Extreme Measures for Biodiversity

A prestigious panel of guests was on hand at the Milk Workshop “Preserving Biodiversity, Preserving the Planet,” held at Cheese 2011 on Friday September 16th at 6 pm, to debate how the steep fall in biodiversity can be reversed, with a particular focus on European Union policy. Despite the late hour and stifling heat, the conference room was packed with an attentive audience.

Piero Sardo, president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity and the moderator, began by outlining the differences between wild and domestic biodiversity, saying that Slow Food has always focused on biodiversity selected by humans, agrobiodiversity, which gives us the majority of the food we eat. “That’s what interests us the most, it’s the most threatened,” he said. “With wild biodiversity people generally don’t want to intervene directly to wipe out a species. You ask someone, ‘Do you want to wipe out whales, or pandas?’ and they’ll say no, they have nothing against pandas and whales. But ask a modern farmer ‘Do you want to maintain the old breeds of cattle?’ and most will say they want to eradicate them, they don’t want to see them, not even on a postcard.”

Instead, he said, we must save this biodiversity: “It is culture, tradition, territory, the foundation of our civilization.” He said Slow Food had been fighting for years to protect biodiversity by protecting traditional food products. “These products are not biodiversity, they cannot reproduce, they are not alive. But they are the products of humans who use biodiversity to make them. By maintaining a traditional cheese you maintain a traditional breed and you help biodiversity to survive.” He then asked each panel member to describe what measure they would like to see the European Union adopt to protect biodiversity.

Bo Normander, the Danish director of Worldwatch Institute Europe, immediately identified the importance of reforming farm policy. He said the three major threats to biodiversity from farming were large fields, too much nitrogen and inappropriate subsidies. He described the large square fields of intensive farming, with no trees and hedgerows, as “like a desert.” With a minimum area of green corridors per hectare of farmland, we’d have more species, more insects and birds, he said. Artificial fertilizers, manure from pigs and cows, animal farming and transport are pumping massive amounts of nitrogen into the air and water, he said, making it impossible for many plant species to survive. Again, the solution is simple: “Minimize the loss of nitrogen from farmland.” And finally he called for an ambitious reform of the Common Agricultural Policy to change the current subsidy situation, where “the more you produce, the more money you get. Subsidies should be directed towards quality, diversity and farmers who want to use rare seeds.”

Political reform, however, is not so simple, as Italian Member of Parliament Susanna Cenni testified. With the ongoing environmental, social and economic crisis, she said that we need a completely new paradigm, restructuring our economy not around production and consumption, but around issues of environment, health and food. Last year she introduced a parliamentary bill with a number of measures to protect biodiversity and also to build economies around its value. “We don’t want a museum kind of protection, just describing, cataloguing and displaying, but to build real economies, to make citizens aware of this extraordinary heritage and to create real economic development.”

Her bill proposed a decentralized but national system of protection and promotion, a register of biodiversity, a national germplasm network, programs for conserving local breeds, a fund to compensate farmers who practice traditional agriculture and support for public research in favor of biodiversity. But with a general blockage in parliamentary activity in Italy, she seemed to hold little hope for her bill being passed, or indeed for any serious reform at an EU level. “What we’ve seen so far doesn’t make us hope for an ambitious CAP,” she said.

A voice from academia was provided by Francesco Sottile, a professor in the Agriculture Faculty of the University of Palermo. He identified two strategic points in biodiversity preservation: generating income and spreading knowledge and awareness. He described a “living museum” of all Sicilian almond varieties, planted together in one field, which he helped set up some years ago. “But I wouldn’t do that now,” he said. “My approach has matured, partly because of my contact with Slow Food. Now I’d try to create a network of villages and communities linked to almond production. The almond museum is an important gene bank but it hasn’t helped almond growing in Sicily. Economic sustainability is the only tool that gives continuity to conservation.” He said it was necessary to create local economies, intervene in marginal areas and halt the disastrous process of desertification affecting much of Sicily. He said raising awareness was equally important, making consumers the principal actors in protecting biodiversity. “The best way to conserve biodiversity is to use it,” he said.

“Biodiversity is essential for our survival on this planet,” said Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at BirdLife Europe, before saying that both agricultural and wild biodiversity were collapsing, and often for the same reasons: monocultures and intensive agriculture based on oil. “Our countrysides are sick,” he said. He showed maps that demonstrated clear links between damage to the environment and subsidies to farmers. “In Spain, areas that get a lot of money have more water pollution. We’re paying farmers who are destroying the territory.” He said money should be going to farmers with good practices, like crop rotation, and that while he and others were fighting to see improvements in Brussels, almost all member states were against reform. “Their objective is not to change anything,” he said. “They want to guarantee a minimal change in the distribution of money. If you get money and it gets cut off, you’ll be upset and make a lot of noise. If you don’t get money, you’re used to it anyway.” He said this political logic was also shared by the European Commission, and that civil society has to make itself heard in order to bring about change. “Europe doesn’t exist,” he said. “We are Europe.”

Francesco Panella, president of UNAAPI, the national union of Italian beekeeping associations, brought an entomological perspective to the debate, talking about how bees are good environmental indicators. “When we switched to unleaded petrol, heavy metals disappeared from honey,” he said. Bees were disappearing from Italy, as they were in the United States and Northern Europe, but when a ban on neonicotinoid seed treatment was put in place, bee populations quickly returned. Panella also decried the subsidies given to industrial farming, and the conflict of interest between agribusiness and government policy, leaving little hope for real policy change. “We just want a hint of green in the background of the CAP,” he said. “But they won’t do it, they don’t want to do it.”

More gloom came from marine biologist Silvio Greco, lamenting the “stupidity and total ignorance” of our species. He said that without understanding and protecting ecosystems, there was no way to save biodiversity. “When will Europe have a research policy that looks at the sea as an ecosystem?” he asked. He talked about the harm caused by overfishing, marine pollution, the alteration of coastal environments and tourism, all leading to massive losses in the sea’s biodiversity. He said that the EU must intervene and revise its logic of development. “When will our species become less stupid?” he wondered.

Next came a perspective from outside Europe, with Alexander Baranov, leader of the Slow Food Moscow Convivium and a scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, talking about the situation in Russia. He described the strong tradition of agrobiodiversity research and the study of genetics in Russia, and said that the first seed bank was created in Russia. “In Russia it is thanks to scientists that biodiversity has been preserved,” he said. But he also said that Russian science was worried about the fall in animal biodiversity, and that scientists were trying to motivate people to preserve biodiversity, “because this is the foundation of our future.”

It was then the turn of Hannes Lorenzen, senior adviser to the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Parliament and a symbolic representative of the EU, to respond to the speakers. “You have a pessimistic view of Europe,” he said, “and it’s right.” He said there was a huge problem with the slowness of policy change, partly caused by conflicts of interest, for example with big seed companies who don’t want a diversity of varieties on the market. He focused on crop rotation as the key response to many of the challenges: climate change, nitrate runoff, loss of soil fertility, and so on. And he agreed with most of the solutions proposed by the other experts. “Ecological farming should be the rule, not the exception,” he said. “That’s what public money should be spent on.”

However, he said that without mass mobilization and pressure on governments, nothing would change. He praised Slow Food’s work bringing together farmers and consumers, but said, “You need to step up your pressure, coordinate with all the other movements. You must get this issue in the media, or we’ll have to wait another seven years to see any change.” He said he didn’t believe European institutions would move without pressure from the public, and urged everyone in the room to act immediately. “It is in the next months and year that we have a chance to have an influence.”

The conference is financed by the European Union

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