New Ideas, Not just big numbers

Increasingly, I have the impression that the Italian political class undervalues the questions and issues of the agro-alimentary world. I understand that perhaps this sector no longer has the relevance and impact that it did 50 years ago. Agriculture has become the Cinderella of political debates – ignored and overlooked – a role that I see as gravely flawed. This poor sensibility tends to give precedence to other aspects of the Italian productive world, and can also be traced to the congressional debates that are currently involving the primary forces opposed to the Berlusconi government. It seems strange, but if you go and read the various motions presented by Italian politicians such as Fassino, Berlinguer, and Morando you will never see the words ‘agriculture’ or ‘food safety’. This exclusion seems incredible in light of the fact that this year was characterized by month after month of pervasive fear about various food scandals. Evidently, neither the glaring case of mad cow disease, nor the outbreaks of food-related diseases and infections around the world has made any lasting effect on legislative decisions.

These food issues involved hundreds of thousands of people in Italy and in Europe – people that also suffered from the related environmental tragedies. But we think only about what we had to do to burn the felled animals following this year’s diffuse epidemics. I don’t even know where to begin when speaking about the GM foods – the so-called ‘Frankenfoods’. In that case, we are now reaping the bitter fruit of the poor divulgation of scientific information and of the great disconnection between the world of science and the world of production. These two worlds must be kept under tighter control. In the center of this confusion – a confusion that disorients both consumers and producers – are the politics of Brussels, which should be keeping track of the new countries that are entering the European Union. The inclusion of new nations in the EU will open new scenes and stress the already-precarious equilibria, themselves balanced on differential power relationships.

This brings me to say that if we consider the process of globalization, from the events of Seattle onwards, the central idea has been the development of fairer commerce in the primary materials of food. This fundamental idea involves the lives of millions of farmers world-wide. We can discuss the red zone and the blue zone (in Genoa, during the G8 conference), or the opportunities and means of the demonstrations in town squares. However, the central question remains an agricultural one – a fact that the powers that be tend to forget. I am still convinced that with the analysis of new work prospects and of the re-conversion of productive systems in the agricultural and crop sector, we can experiment further with ‘avant gard’ ideas, thereby give space to a new creativity from the productive, economic, and environmentalist viewpoints. For example, one goal is to redefine and reconsider the rapport between two very different groups who live in rural areas: the farmers who have always lived in the countryside and the city folk who flee the city in search of a quieter life. These processes could recreate the socio-economic system of our countryside and they are very important factors; we should know how to create and enact them because they improve the quality of life and safeguard the ecosystem.

We are faced with a great frontier, as yet unexplored, that could guarantee the heritage of our landscapes and the production of quality products, gratification for workers, and fair pay for those workers. I am sure that the young would find valid work alternatives in the sector if the appropriate strategies were enacted. If all of these issues are absent from the current political debate – a debate that heats up only in moments of tension or stress – I see a very bleak future for the whole sector. New nations turn towards the agricultural market, but with the current criterion we will not advance and we will be suffocated by the competitive producers who churn out goods. We have everything in order to define our production with visible quality: let’s do something in time. Farmers, the countryside, and consumers await a response.

Carlo Petrini

from La Stampa 30/09/2001

(adapted by Anya Fernald)

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