be fishermen, artisans and small-scale processors from Europe to South America, from Africa to Oceania.

The aim of this huge organizational tour de force—during which travel and accommodation costs will be met for people who never have the opportunity to travel or meet their counterparts scattered around the world—is mainly to allow these people to meet so that they can describe the way they work and the solutions they have found to the various problems encountered during their daily experiences working the land.

It will not just be a parade of cultural diversity, nor a discussion of the major systems holding sway over the world. We will simply endeavor to take a step back and listen to what these people—rice growers from Malaysia and Madagascar, maize growers from Piedmont and Mexico, cheesemakers from Siberia and the United States—can tell us and each other.

This is a first unprecedented attempt to identify and describe new models of sustainable agriculture. It is based on the belief that no single solution or model, however revolutionary, will have a satisfactory lasting effect if it does not involve a deep social commitment and a firm recognition that it is human beings who provide the food eaten around the world every day.

It is human beings we are talking about, their cultural diversity interacting with biological, natural diversity. Human beings with a heritage of centuries of simple but effective agricultural practices, which are worthy of the same attention as the sophisticated studies driven by the scientific approach which first gave us the “Green Revolution” with its stream of chemical herbicides and fertilizers, and which now wants to sell us transgenic organisms. Human beings who should be respected as human beings, so we can achieve true sustainability before theorizing about what might be a definitive solution to the troubles afflicting agriculture in this era of globalization. An agricultural system may appear perfect, non-polluting and highly productive, but if it does not also address the social issues affecting those working on the land, it will never change a world controlled by reductionist science, industrialism and profit at all costs.

I have just been to California, where the new sustainable and workable El Dorado seems to be organic agriculture. But is the organic approach on its own the answer? In California two percent of organic producers control 50 percent of the organic food market. The trend towards organic monocultures is compromising biodiversity and, in particular, the Mexican workers in the large organic agriculture companies earn the same paltry amounts as their compatriots working in conventional agriculture.

But organic produce costs more than conventional produce: who gets the extra profit? It is the large corporate which saw the business opportunities in organic produce, while even in California the valiant small farmers continue to be put out of business. So organic is not the one solution, there are no solutions which are the absolute answer. Different areas face different situations, each with their own biodiversity and social structure. There is a wide range of complex systems which need studying and analyzing case by case.

People should be encouraged to meet and exchange traditional knowledge, created from centuries of direct contact with nature, without exact scientific approaches imposing models from above. Food is produced by human beings from a huge variety of different backgrounds and it is these people we are trying to bring to Turin in 2004. We hope that they can help us and help each other to find out how food production can be made truly sustainable.

First printed in La Stampa, on November 23 2003

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