The world food system now appears to be crazier than ever. The older industrial economies seem to be faltering while the emerging economies seem destined to surge forward, even if they are continuing to create immense social costs for their communities. The average quality of food has deteriorated, we are generating incredible waste and pollution of all kinds and there are paradoxical situations. China is now penetrating our markets with its food products and food has spread around the globe to an incredible extent. It is more urgent than ever to rethink the system.
The most logical solution may seem obvious, but it is extremely difficult to put into practice given the chaotic state of affairs, the many factors and powerful transnational interests involved. Our economic focus needs to be shifted back to a local level as far as possible, particularly for fresh products which can be grown and consumed in the same area. If we want to stand up to the invasion of products from emerging economies (I do not see it in terms of a commercial battle), it is obvious that all we need to do is rebuild and defend strong local economies, based on a virtuous circle of agriculture, knowledge and consumption. A local system can be made impervious to a dependence on similar foreign commodities.
We shouldn’t be importing Chinese tomatoes if we can produce our own high quality ones. Think of the waste involved, the pollution due to transport, the injustice inflicted on small Italian farmers (and maybe the underpaid Chinese), the loss of taste and quality. But I would go further: we shouldn’t even be thinking of eating Italian tomatoes from the other end of the country when perfect ones are produced close to home, and all we need to do is buy them from the farmer or a local market.
This shift back to a local focus will have to be a slow process-not too slow I hope-but I am sure that sooner or later it will happen. For the moment it should not be taken as an immediate dogmatic prescription: that would just cause other problems. But we must gradually move in that direction because the folly of our present ways and the levels of unsustainability have reached their limits.
The word folly brings to mind an article I read in the American magazine Mother Jones, which proposed breaking the present global food chain-“the next revolution is food you find round the corner”-with data illustrating the absurdities of our current world food situation. To think that in 2004 the United States exported 20 million dollars worth of lettuce to Mexico, and in the same year the US imported 20 million dollars worth of lettuce from Mexico. California sells 18 million dollars worth of asparagus around the world-and each year imports 39 million dollars worth of asparagus from abroad.
Twenty percent of Californian grapes for eating end up in China, the largest producer in the world of eating grapes. In 2003, almonds worth 1.1 million dollars left the port of New York bound for Italy; in the same year the port received almonds worth exactly this amount from Italy. We seem to be blindly following the prevailing orthodoxy. I would really like someone-obviously excluding the parties involved in transporting all these commodities, whose interests are evident-to explain what logic there is in all this. I am more than ready to try and understand if there is any benefit to the public at large.
I am not saying we should create a multitude of autonomous microsystems, common sense cautions us not to make the mistake of overreacting. I am also aware that we cannot produce certain things in certain places. But there are so many examples of twisted logic, such as those mentioned in the American article or the Chinese tomatoes in Italy, that they can, and should, be eliminated. Eating locally produced food is not a dogma, it is a goal we should be aiming for. It is a new awareness that the prevailing food system cannot just dictate its obsolete and unfair economic rules of the game, that there are alternative, simpler and more sensible systems. They are not only more sustainable and provide better food, they also support local microeconomies which are of immense cultural, environmental and social value.
First printed in La Stampa on June 4, 2006
Adapted by Ronnie Richards