The Battle in Catalonia

01 Oct 2008

In three years the Terres de Lleida Convivium has become one of the main opponents of transgenic products in its efforts to defend a range of local quality products. The convivium, comprising people with a variety of backgrounds, has managed to persuade the public authorities to promote alternative forms of agriculture. Nonetheless, Catalonia continues to be the second most important region in Europe for the cultivation of transgenic products; with the nearby autonomous region of Aragon coming first. In little more than five years, the coverage of GM corn grown in Catalonia has increased from 6000 to 20,000 hectares, making organic agriculture ever more difficult.
This situation has prompted Slow Food, together with other agricultural associations and consortia, to organize a petition to force the Catalan government to debate this controversial question in regional parliament. The 50,000 signatures needed to present a bill for a GM-free Catalonia have almost been collected.

My Precious Seeds
The end objective is to transform Catalonia into a region without any transgenic crops. Farmer Josep Pàmies, leader of the Balaguer convivium and activist in the local anti-GM campaign, knows that this will be difficult to achieve: multinationals will defend their position with every economic means at their disposal, forgetting, as they always do, aspects connected to health. As Pàmies tells us, multinationals are keen for farmers to be forced to buy transgenic seeds from them each year, subject to their conditions. We should remember that in the past farmers gathered seeds from their own crops, avoiding extra costs and remaining free from dependence on large-scale agribusiness.
When it comes to effects on human health, Pàmies adds that the use of transgenic products can cause pathologies which may not be life-threatening, but can become chronic. In other words, they can generate dependence on medication for a person’s whole life. These diseases are a goldmine for pharmaceutical companies, also large multinationals, for whom money is obviously more important than protecting health.

We can see another example in the ban on the use of stevia (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni). This is a plant originally from Paraguay, which because of its sweetening power 200 times greater than sugar – but without providing calories or altering blood glucose levels – can be used by diabetics with obvious benefit. The food and pharmaceutical use of stevia is not permitted in Europe except for a few countries. The only reason for this is because it offers real prospects for improving the quality of life for ill people and is not covered by patents, thereby constituting a risk to the interests of pharmaceutical companies. Through the efforts of Slow Food, information about the plant’s properties is being disseminated and prompting growing public interest.
Stevia can be sold as an ornamental plant: this is the legal loophole identified by Slow Food, which allows anyone to have it at home. It is not an ideal solution but is how things stand, and is enabling the plant’s reputation to spread across the country. The objective is to obtain authorization so it can be used for culinary and pharmaceutical use, as is the case in three quarters of the world. Members of the Terres de Lleida Convivium do not think this is enough however: they are sure stevia has additional unknown uses and want further research to be carried out.
This is why stevia has become the Slow Food organization’s emblem in the Lleida region: the snail and the plant share and symbolize the association’s basic principles. These sorts of ideas are becoming more common in Catalonia and Spain. Josep Pàmies welcomes to his farm anyone wanting to find out more about the properties of stevia or who is aware of the importance of reviving local food products—which focus on flavor rather than appearance—and in the past ensured autonomy and identity for farmers.

Varieties Protected
Ever increasing numbers of people are becoming aware of these issues and sharing Slow Food’s position. The association’s message is welcomed and promoted through the media. However Josep Pàmies reports that some large TV broadcasters have come to his farm and recorded programs, but they have never been broadcast. When Josep asked why, the answer was: “We didn’t get permission.” Pàmies feels that this is due to the dependence of mass media on the publicity system. Positive news about the effects of stevia would adversely affect the interests of some large customers who pay significant sums of money to TV stations.
Slow Food Terres de Lleida not only organizes meetings for members, but also puts on frequent public events. Its ongoing constructive efforts means that the public is properly informed of the association’s message. Only three years ago the Terres de Lleida convivium began to spread the word about its activities; it is now well-known and everyone knows what it is fighting for. The ideals it expresses are gaining greater acceptance than expected, because people want to return to a different style of eating and a different way of defining health.
GMOs and laboratory products are provoking growing suspicion and this is sure to highlight the slow philosophy. Local authorities are also showing their interest, particularly La Noguera District Council, which together with Slow Food has begun to recover endangered native plant varieties. In addition to propagating and providing farmers with recovered plants, this initiative will also revive and collect the knowledge which has allowed these plants to be cultivated for so many years.
The Catalonian regional government’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Action has realized the importance of promoting research to help improve the public’s quality of life and as part of this, Slow Food has been given space at the Vallfogona de Balaguer Agricultural College. The aim is to collect native varieties, particularly fruit and vegetables but also trees, which are at risk of extinction. This is highly significant since public authorities have never before shown interest in issues of this kind. It is a first step which may indicate a change of course for current policies.
For both the general public and government organizations, Slow Food is seen as an organization that can effect the changes needed so people can live better lives, from economic, ethical and health perspectives.

Francesc Balañá
Spain, journalist with the daily newspaper La Mañana

This article is published in the Slow Food Almanac. Click here to read the whole issue.

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