Organic farmers protecting Italy's rich food tradition

Limoncella, Etna, Gravenstein — these are just some of the heirloom apples and other crop varieties that Italian organic farmers are growing in a bid to save the country's vibrant food heritage.

Cristiano del Toro walks amid olive and apple trees, tomato plants and beanstalks planted in a crisscross pattern. The grass between the crops on the small plot grows high. It hasn't been mowed for some time, shrugged the Italian apologetically.

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"It shows I haven't been here for a while," he explained, as he strolled down the hill to his property in Castiglione Messer Raimondo, a small village in the shadow of the Apennines' highest peak, Gran Sasso.

As he walks, he points out another farm on the other side of the valley. "That is old-fashioned agriculture, just like mine, there are some olive trees left and right, but not neat in a row like on the field next to it," said del Toro.

Del Toro grows everything on his 4 hectares (9.9 acres) of land organically and using traditional methods, which is why his olive and grapevines don't stretch out in the straight lines that have come to typify the vineyards of Italy and elsewhere.

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Cristiano del Toro wants to promote Italy's rich food heritage by saving old fruit and vegetable varieties

The landscape architect-turned-hobby farmer is dedicated to reviving old ways of farming. He's also president of "Civilta Contadina," a 150-member organization founded in 1996 to monitor agricultural biodiversity and to promote food sovereignty — or the idea that communities should have more control over the way food is produced, traded and consumed.

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Italy's lost farming heritage

Italians take their food seriously. And for del Toro modern, mechanized farming has impoverished the country's rich agricultural heritage and, ultimately, its dinner plates. Traditional fruit and vegetable varieties not suitable for intensive agriculture have largely disappeared off the menu, for instance.

"Traditional beans are climbing plants that cannot be harvested mechanically," he said. "That's why modern bean plants are all dwarf plants."

The abandonment of traditional farming in Italy — and elsewhere in Europe — can be traced back to the end of World War II, said Valerio Tanzarella, a former lawyer who owns an organic farm in Puglia, a region that forms the heel of the Italian boot, together with his childhood friend Angelo Giordano.

Instead of planting his trees in neat rows, del Toro uses traditional farming methods and plants them in a crisscross pattern

To help Italy and Europe get back on track after the war, good and cheap food was needed on a large scale. To meet that goal, the European Economic Community (now the European Union) promoted rapid industrialization of agriculture and intensification of farming methods in the 1950s, leading to increased use of fertilizer, single crop varieties and homogenous landscapes.

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"After the war, the European Union revolutionized the agricultural sector," said Tanzarella, who is also a member of Civilta Contadina. "Their idea was that the agricultural 'industry' should focus more on the use of chemistry."

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Farming and biodiversity

Civilta Contadina and a growing number of environmentalists warn that this dependence on chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides is harmful to the environment — reducing soil fertility, insect numbers and polluting rivers and lakes.

Del Toro described modern crops as being "in intensive care." In other words, they can't survive without intervention. They are unable to absorb nitrogen as well  as traditional crops and are, thus, more dependent on chemical fertilizers. Nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient. 

"We want to show it's possible to grow food in a different way than the homogeneous way that is considered modern and that wears out agricultural land," he said.

Organic growth

It seems increasing numbers of Italian farmers — and consumers — are coming around to the group's way of thinking. With a total turnover of €31.5 billion in 2017, agriculture is still a major economic sector in Italy and organic farming is expanding rapidly. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of organic farmers grew by 53 percent. 

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Still, they only represent about 4.5 percent of the total market. Tanzarella is one of the 64,000 organic farmers who serve that small market. Del Toro, though, just produces for himself and his family.

"Everything I grow, I eat or I exchange against products that I do not have, such as meat. I do not have to earn, but I save a lot of money," he said.

Civilta Contadina warn farmers are too dependent on chemical help for their farming

Italy's farming association, Confagricoltura supports Civilta Contadina's mission, because, it says, conserving agricultural heritage is important.

"We consider recovering forgotten fruits or rearing heritage pig breeds an interesting innovation," Vincenzo Lenucci, director of economics at Confagricoltura, told DW. "It gives economic opportunity to farmers. It creates diversity and it fulfills customers' demands."

However, Lenucci contended that it can't feed the world.

"If we would produce food in the old-fashioned way we wouldn't have the quantity we have now and at the cost. So for us these two methods should exist side by side," he said. 

Read more: Feeding the world with organics: A realistic prospect?

Of those farming organically, it also remains unclear how many are recovering old seed and crop varieties. But encouraging farmers to use those heritage crops and species is exactly what Civilta Contadina wants to do.

Although, not explicitly stated on its website, the association could be regarded as a form of protest against seed giants such as Monsanto, and what Tanzarella called a preference for "patent seeds created by scientists."

Traditional fruit and veg that can't be harvested mechanically have largely disappeared from our diets, said del Toro

'Monsanto is not a monster'

But, said Lenucci, it's easy to point the finger at seed producers like Monsanto, even when they invest "a lot of money in improving crops and seeds."

"Monsanto is not a monster," he said. He cites the use of a gene from a specific bacteria to create a parasite-resistant strain of corn. Organic farmers spray their crops with the same bacteria to protect it. "What's the difference?" asked Lenucci.

Many Italian farmers now opt for single varieties that produce more and larger crops at a lower cost. But dependence on monocultures can make farmers more vulnerable to unpredictable weather conditions, for instance.

Read more: New hope for Europe's olive trees

"This olive grove dates from the '90s," said del Toro, gesturing toward a handful of trees at the edge of his property, which sits in the Abruzzo region, just east of Rome. Some are a local olive variety called Dritta, cultivated in the region for hundreds of years. The others are Tuscan and were brought here in the 1970s. They produce "bigger and more beautiful olives" and can be harvested earlier.

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Biodiversity bolsters food security

"This year we had a wet summer and a late frost and look, the local olive trees produce olives, but the imported Tuscans did not. Over the centuries the Dritta adapted itself to the local conditions — that's biodiversity," asserted the architect.

In the vast green valley in the Apennines, del Toro proudly shows another difference, eyeing some of his rare apple varieties. One is the shape of a cow's head, another has red pulp.

For him, the group is not a nostalgic seed bank, which he regards as a kind of "recovery disk" that can be used to restore a plant population. "Biodiversity cannot be stored in a refrigerator," he said, taking a bite of another rare variety — a crisp yellow lemon-like apple, called Limoncella. "I believe seeds must be preserved in the field."

Ancient foods are good for you

A showplace for unique and old flora

About an hour's drive from the Austrian capital of Vienna lies the picturesque village of Schiltern. It is here that ARCHE NOAH, or Noah's Ark, decided to plant a garden where visitors can admire and taste heirloom crops. Started in 1990, the association wants to preserve crop diversity and redevelop old varieties by encouraging people to grow and eat them.

Ancient foods are good for you

Red, white and brown all over

Due to globalization and the industrialization of agriculture during the last century, the diversity of cultivated plants has plummeted. ARCHE NOAH estimates that we've already lost more than 75 percent of what once grew. These strikingly bright beets called Erfurt longs are the descendants of some of the earliest beets that were white and which have been farmed since the 8th century B.C.

Ancient foods are good for you

Growing the range of diversity

ARCHE NOAH estimates that out of the 4,800 known crop species worldwide, about 100 varieties make up 90 percent of all harvested food. With this in mind the group collects varieties of plants from all over the world in its mission to preserve biodiversity — they already have more 620 different types of tomatoes and here are a few examples.

Ancient foods are good for you

Picking a pack of Russian cucumbers

One of the biggest threats to crop diversity is the growing influence of seed monopolies and continuing genetic engineering. The Russian cucumber first appeared in Europe at the end of the 19th century. It develops a dark brown, corky and cracked skin when fully ripe. The plant is robust, holds up well in the cold and its fruit thrives in temperate climates without a greenhouse.

Ancient foods are good for you

Building a closer relationship

Making consumers yearn for more plant biodiversity is also a goal of ARCHE NOAH — and one easily done in the foundation's kitchen where sumptuous meals are prepared. This colorful example shows some of the possibilities that the heirloom garden offers and may encourage some people to renew their relationship with plants and think more about what lands on their plates.

Ancient foods are good for you

A sweet but long-forgotten treat

For centuries food was very local and crops spread slowly. The sugar root was known in ancient times and was a popular root vegetable during the Renaissance. But in Central Europe, higher-yielding vegetables such as potatoes replaced it by around the 16th century. The sweet, white roots grow in clusters and are a delight for food connoisseurs.

Ancient foods are good for you

Working on the inside and the outside

Since small-scale farming is on the decline, the group not only wants to preserve old and rare varieties of fruits and vegetables, but also hopes to improve and develop them further. Take these Bernstein red beets: Here the aim was to preserve the "traditional" look while working on the sweet, balanced taste and the form.

Ancient foods are good for you

Food to the rescue once again

This type of sorrel originally comes from the mountains of Europe and Southwest Asia. Since Roman times it has been cultivated as "Herba romana." The leafy plant is full of vitamin C and ideal for seasoning. Having a bigger basket of fruits and vegetables to choose from can be a way to guard against new diseases or climate change, believes ARCHE NOAH.


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