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July 07, 2021
Climate Justice


Insight by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective

"We are what we eat"

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, German philosopher, 1850

It is becoming increasingly evident that the way we produce and consume food has as a direct consequence the exploitation of humans and the environment. Although it is true that this food system - i.e. the complex of processes from the production of raw materials to distribution - gives consumers access to cheap products, it is equally undeniable that this system has massive environmental and social costs. The market principles and the long supply chain impose very high social costs that often impact the most vulnerable, the small producers and the seasonal workers. In addition to the social costs, there are other costs that have never been calculated: the environmental and the health costs. "Nearly one billion people suffer from hunger, almost two billion eat too much and badly; the frequency of non-transmittable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, is increasing and unhealthy diets cause up to eleven million premature deaths each year," states the "The 21st-Century Great Food Transformation" report published on The Lancet in 2019.

As Stefania Grando and Salvatore Ceccarelli write in "Seminare il futuro: Perché coltivare la biodiversità" (Terrafutura edizioni), each patient suffering from diabetes "costs the National Healthcare System 2589 euros per year. Diabetes therapies cost 9% of the budget which means 8.26 billion". The Lancet study and the book written by these two genetics professors also point out that the current food system "contributes significantly to the climate emergency and accelerates the process of erosion of natural biodiversity". 

At the centre of this food system there is a type of agriculture, industrially and intensive, which is based on the high use of chemical products and, although it ensures the highest production levels ever, it is not resilient, i.e. it is not able to absorb without damage the differences in rainfall and temperature that occur from one year to the next, and is therefore very vulnerable to the climate crisis.

In addition, according to a recent study conducted by the CULTLAB laboratory of the University of Florence's School of Agriculture, in collaboration with the scientific secretariat of the National Observatory of the Rural Landscape, intensive monoculture and industrial agriculture has facilitated the spread of the covid-19 virus and could be one of the causes of future zoonoses: 

"In areas where agriculture uses intensive, mechanically and chemically intensive systems, the incidence of infection is higher," the research states. The study relates the number of cases of coronavirus recorded in the country and the farming models present in the various areas of the country, highlighting a "higher incidence of the virus, from 4150 to 8676 cases, in peri-urban and intensively farmed areas, particularly in the Po Valley, the Adriatic coast of Emilia Romagna, the Arno valley between Florence and Pisa, and in the areas around Rome and Naples, where there is a higher level of mechanisation, use of chemicals and agro-industry and greater inter-relationships with urbanisation and pollution.

If an Italian research study is not enough, you only need to read the report published by UNEP, the UN environment agency, and the International Livestock Research Institute. The two institutes highlighted seven trends that are pushing towards an increase in zoonoses: the increased demand for animal protein, the rise of intensive and unsustainable agriculture, the ever-increasing exploitation of wildlife, the massive use of natural resources through urbanisation and mining, increased travel and transport, and the climate crisis.

"The science is clear: if we continue to exploit wildlife and destroy our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jump from animals to humans in years to come," said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen. "To prevent future outbreaks, we need to become much more vigilant in protecting our natural environment". 

Intensive agriculture, as well as intensive farming, have facilitated the spread of the covid-19 virus and could be one of the causes of future zoonoses. Among the strategies to be adopted to reduce the risks of further pandemics, UNEP recommends that countries "should conserve natural habitats, promote sustainable agriculture, strengthen food safety standards, and monitor and regulate food markets". 

And here we come back to our shopping at the supermarket. At how we eat and consume. It is necessary to put food at the centre of the public debate, including those who make it and the role played by farmers-guardians of the land, those who cultivate according to nature's seasons, protecting the soil, without using highly polluting chemicals and herbicides. 

It is essential that national, European and international politics recognise the political, cultural and social role of these guardians of biodiversity, and not just an economic one. Can those who protect the soil, those who protect biodiversity, those who pursue a sustainable and holistic economy be treated in the same way as those who exploit the land, those who pollute, those who think only and exclusively of making profit? Is this still socially acceptable? Or is there a need for a paradigm shift where mere economic profit is linked to environmental sustainability and people's rights? 

The current agricultural system leads to the exploitation of workers and the environment. A cultural and political battle is needed to curb the unfair practices of large-scale organised distribution and to convince citizens-consumers to eat responsibly. In this system that turns the most precious commodity - food - into a commodity and puts profit before respect for man and the environment, we, the citizen-consumers, have a huge responsibility, because we can choose, through our shopping, to support a healthy, exploitation-free food chain. 


There are plenty of solutions at hand: solidarity purchasing groups (every town has at least one), weekend shopping at the farmhouse, local producers' markets. And then (in Itlay) there is the Altromercato network, the Semi Rurali network, where you can discover and get to know the farmers who grow 'the grains of the future', combining economic profitability with environmental sustainability. And then there are Fuori Mercato, Genuino Clandestino, Sfrutta Zero, No Cap, as well as CSAs, or community-supported agriculture. In other words, citizen-consumers participate with farmers in agricultural production (according to time and resources) and assume the risks and benefits. 

And at the political level? We, as citizens, should demand product traceability, a narrative label with a QR to know not only where our food was produced but whether workers' and environmental rights were respected. We should push for unfair practices such as double-degree auctions - recently banned by Parliament, thanks to years of civil society campaigning - and below-cost policies to be stopped. 

Of course, there is no magic wand and structural changes take time, but we need a cultural paradigm shift and a collective effort so that food once again has the right value for those who eat it, grow it and harvest it, protecting our planet. 

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