The Plight of the Modern Farmer

12 Aug 2010

Farmers in Italy are experiencing their most serious crisis for sixty years, accompanied by complete silence and lack of interest on the part of the media. The prices of all types of raw material have plummeted to historic minimums and farmers—irrespective of what crops they grow or animals they raise—are producing at a loss. There are many causes, both cyclical and systemic, but what is most evident is that farmers have lost their independence, the ability to set a price according to the quality of their produce. They are being brought to their knees by the agro-industrial, monocultural approach to farming, which serves the interests of the large-scale retail trade. This model is not only unsustainable from an ecological perspective; it is also devastating the economic viability of small farmers.

But it is hardly surprising: in other countries around the world where the agro-industrial model has been adopted and expanded to greatest extent, we can see how the system works. At first farmers are persuaded to increase their production using unsustainable methods, replacing native varieties and breeds with products preferred by the industry. Then the economic benefits dwindle and many small to medium size farms are forced to close, being bought out by those able to achieve greater economies of scale. We are then left with the same pattern of concentration that has taken place in all countries of the global north: the country areas become depopulated; there is an increase in machinery and decrease in people. In the end, even the large farms begin to struggle. They grow monocultures or farm intensively, and depend on the only customers who can take their produce – the large dealers and large retailers – who gradually begin to dictate prices due to their market strength, and reduce prices even further. The free market is bringing food into the hands of a few and is destroying the spirit of our countryside. Faced with this situation, who would want to be a farmer?

We must work to defend small farmers worldwide and ensure that young people are keen and able to return to rural areas. Agriculture underpins every civilization and we need the virtuous examples of Terra Madre communities to bring creativity and traditions to the system, giving hope for the future. Slow Food has to forge close relations with increasing numbers of farmers, forming an alliance between citizens and producers. We need to create millions of co-producers who, along with food communities, restore due dignity and gratification to those producing what ends up on our tables. And in this process, all those cultures and social groups considered marginal—indigenous people, women, the young and the elderly—will be the protagonists of a momentous change.

Carlo Petrini
President of Slow Food International

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