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Sovereigns of Sustainability

The following is an excerpt from Terra Madre: Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities by Carlo Petrini. It has been adapted for the Web.

Sovereigns of Sustainability

To achieve food sovereignty, products must respect the ecological integrity of the places in which they are produced. A community has this integrity at heart, precisely because it represents its prime means of survival. The food community does not want to jeopardize its natural resources, but rather to make them yield as well as possible. In other situations, where the goal is to constantly boost production through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, whole areas are raped and pillaged, and huge concentrations of monocultures and livestock farms installed. The outcome is that the inhabitants move elsewhere, and soil fertility and biodiversity are compromised for decades to come.

Never in the history of the earth have we witnessed such devastation of the soil and of aquifers. Resources that ought to be public, such as water sources and aqueducts, are being privatized, and the seas are being exploited and polluted.2 As a result, entire edible species are being put at risk.

Instead of upsetting local economies by imposing on them the concept of development, international organizations ought to focus more of their attention on communities and their existing modes of production. Instead of teaching them how to increase output to keep up with the needs and caprices of the global “free market,” they ought to ensure that communities are effectively working in the interests of their own food sovereignty, flushing out any “wise guys” who happen to be adopting unsustainable practices at the local level. It’s a role that would lend undoubted authority and prestige to these organizations. And it’s a role they could play without much difficulty, seeing that they have sizable economic resources at their disposal and would certainly have the cooperation of the communities themselves, which have every interest in preventing their lands from being threatened. Not that a respect for the sustainability of processes and the integrity of ecosystems can be taken for granted at the local level. Unfortunately, the temptation to get rich quick often prevails even in small local areas, where it is easy to meet characters out to make money unscrupulously. If communitarian self-regulation failed to suffice, it would be necessary to set up a controlling body, a sort of food-dedicated UN organization, ready to intervene wherever food sovereignty is under threat.

Often farmers themselves are blamed for the advent of industrial agriculture, as if they had mindlessly endorsed it. An oft-cited example is that of the farmer who, following expert advice, spread fertilizers on his land and sprayed pesticides on his crops for the first time. The results were positive, so the second year he increased the amounts, and ended up ruining the quality of his soil. His reasoning was that, “If a certain amount was good for the soil and increased yields last year, this year I’ll triple the amount!” None of the salesmen or agronomists who used to roam the countryside promoting fertilizers, pesticides, and the like ever stopped to tell farmers that it was wrong to use more than the prescribed amounts. Farmers were thus deceived and unknowingly became parties to the crime.

The time has come to stop telling farmers how to do their job. The time has come for them to say no to the system and start again from where their fathers and mothers left off.


Primordial agriculture was subsistence agriculture; trade came later. Today, in many of the places described as “underdeveloped,” a minimal form of subsistence agriculture still yields food almost exclusively for self-consumption. This is why, to supporters of the market and consumerism, claiming the right to produce food for oneself may sound like a return to the past and the wretched life of the world’s poorest peoples; they identify subsistence as a province for the “underdeveloped.” Yet growing food in a courtyard or rooftop garden is subsistence too, and it’s also true that many farmers who produce food for local or farmers’ markets use it to meet their families’ needs first before they sell the surplus to others. And who says that swapping the ability to produce diversified foods in exchange for a monoculture or an intensive farm isn’t a form of subsistence, too? After all, people who do this might still hang on to a kitchen garden. Who knows?

Speaking of gardens, they are one of the best ways of developing a minimum form of subsistence at all latitudes and in all contexts. With the support of Slow Food and its Foundation for Biodiversity, Terra Madre has given life to garden projects all around the world.

In the Ivory Coast, for example, as part of the Consommons Ivoirien, Equilibré et Sain dans nos Cantines Scolaires scheme, the Slow Food Foundation has worked with the Chigata Slow Food chapter to promote a consumer-education project in the northern village of N’ganon, fifty miles from Korhogo. Devised mainly for schoolchildren, the project has involved all the villagers and has had positive outcomes for the local micro-economy. It now guarantees the village school two meals a day, featuring traditional Ivorian dishes made from fresh local ingredients.

The story began at a lively meeting in April 2008, when members of the Slow Food convivium presented the project to the inhabitants of N’ganon. The head of the village subsequently agreed to donate a seven-hectare plot of land, which two hundred women pledged to work to provide the school with the ingredients for its meals. Three months later, the seven hectares had been tilled, plowed, and sown with the seeds of the most suitable crops, specially selected by agricultural technicians and engineers.

In the meantime, the women of N’ganon formed a cooperative and, besides supplying the school with food, began to sell their produce at the local market to help fund the project. The one hundred pupils at the school in N’ganon thus eat traditional meals every day, and the economic situation of their families has improved.

This is just one example of the many gardens that have sprung up spontaneously in the recent past, alongside others sponsored by the most diverse institutions. In Italy there are now about two hundred such school gardens, and many Slow Food chapters around the world have promoted this simple form of education-cum-subsistence. From New Zealand to Switzerland, from Germany to the United States, from South America to Africa, the number of school gardens is multiplying all the time.

If this is happening, we have to say a special thanks to people like Alice Waters, the American chef famous for her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. A pioneer of the organic movement in the States, she created school gardens in California to spread the practice round the world and thereby inspired many others to follow her example. Credit must also go to people like young Sam Levin, whom I cited in my speech at the opening ceremony of Terra Madre 2008. Sam planted a garden at his school, involving many of his classmates and supplying food to the cafeteria. Today Sam is much in demand as a speaker all over the United States and abroad, especially in Africa. Hearing him explain why and how he developed his garden, other kids are inspired to follow in his footsteps.

This is where a food system that guarantees food sovereignty has to start; from subsistence, from the right of producers to produce food first and foremost for themselves, from the freedom of anyone to grow plants and raise livestock. All this is possible anywhere, and it doesn’t signify a return to the past. It applies to people who live by subsistence alone and to people who supplement subsistence with trade and purchases made with the income from that trade. In other words, whether we are speaking about the South of the world and the most “backward” communities or the wealthy North and farmers who sell most of their food, the argument is equally valid.

Food, by definition, stands for subsistence. If farmers, people directly in contact with the earth and nature, don’t practice subsistence agriculture, then the world has little or no chance of returning to reason. Allowing everyone the opportunity to cultivate what they want to eat and what their community wants to eat is not a return to the past. On the contrary, it lays the foundation for a more democratic food system, controllable and capable of yielding a reasonable profit, without infringing on anyone’s rights, least of all those of nature: a system in which food is produced first of all to be eaten, then to be sold.


  1. The rate of desertification caused by climate change is startling. If we calculate that 70 percent of the water used by humans goes to agriculture (industry accounting for 22 percent and domestic use for 8 percent), and in view of the present demand for an increase in the production of food, it is not difficult to see what the next global challenge will be. Without wanting to, the Bolivian town of Cochabamba has become a symbol of the world water problem. Following the privatization of the local aqueduct, in April 2000, its inhabitants, none of them well-off, saw their water bills go up by 300 percent overnight. All of a sudden, they were spending 25 percent of their income on water. The riot that followed made history.

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