Food for the mind: reflections to understand the world

10 October 2020

“The coronavirus is the biological response of Gaia, our living planet, to the state of ecological and social emergency of which mankind is both the victim and the cause.” So says, Fritjof Capra, Austrian physicist, economist, and writer, inaugurating the series of Food Talks at Terra Madre.

Together with him in the digital program of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2020, we have Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex and author of several books on pollinator ecology and bumblebee conservation; Carolyn Steel, architect and author of the book Sitopia: how food can save the world, which offers us a provocative and exhilarating vision of change and how to thrive on our crowded and overheated planet; Jessica Fanzo, professor of international food policy at Johns Hopkins University’s Berman Institute of Bioethics; Salvatore Settis, archaeologist and art historian, director of the Scuola Normale di Pisa from 1999 to 2010. Among his books on the landscape and the necessity to defend this common good are: Landscape, constitution, cement: the battle for the environment against civil degradation, and Incomplete Constitution: Art, landscape, environment.

Fritjof Capra – Gaia’s Lessons: A Systemic Analysis of COVID-19

“We must interpret the coronavirus as a biological response of our living planet, Gaia, to the state of ecological and social emergency of which mankind is both the victim and cause. The contagion was born from an ecological failure but its repercussions are dramatic on a social level. Scholars and environmentalists have been warning us about the devastating consequences of our unsustainable systems in all areas for decades. So far, however, our leaders, unable to free themselves from the thrill of financial profit and political power, have persisted in ignoring all the signs: they have preferred to deal with short-term economic and political fluctuations, ignoring the long-term fallout. Now, however, the political and financial elites can no longer pretend nothing has happened because the Covid-19 pandemic has made those nefarious future prospects a lived reality.

The systematic compromise of ecosystems, driven by the greed of large corporate conglomerates, has fragmented those systems, tearing the web of life. In pandemic times, in fact, the problem of social justice is no longer a political question of left versus right, but a question of life and death. To contain the spread of pandemics, today as in the future, it is essential to improve the living conditions of the less fortunate. It is ethical approaches, oriented towards the common good, that become a matter of life or death in an era of pandemic. Because a pandemic like Covid-19 can only be escaped thanks to collective action with a cooperative orientation. The process of environmental regeneration resulted, in the days of the lockdown, from a sudden reduction in the volume of human activities, but equally positive results could be obtained by radically modifying our way of life on this planet.”

Dave Goulson – Growing Flowers to Save the World

“Pollinators are on the decline, in recent years some truly disturbing studies have been published showing frighteningly fast rates of disappearance. In 2017, a report was released in Germany showing a 76% decline in flying insect biomass over 26 years.

Insects make up a large part of life on Earth. They are the source of food for the vast majority of species, like birds, as well as bats, many freshwater fish, lizards, amphibians, and more.

Insects are involved in every ecological process you can think of: recycling nutrients, manure, corpses, and dead trees. They help keep the soil healthy. And, of course, are vital to pollination. It is not only bees, wasps, beetles, many different species of flies, butterflies, and moths, pollinate 87% of all plant species in the world, which will disappear without pollinators capable of germinating the seeds. And they pollinate 75% of agricultural crops in the world. So without pollinators, we wouldn’t have most of our fruit and vegetables, we wouldn’t have strawberries, blueberries or raspberries, pumpkins, tomatoes or chilies, and even foods like coffee and chocolate. The good news is that reversing this situation is quite easy.

Unlike many major environmental issues, we can all make a contribution. For example, any type of vegetable garden can be made “insect-friendly.” You can grow flowers to attract them, you can provide them with quiet places to nest. But of course, vegetable gardens and flower gardens do not occupy such a large area compared to agricultural land. And the great key element of insect deaths has been the way in which, in agriculture, the use of many pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals harmful to insects has intensified over the past 100 years.

We need to stop and find another way to grow food that cooperates with nature, rather than acting against it. We could lobby for proper integrated pest management in agriculture, across Europe, ideally around the world. There are ways of farming that replicate small-scale agriculture, practices such as forestry, permaculture, biodynamic agriculture, and organic farming.”

The Well-being of the Planet and People with Dr. Jessica Fanzo

“We all eat, every day. Sometimes we make healthy choices, sometimes we make unhealthy choices. Social and systemic issues play a role in these choices.

Right now many people are malnourished, hunger around the world is growing, not decreasing, for the fourth year in a row. Obesity is a problem that affects every country and is experiencing a rapid rise among the low-middle income economic groups. Portion sizes and caloric intake of the foods we consume are increasing all over the world. We Are Eating Too Much Food! We are eating lots of starchy foods, sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, processed meats, and not enough good foods, like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, the variety and diversity that the Earth provides.

Many of us eat in an unsustainable way: a lot of meat, foods of animal origin that contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, changes in the use of water and soil resources, eutrophication, and acidification of landscapes.

Not only that, we have incredible injustices with regard to the kind of food people have access to. What can we do to improve eating habits and start addressing this burden of malnutrition? We need a community commitment that involves governments, businesses, civil society, and citizens, each with their own role. Among the main actions to be taken is the improvement of the food supply chain, and I would say that this aspect touches two major agricultural and political issues.

The first is to reorient agriculture to cultivate what we need to eat. The second issue is to improve the food places, that is the place we frequent as consumers – a market or a restaurant – because in food places there are many levers that influence our choices. We need governments and funds to help us push in the right direction by making it easier for people to choose healthier options. Finally, we as citizens must embrace our traditions, our culture, and our cooking skills, and remember what our ancestors taught us in choosing foods that shape our lives, our culture, and our traditions.”

Sitopia: Rethinking the City, Starting with Food, with Carolyn Steel

“Food not only defines our waistline, but also our minds, bodies, houses, habits, politics, the economy, and, of course, our cities and our countryside. Food is a force that shapes our lives in many, often invisible, ways. For this reason, I have coined a new word: sitopia. It comes from the Greek “sitos” for food, and “topos” for place, so it means “place of food”. Why did I invent this term? To find an alternative to utopia – a “good place”, but which cannot exist – with Sitopia we can think about the issue of how we should live, as broadly as possible.

Right now, in my view, we live in a negative sitopia because we don’t value the material it is made of – food. We have created the illusion of cheap food, and it is destroying us because to cheapen food is to cheapen life. Not only us, the human species but also the planet, the house we live in. What can we do? The obvious thing to do, as Slow Food argues, is to recognize the value of food, because the most we value food, the better the Sitopia. How? By transforming the relationship between the city and the countryside, the place where we live, and where the products that feed us are born. The landscapes that nourish us are often hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from where we consume the resulting products, but the connection has become invisible.

We need cities, but we also need the countryside. How to combine these two needs? By uniting the city with its productive hinterland: we must therefore maximize the amount of local food that arrives in the cities, acting on multiple levels. On the one hand, we must return to more local and seasonal food systems, on the other hand, we must act individually both in production – for example by growing vegetables on the roof or on balconies, in urban gardens or in community fields – and in consumption, by supporting farmers’ markets and the value they bring to the city, connecting it with the countryside.”

Quality Agriculture Protects Landscape, with Salvatore Settis

“Italy is full of mysteries, but among the Italian mysteries is why a country without a real demographic increase, if it weren’t for our fortune to have immigrants, continues to build infrastructure to the detriment of fertile land. The complex explanation is the archaic culture about the needs of humanity, a culture where the infrastructure is considered a form of capital investment. In this archaic mentality, agriculture is not considered profitable. Unfortunately, we do not take into account the terrible soil consumption in which Italy is in first place in Europe, surpassing even more populous countries such as Germany.

We are not thinking about a food system that will feed us and future generations. I think we should start from school to explain that quality agriculture is the greatest and best form of landscape protection. Our Constitution in article 9 says that the Republic protects landscapes and the historical and artistic heritage of the nation. However, landscape protection is not done in the name of the beauty of the landscape. The landscape must be protected as a place to live, and to do so, all forms of landscape life must be considered as a system, an enlarged biosystem in which quality agriculture, when practiced well, protects the landscape better than any other thing.

From this point of view I believe that the fundamental message that formal education in schools should give to our children is that the landscapes and the environment are common goods that belong to everyone. And when we say “common good” we mean not only all living beings now, but also those who will come after us, a hundred or more years from now. We have a duty to give our descendants a richer, well-cared environment and landscape. We are the temporary guardians of an inheritance we have received, and it is our duty to know how to pass it on to future generations.”