More than ten years ago, in his masterpiece The Omnivore’s Dilemma, my friend Michael Pollan explained that cheap food is an illusion: if we consumers don’t pay the right price for food at the checkout, the environment and our health will pay for it later. Pollan’s thinking forces us to reconsider the role each of us has in the food system. I would add a footnote: alongside the environment and our health, the people who produce food are also footing the bill. In Sardinia, the price of Pecorino Romano has dropped, and as a result, the price of sheep’s milk has plummeted with it. Sheep farmers on the island are being paid as little as 60 cents per liter for the milk, which has caused dissent, with some shepherds going so far as to pour milk out onto the roads in protest. What has been happening in Sardinia is proof, yet another demonstration that the food production, processing, distribution and consumption system we live in isn’t working and that a paradigm shift is needed more than ever. The protest of these shepherds, who prefer to throw away the milk, the fruit of their labor, rather than sell it at a loss, is an extreme and symbolic act of desperation that testifies to the need and urgency for change – now. It is the struggle of people who realize that they can no longer bow to ‘market logic’ that squeezes workers, people who refuse to be slaves to a race to the bottom, of people who are conscious of the time, passion and hard work that sheep farming demands and who deserve to be remunerated fairly. Besides, Sardinian sheep’s milk is itself a symbol of the island and its production has centuries-old history that has shaped the spirit of a land and its people. It can’t just be left to disappear for the as a victim of commercial logic.
How have we ended up here? Where did this human drama and waste of resources begin? Who is to blame? Finding a scapegoat and a common enemy to fight is often the easiest choice but it’s not always the right one. Since the case in question is such a huge mess, the first step to take is not to point the finger but to start asking the right questions. As in all complex situations, to avoid getting bogged down in sterile arguments it is crucial to establish whether there are any simple answers or not. By avoiding kneejerk reactions, we will see that the reasons are wide ranging. For example, the cooperatives that originally existed to support shepherds are now buying milk at a ridiculously low price – so low that it doesn’t even cover production costs. Why? Because the main product of Sardinian milk, PDO Pecorino Romano cheese, struggles to fetch eight euros a kilo in the large retail price war. Bearing in mind that it takes at least seven liters of sheep’s milk to produce a kilo of Pecorino, it leaves no margin for fair wages for the shepherds. What of the consumers? When we do our shopping, if we aren’t mindful of what it means to lead the flocks to pasture every day, what it means to take care of their health and wellbeing, of the value of preserving landscapes and local areas, how are we supposed to know what we are buying? Without this knowledge, we’ll be lured by the decoy of cheap prices, and be delighted that our favorite cheese costs half the price of a bag of lettuce.
The truth is that we are all involved, and we have to be watchful and responsible, so as to ensure that everyone can live and work with dignity. We simply can’t reach a point in which workers are forced to destroy the fruits of their labor just to be heard. If the mentality of citizens doesn’t change, the present crisis will only be one of a long series.