It might seem as though soil and cheese have nothing to do with each other, but the living material under our feet is essential to guaranteeing the variety and quality of grasses in a pasture, and therefore the variety and quality of milk that makes a cheese good and unique. It’s therefore not such a stretch of the imagination to think that Slow Food dedicated an entire conference to soil on the first day of Cheese 2015, held in Bra from September 18-21.
“Soil is a topic that has been neglected by policies,” said Marta Messa from Slow Food’s office in Brussels, who chaired the conference. “An article published in a British newspaper earlier this year said that poor soil is an even more serious problem than climate change. If we continue the way we are going, in 60 years we will have no more fertile soil.”
It takes 2,000 years to create 10 centimeters of fertile soil, but only a few decades to kill it with pesticides, chemical fertilizers and erosion. “Soil is a product of complex processes which take a very long time,” said Michele Freppaz, University of Turin, speaking on the panel. “But it’s like restoring a masterpiece; we can try to imitate it but we can never recreate it.”
French journalist Frederic Denhez, also speaking on the panel, explained: “Soils have gone on producing thanks to chemical additions such as fertilizers, not thanks to their own regeneration. We are living in an age of catastrophe.”
The importance of soil is not removed from our everyday lives, but goes all the way to our plates. “In soil there is a micro-world which affects the quality of food,” said Sergio Capaldo, veterinarian and founder of La Granda breeders association. “Food is the medium that transfers the micro-world within the soil into human beings… Before we can talk about animals, we first need to talk about soil. The quality of milk starts with soil biodiversity.”
Making good cheese takes more than just pastures and cheesemaking skill; it also demands respect for the health of the soil and its inhabitants. “We are looking at farming in the wrong way because we focus on speed of production, but we don’t understand that the quality of produce depends on way we treat soil. We need to talk less about chefs and more about ingredients and raw materials; these are the what make the real difference in the food we eat.“
The problem is not just compromising the quality of soil, but the paving over, and therefore complete loss, of fertile soil. “The quality of soil can be restored but the bigger problem is that we are losing fertile soils because we are covering them with buildings,” said Roberto Burdese from Slow Food. Frederic Denhez agreed: “Urban sprawl is a major problem in France as in rest of the world… But we are not just losing land, we’re losing the best land for farming, because cities were historically built where the best soils were.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. “Soils are alive, and can recreate their ecosystems if we just give them a couple of years,” Denhez said. “But humans don’t want to hear that because humans want to make money.” Funds should be given to virtuous practices that protect the soil, suggested Capaldo, instead of policies that favor agriculture that destroys the soil. And we need to restore value to the farming skills of local communities, which over centuries have adopted ingenious practices to recover degraded land.
“Soil is a fragile, living system, not just an industrial product,” said Marta Messa to conclude. “We need to understand this and we need to pay a fair price for products that come from soil.”
Find out more in Slow Food’s downloadable handbook – What About the Little World?