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Food and sustainability

Sustainability on a plate

Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food and member of the BCFN advisory board, recently reissued “Good, clean and fair”, the text which introduced the “Slow Food philosophy” to the world 10 years ago. To celebrate its re-release, we are publishing an extract of the text which Petrini wrote for the 2016 edition of Eating Planet – BCFN’s book on food, the environment, agriculture, sustainability and the fight against food waste. He speaks of a fundamental principle: the cost of food should not be limited to its economic value, but must also take into account a collection of other values regarding society as a whole and its evolution.


The concept of sustainability is rooted in an age-old idea: time. It is a concept which asks “how long can something last?” Sustainability: it is a beautiful word with a beautiful origin. It comes from the term for one of the pedals on a piano, called the “sustain”, which is used to extend the notes and make them last longer. Hence why the French translate it as durabilité, or the ability to last.
The awareness that what we plan to do (in a private, public or business setting) must be able to last over time and at many different levels (social, economic and environmental), is one of the key concepts for the future of the human species. Nowadays, the word sustainability is used extensively: we are thinking about the future more, many people are doing so continuously, because the idea of sustainability reminds us that the future does not belong to us, and nor do the world’s natural resources. They are shared assets which current generations have the responsibility of preserving for the future. This is another key idea: the sense of responsibility towards those who will come after us, who will arrive on this Earth with the same rights as us to enjoy everything the world has to offer in terms of tastes, climates, landscapes, health and quality of life. But there’s more.

Obviously, in order to protect everything we want to enjoy and pass on to future generations, there is not just one area we need to focus on: we need significant measures to be taken by governments, international treaties and laws. But at the same time, we also need to change everyday habits, individual choices, and the dos and don’ts we all need to follow in changing the way we live our lives, altering our priorities. Rather than simply focusing on saving time and money, we might consider the time spent choosing our food as time invested in looking after our own health and the environment, and the money spent on it as a contribution to a profession - farming – which should be rewarded for the many services it carries out for society and the Earth, and not just for the products it provides. It is about understanding the value of things, not just their price.

When it comes to sustainability, food is a key determining factor which cannot be overlooked. With this in mind, the private sphere made up of individuals is undoubtedly the most active and informed sector, while politicians remain less focused, more absent and often genuinely ignorant about the key issues. Agriculture is frequently considered as a stand-alone sector, simply there to produce goods and commodities which are only worth what we pay for them after the prices are adjusted by corrections imposed from on high (or worse, by financial speculation). We too often tend to think of it as a productive sector which is unaffected by the other values for which in reality it is responsible: values which, not by chance, are profoundly linked to the idea of sustainability.
For instance, we could discuss the protection of land and soil. This means knowing how to keep them alive through agricultural activity, fostering a rich biodiversity which is immediately clear to see from the plants (whether cultivated or wild) and animals (wild or reared), but is also contained within many micro-organisms, keeping soils fertile and productive, rich in nutrients, and able to last.
Unfortunately, soils and biodiversity are under constant assault from intensive monoculture farming which has been carried out for many years without crop rotation and with an overuse of fertilisers and pesticides. Often, the reasons given for this are practical necessities of needing to produce more, but producing for the sake of producing is not sustainable and, as we will see, is not necessary either. The same can be said for the urbanisation of natural habitats, which is not compatible with the conservation of natural and agricultural systems, which are under increasing threat. Land which has been built on will never again be fertile: it is lost forever and future generations will be unable to use it.

Furthermore, soil and biodiversity are prerequisites for abundant and healthy food, which is varied according to the climate and crops, thus also making it sustainable. The heroic determination of some to defend small local farming businesses, as well as those at risk of dying out, is not an example of simple nostalgia or an epicurean appeal from people who want to eat high-quality rare foods. It is a sustainable act which applies to all types of production in order to defend biodiversity in perfect harmony with the environment, and everything which that entails. It is worth pointing out that a diversity of flavours and therefore of crops is another way of guaranteeing sustainability for the continuation of the human species on Earth. Because a lack of diversity means a lack of identity; if there is no alternative, there can be no reciprocal enrichment; if widespread homogenisation wins out, we will become poor and defenceless, faced with an uncertain future putting our longevity as a species in doubt.
These are just some of the key values which we need to pay for – either as individual citizens when we go shopping, or collectively through taxes – to ensure good agricultural practices which respect the natural setting in which they are carried out. This should be done using reliable and controlled parameters, introducing the concept of multifunctionality into the evaluation of agricultural practices. It is important this goes beyond words and translates into actual strict regulations.
It is a fact that multifunctionality – the collection of these values – almost always leads to more attractive landscapes and scenery which positive human intervention has made more pleasant and appealing. It is clear to see in these places that somebody is taking care of them. And looking after the land is another prerequisite of sustainability, which comes from a love for living things, things which can be used and transformed with respect in a way that allows them to perpetuate.
This and all the other values almost automatically lead to something beautiful, but also something good to eat, allowing us to make the most of a product, to bring out its goodness using agricultural and processing techniques, and to enjoy its unique and intense flavour. Beauty and goodness are therefore integral to the concept of sustainability. It is now time to debunk the myth that ethics and aesthetics are two different notions, two ideas, two separate and incompatible worldviews. Ethics and aesthetics, when it comes to sustainability, are so complementary that they become one entity, a single guiding light. I’ll give you a list: do not pollute, do not overuse chemicals, do not engage in damaging practices solely in the name of profit over resources, the land and those cultivating it. Do not overexploit fertile soil. Defend biodiversity. Stimulate local economies, traditional production processes, and small and medium enterprises in areas suffering from crisis, isolation or hunger. Bring citizens into closer contact with farmers and agriculture. Encourage young people to take an interest in the land. These are, in a way, the “commandments” to follow in the name of sustainability, and are actions which need to be implemented at all the various levels previously mentioned. Above all, they are actions which perfectly blend beauty and goodness, in a world which is producing too much food (the total quantity produced around the world is already sufficient to feed everyone in it) and wastes much of it. We cannot stand by and accept the current figures on food waste which are frankly offensive given the billion people worldwide who suffer from hunger and malnutrition on a daily basis.

Here are a few more “commandments”: produce a little less, produce it better, distribute it sensibly, link production and consumption as closely as possible in different places, first and foremost on a local level. As far as individual citizens are concerned, the fact that beauty and goodness are both consequences and prerequisites of sustainability can only encourage us to change our habits, starting with food choices and our daily shopping basket. Very soon – if we haven’t done so already – we will realise that eating food can be a pleasurable and healthy activity the more sustainable it is, and we can make a big difference without making huge sacrifices, but instead, by adding little injections of happiness into our lives. Learning to pay the right price means knowing the value of things as well as their cost.

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