People who believe that agriculture has nothing to do with ecology are deceiving themselves. Unfortunately, there are still large numbers of people, regrettably including many small farmers, who still persist in ignoring this essential linkage. You would expect ecological awareness to be inbuilt in people like farmers who deal with nature in their work, but the data indicate otherwise: biodiversity is being reduced at an exponential rate, the land is dying under the onslaught of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, working in the country is often not much different from working in a factory.
While a minority is laboriously striving to return to more sustainable approaches to agriculture, we are witnessing an apparently inexorable cultural and biological genocide which is degrading the land — and consequently our lives. It is becoming increasingly urgent for us to reverse course, we need to fundamentally rethink what we are doing and introduce new instruments (including financial ones) for those wanting to pursue other approaches.
Having said all this, it may be surprising to say that we in Europe should begin to look at what is happening in the United States. In the home of fast food, where agribusiness is enormous and causes major adverse effects, civic society and rural society are showing commendable developments. They are expanding, finding money and instruments and persistently endeavoring to bring about a small-scale cultural transformation.
I was lucky enough to attend the conference ‘A Taste for Change: New Ways To Think About Food’ at the end of April near Washington, in Lansdowne, Virginia, and I have to say I was really impressed. The venue was a large secluded conference center immersed in woodlands; the meeting had a different way of communicating and socializing to meetings we have in Europe, but everyone present was happy, extremely well prepared and a firm believer in their ideas. There were about 500 representatives of non-government organizations, associations, farmer’s markets, groups of small farmers, many producer communities who had also been at Terra Madre in Turin, agronomists and ecologists. It was a heterogeneous group of people with a single objective: the sustainability of their actions and the sustainability of the food system in the USA and the world.
One truly feels that something significant is happening in the United States. While a few years ago the motto was ‘organic’, repeated ad nauseam, the guiding principle is now ‘sustainability’. It is a much more complex concept, including quality, taste, social justice and new socioeconomic systems based on delocalized production. This network of keen people — including many small farmers — is still a clear minority, but the spirit and conviction they bring to their work, and the speed with which they persuade others to join them, is a hope for the future.
In Virginia I was pleased to greet those who had also been at Terra Madre: I was reassured to hear how important they felt the event had been for them, bringing together in one place such a wide range of communities united in the desire to produce good, clean and fair food. We now have to build a global network together: we have the human resources and good ideas travel quickly. I would like to warmly invite people involved in Italian agriculture to form alliances with those overseas who are dedicated to virtuous forms of globalization.
Over in the US I met some of the leading figures of American environmentalism. Their concern for agriculture and sustainable production, in a country where the influence of tradition is much weaker than in Europe, demonstrates that we do not have to revert to nostalgia for the past to find forms of agriculture which are compatible with the requirements of nature. What is more, their ability to attract funds from private foundations and enlightened millionaire philanthropists is significant. It shows that there are people and institutions keen to invest in new forms of agriculture, successfully supporting financial ventures with more far-sighted horizons than usual. It is also an example of how small-scale agricultural businesses, if supported by innovative and sustainable approaches, can be a winning formula to dispel the negative image of appearing somewhat backward-looking which they have suffered until recently.
First published in La Stampa on May 2 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards