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Against the myth of food miles

· ​Between hunger and trade wars ·

Can we be sure of the food we eat? The trade in food products dominated by the huge multinationals, which determine policies and prices, delocalizes and flattens foodstuffs, treating them as anonymous raw materials, goods for the long industrial production chains of food. In too many contenders the long journeys and ambiguous commercial routes between the field and the table lead to profits but reduce the concrete guarantees of quality, traceability, control and safety, often at the two extremes resulting in badly paid farmers and badly nourished citizens. And yet if food is to eliminate hunger it must be able to circulate and to reach the countries where and when it is needed, with transparent and equitable regulations. The legislation and the systems that govern international trade are ill-equipped to oppose a phenomenon which is not of circulation but of a global delocalization of foodstuffs and of their production. This phenomenon is giving rise to new hunger and new conflicts, also because, in the absence of regulations, food is savagely removed from real markets to be used where money begets money.

The hungry have increased by dozens of millions in just a few years, while the nutritional quality of numerous foods has diminished. As a just response, farmers’ markets, solidarity purchasing groups and restaurants using local produce have likewise increased, but alongside these the cunning ways of obscuring traceability are also growing, as are cooks who boast that they support zero food miles yet buy locally produced food only a couple of times a year at a low price, while the wording on labels about the provenance of a product and descriptions such as “made in Italy” are used deceptively. Food products passed off as having fair trade origins are instead acquired at unfair prices, exploiting the work of distant peasants and damaging local farmers. The increase in the demand for food with zero food miles sometimes leads to overlooking the fact that the true origin of food is the farmer. Indeed, for farmers zero food miles, a consequence of which is the impossibility of exchanging the food reqired with other populations, has been one of the historical causes of hunger. Food is always a circularity, a mingling, and whenever an external power or unregulated events have imposed autocratic regimes on the food supply, the farming populations have been the first to pay the price: farmers have always wisely exchanged the produce of their own land with those of other territories and cultures. Wisdom was literally the act of tasting, having an awareness of the savours of one’s own land and merging distances by knowing the products of others. The supplying of food from nearby, directly from the farmer, must thus be accompanied by the promotion of a solid popular food culture, which also emancipates the consumer from dependence and makes him or her a wise ally of the farmer. In this not only do ecological production methods and the contribution of biological and biodynamic agriculture play a role, but also all that makes the most of the farmer and brings farming back to the fundamentals of its own processes.

I don’t believe that food with zero food miles is an end in itself, for it might be polluted, of very bad quality, or it might conceal long production chains, which see farmers subservient to processes that enslave them, patented seeds, dependence on the means of production and restrictive contracts. As far as other aspects are concerned I know that there is also a distant peasant food, which is precious since it cannot be produced here and since it comes from poor populations for whom it represents the only source of income from trade. It is an abomination when the prices of a food are tantamount to robbery, wiping out the economies and human lives of entire regions.

Because of all this it is necessary to insist on reducing the chains as well as unjustified increases in value along them and thus to aim at a short production chain which unites citizens and farmers everywhere. Zero food miles without a short production chain, deprived of this proximity and alliance, amount to a lethal autocracy.

Vittorio Accornero, an illustration for the collection “Grimm 50 novelle” (Hoepli, Milan 1952)

Thus in our imagination two currents of life are presented, the reproductive and the nutritional. The reproductive current generates life, it represents the vigour of strength, it is linear and proceeds from one generation to the next, from father to son. According to some neuroscientists we must have initiated and acquired the faculties of logical connection with the linear repetition of the long genealogies in the sacred texts. From the father can come only the son, a third party is excluded. This male pathway is thus exclusive and deterministic, yet brings life where all the species run on parallel lines and cannot intersect and mingle. Then there is the nutritional line. Nutrition is inclusive, the current where all lives enter one another, reciprocally becoming food in the trophic chains. It is the yielding generosity of offering. As reproduction starts from exclusion in order to generate life, so alimentation presupposes death to combine all things in one.

Offering food is a kindness of sacrifice, as the rites of thanksgiving at the tables of all peoples remind us, and it is a female current. However masked this may be today by fake zero food miles, by the culture of waste and by the corruption of abuse, however much it is challenged by the deterministic linear structures of trade, only free in words, and is well represented by “alpha male” chefs, offering food always finds a basis in our femininity which cherishes and propagates it.

So I prefer the inclusive circularity which accepts and dispenses food in a pact between those who produce it and those who are nourished by it rather than by means of the exclusive chains which take identity, dignity and values from both the farmer and the consumer. An urgent decision is needed to win the fight against death from starvation, for which the world must be called to mobilize, so that starvation may be demobilized.

Carlo Triarico




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 16, 2020