Don’t you find that the disappearance of these traditions and knowledge has not only compromised rural life from a social point of view but has also caused agricultural and dietary problems? In the course of my work I often find myself coming up against official science, which due to its greater prestige and efficiency considers this empirical knowledge is little more than a picturesque tradition to be relegated to ethnography. With hindsight however, we see many things being revived and reassessed; in many cases scientific progress has highlighted significant limitations in industrial agriculture and its serious environmental impacts.
On the one hand, I believe science has been absolutely essential for agriculture because it has enabled many problems to be solved and productivity to be increased. The question of science and its limits is still open, in that there is not much testing or time to calmly assess the results and effects of research. So I think there is another important problem, apart from just setting science and traditional knowledge in opposition to each other. The problem is how scientific information can become agricultural knowledge. It is an additional step and I will give an example: science tells me that I need certain products and chemicals for my potatoes. They will certainly be necessary to cure them of disease and provide good yields but am I in a position to carry out the treatment with the required background knowledge and wisdom? Can I judge what will be the effect on the soil, the land and the environment? I know that there is a more complex cycle of life which I am part of. Otherwise it will be a bit like for religion: when I was small, people were sure that God controlled the weather. People today, who are secular, know that God does not intervene to move clouds of hail and they rightly take action by using anti-hail guns. But due to these sorts of solution there has been a loss of meaning not only in people’s personal relationship with God, but also with nature and the earth. It is a special relationship which needs rebuilding, but with the understanding that work and the land are part of a fabric of symbolic meaning. Science, therefore, needs a similar approach, otherwise in its frenetic growth it will offer us products and solutions before we can know whether they are really beneficial or whether they introduce imbalances.
You used the word ‘wisdom”’ I think that is what held the old type of society together. I think it is necessary for it to regain a central role. Make it the bond holding complex society together, where we don’t, for example, suggest what prayers to recite against the hail, but where science can live together with belief. Because without beliefs we are all poorer, we are not able to grasp the complexity of our human condition.
Wisdom grows from acquiring a perception of the history and processes which everything undergoes. In the case of food for example, if I open a can of tuna and do not eat it with wisdom, it means I do not realize that the fish was caught, cut, cooked, put in olive oil made from the fruit of a tree, and so on. If I do not use wisdom I might just as well swallow a pill, the final product of a process unknown to me.
One of the main aims of “Terra Madre” is precisely to highlight the value of “wisdom” connected to food production. We have talked about our Piedmont which in October will be welcoming the representatives of food-producing communities invited from every continent, but there is also the global aspect to this meeting, what I like to call “a community of common destiny”. It is a game we are playing together on a global level, each person in their own country, but for the good of all. Here in Bose you organize meetings between different churches and international meetings between different groups: how do you view this idea of “a community of common destiny”?
The problem with a community of destiny is the same as with a community which lives together: if we are aware that the earth and the space granted to us is shared by all of humanity, then there are never any outsiders. On the contrary, my small fragment, the Monferrato, relates to everything and everything relates to my fragment. This idea of “Terra Madre” is a way of giving a voice and a face to those involved in producing food in their geographic and social setting, but it is also a special way of expressing the idea of a community living together. The interrelatedness and common interest between these people is mainly due to food, because humans depend on food to live. Human beings and food are closely related. Cooking food for someone is, for example, the most basic way of telling someone “I care about you”. The better you cook, the more you show you care. Secondly, food is a sign of our culture, whether the linguistic and cultural skills developed at the table, farming the land or cooking. Around the table we experience community and sharing. Finally, food is what allows us to celebrate and have a good time in all cultures, another inalienable social right.
These are all common features expressed in different ways. All the differences between traditional cultures and their ways of approaching food, whether producing or consuming it, have, I think, a common thread connecting them. A sort of traditional approach shared around the world.
Of necessity, yes. I think there are three different worlds on the planet: one is of small farmers, one is of nomads and the third is of fishermen. Whether at the Equator or the Poles, they are three ways of relating to the earth which all humans share. It confirms the existence of a Homo Aagricola who can be found everywhere. For this reason I strongly believe there is a real traditional farming culture which should be recognized and not forgotten.”
After this conversation, people will be calling us two nostalgic supporters of the good old days.
I don’t think so, we both well know what lay behind traditional life in the country, and the terrible harshness it was subject to. But if you look at that world in a critical and discerning way, you can find features which were the result of centuries of experience that have undoubtedly been wrongly abandoned and discarded. We are now at the beginning of a new world, a world which is also called a “world in flight”. We can no longer stop and predict, I won’t say the future, not even the day after tomorrow. It is therefore important to have reference points in the past, obviously without making it a sort of archaeological operation, but asking ourselves if those things that formed a certain body of knowledge can still teach us something today in this world which is slipping away from us.
First published in La Stampa on March 2 2004