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Interview with Stefano Liberti, food economy expert journalist

eliane barrerito é namoro ou amizade On the occasion of the pre-summit on food systems hosted by the Italian Government from July 26 to 28, we had the pleasure to interview Stefano Liberti, journalist and writer expert on food systems and food economy. Enjoy reading!

Bordj el Kiffan The health and environmental crises have many things in common: their systemic impact, their correlation with our model of development, the fragility to which we are exposed in an increasingly interconnected and therefore interdependent world. What do you think are the lessons we have learned (if we have) from this period of absolute uncertainty?

THE ENVIRONMENTAL AND HEALTH CRISIS HAVE A COMMON MATRIX, NAMELY AN EXTRACTIVE MODEL OF DEVELOPMENT THAT ERASES ECOSYSTEMS AND DISTANCES BETWEEN WILD AND URBANIZED AREAS. THIS FAVORISES ZOONOSIS, REDUCING RESILIENCE AND THEREFORE THE CAPACITY OF ABSORPTION OF EXTERNAL SHOCKS. 

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THESE TWO CRISES IS THAT THE HEALTH CRISIS IS NOT TRANSFORMATIVE, THAT IS TO SAY THAT ONCE OVERCOME IT IS POSSIBLE TO RETURN TO THE PREVIOUS STATUS. DIFFERENTLY, CLIMATE CHANGE DOES NOT MAKE US GO BACK: ONCE LIMITS ARE EXCEEDED THERE IS NO GOING BACK. IT IS LIKE A “SLOW AND CONSTANT PANDEMIA”. 

AS FOR THE LESSONS, I THINK THAT THE HEALTH CRISIS HAS SHOWN HOW IT IS POSSIBLE TO STOP ENTIRE ECONOMIES AND COUNTRIES FOR A COLLECTIVE RISK (NEW ELEMENT FOR ALL) AND HOW IT IS POSSIBLE TO CHANGE THE MANAGEMENT MODELS OF ECONOMIES (AS IN THE CASE OF THE DEROGATION TO THE AUSTERITY MODEL OF THE EU). UNFORTUNATELY, THE CLIMATE CRISIS IS NOT EXPERIENCED AS AN EMERGENCY BUT AS LINKED TO THE FUTURE, TO NEW GENERATIONS AND DISTANT COUNTRIES, THEREFORE TO DIFFICULT DECISIONS TO BE TAKEN NOW.

Environmental policy is often talked about at the global level (COP, Regional Initiatives, etc.), less so at the local level. How can Mayors work on the issue of urban readiness to climate change (e.g. water crisis management, cloudbursts, air quality, etc.)? Do you have any good examples to cite? 

THERE IS A GAP IN PUBLIC OPINION: THE PROBLEM IS ACTUALLY GLOBAL BUT ITALY IS PARTICULARLY AFFECTED BY IT (SO THE EFFECTS FOR US ARE AT A MICRO LEVEL). THIS IS DUE TO THE MORPHOLOGY OF OUR TERRITORY, TO ITS GEOGRAPHICAL POSITION AND TO AN AGGRESSIVE ATTITUDE WITH REGARD TO THE ENVIRONMENT (CONSUMPTION OF SOIL, URBANIZATIO, ETC.) THAT GENERATES STRONGER WAVES OF HEAT MORE, UNEXPECTED CLOUDBURSTS, ETC. 

THE PARADOX IS THAT IN THE PUBLIC IMAGINARY ALL THIS IS NOT THERE. IN FACT, WE DO NOT HAVE A NATIONAL ADAPTATION STRATEGY BUT WE ONLY TALK ABOUT MITIGATION … AS IF 1600 EXTREME PHENOMENA PER YEAR WERE ONLY EMERGENCIES (WATER SHORTAGES, LANDSLIDES). WE LACK A POLITICAL DISCUSSION AND A JOURNALIST DEBATE ON THE THEME OF ADAPTATION. IN ALL THIS, LOCAL ADMINISTRATORS ARE CLOSER TO THESE ISSUES BUT HAVE NO RESOURCES NECESSARY FOR STRUCTURAL POLICIES, THAT SHOULD COME FROM THE CENTRAL STATE. SOME CITIES HAVE DEVELOPED POLICIES: BOLOGNA HAS, SINCE 2015, AN ADAPTATION PLAN, MILAN HAS AN ENERGY AND CLIMATE PLAN, TURIN HAS AN ADAPTATION PLAN, BUT THE LINK WITH CENTRAL POLICIES IS MISSING. 

Two years ago, many cities and regions officially declared a climate emergency: in your opinion, was it a mere formality or did these “statuses” bring concrete effects in the fight against climate change? 

IT WAS A FORMAL STEP THAT WAS INTENDED TO HAVE A CULTURAL EFFECT (BOLOGNA, FOR EXAMPLE, BENEFITED FROM IT AT THE ELECTORAL LEVEL). THE OBJECTIVE IS TO BUILD MECHANISMS OF CIVIC CONSULTATION ON CLIMATE DECISIONS. THE REALITY IS THAT WHO DECLARED IT DID NOT FOLLOW UP ON IT. IN ROME, FOR EXAMPLE, THERE IS NOTHING IN THE FIELD ON THIS THEME, THAT DOES NOT SEEM TO EXIST.

Environmental issues have always involved the new generations, because they are intrinsically linked to their future. However, neither the environment nor the future of young people seem to be at the center of current Italian political choices. Why is it that, even though there are so many fronts of political interest, it is difficult to implement specific programs to respond to the current demographic and environmental imbalances? Are being few (young people in Italy) and silent (the environment) sufficient characteristics to “silence” the political weight of these stakeholders?

THERE ARE TWO MAIN REASONS FOR THIS: YOUNG PEOPLE IN ITALY ARE NUMERICALLY IRRELEVANT AND, FURTHERMORE, IN THE LAST 30 YEARS, POLITICS HAS STOPPED IMAGINING A FUTURE, ENSLAVED TO IMMEDIATE CONSENSUS. POLITICAL INDICATIONS ARE ORIENTED TOWARDS 3/4 MONTHS. THIS IS BECAUSE, AT CONSENSUS LEVEL, IT IS MORE PROFITABLE TO SOLVE THE CRISES THAN TO PREVENT THEM. PREVENTION DOES NOT PAY. THEREFORE, THE FUTURE IS NOT IMAGINED. 

THIS IS FOR ALL THE LIBERAL DEMOCRACIES, BUT FOR US IN PARTICULAR. ITALY ON MANY FRONTS CHASES AN OLD MODEL OF DEVELOPMENT AND IS NOT TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE MOMENT TO CHANGE THINGS. IT LOOKS AT THE PRESENT AND DOES NOT INTERACT WITH THE NEWEST FORCES OF SOCIETY. 

THE TIME IS NOW FOR AN ENVIRONMENTALIST PARTY: THE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE EXISTS AND COULD GATHER ENORMOUS CONSENSUS. BUT PEOPLE DON’T SET UP A POLITICAL PROGRAM ON THIS. LUCKILY NOW WE ARE IN A STAGE OF TRANSITION AND MAYBE IN THE FUTURE SOMETHING DIFFERENT WILL HAPPEN, AS WE WILL BE ABLE TO START AGAIN WITH THE EUPHORY OF RECOVERY AND THIS WILL GENERATE COLLECTIVE MOVEMENTS WITH DIFFERENT PRIORITIES. 

In your books you describe in great detail the unethical behavior of large retailers and the distortions in the food supply chain caused by unethical purchasing practices. However, large-scale retail trade often targets an underprivileged group of people who would have no alternative but to buy food from these retailers. Do you think that the progressive impoverishment of the middle class “feeds” these practices of lowering the ethical standards of products? If yes, how to interrupt this vicious circle?

IT IS SO, THE LACK OF PURCHASING POWER MAKES IT DIFFICULT TO MAKE VIRTUOUS PRICE POLICIES. BUT THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE RETAILER IS WIDER: IN THE AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD INDUSTRY THEY HAVE DESTROYED THE INDUSTRIES FOR A WAR BETWEEN THEMSELVES ON PRICE THAT HAS DESTROYED AN ENTIRE ECONOMY. IS IT LEGAL TO SELL A FOOD AT A LOW PRICE (THAT IS NOT ETHICAL) TO GAIN CUSTOMERS? WOULDN’T THE POOR BE WILLING TO SPEND 15% MORE FOR MORE ETHICAL PRODUCTS? THE POINT IS THAT THE DELTA BETWEEN GENERAL AND SMALL SUPPLIERS MUST BE RE-EQUALIBRATED. Moreover, these discounts are costly, because if the tomato puree went from 39 cents to 80 cents, nothing would change for the consumer, while for the supplier it would be another world: it would improve the entire distribution of value along the supply chain, both for growers and for farmers. 

UNFORTUNATELY, WE ARE BEING INVADED – AND THIS CAN ALSO BE SEEN IN THE ADVERTISING – BY THE POLICY OF LOW PRICES (AS IN THE CASE OF EUROSPIN). OTHER CHAINS ARE MORE CAREFUL (COOP CONAD, MG) THE PROBLEM IS IN THE ASYMMETRY OF FORCES ….AND VIRTUOSE PRACTICES BUT VOLUNTARISTIC NEVER WORK. THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR MUST ORGANIZE ITSELF BETTER TO NEGOTIATE BETTER. TAKE THE EXAMPLE OF THE “MELINDA CONSORTIUM”, WHICH UNITES 65% OF ITALIAN APPLES PRODUCERS AND IS MADE UP OF VERY SMALL FARMERS WHO HAVE MANAGED TO IMPOSE AN EQUAL RELATIONSHIP WITH BUYERS. PARADOXICALLY THIS IS APPRECIATED ALSO FROM THE “GDO” BECAUSE AT THE END THEY SELL THE PRODUCT AT A HIGHER PRICE, SO THEY CAN PAY BETTER AND SELL BETTER.  

FOR ALL THIS TO BE THE NORM AND NOT THE EXCEPTION, WE NEED AN INITIATIVE THAT REDUCES THE DISPOSSESSIONS IN THE SUPPLY CHAIN AND FAVORS THE AGGREGATION OF SMALL PRODUCERS.  

If you were to become Minister of Agriculture, what three actions would you take in the short, medium and long term to counter unsustainable practices in food production and consumption? 

1) FOOD EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS: EXPLAIN WHERE FOOD COMES FROM AND HOW IT IS PRODUCED

2) MAKE SUPPLY CHAINS TRANSPARENT. I WOULD OBLIGATE PRODUCERS TO INDICATE ALL PROCESSING STEPS, PROCESSING AND CONSUMPTION OF RESOURCES WITH TRANSPARENT LABELS, SO THAT THE CONSUMER CAN CHOOSE WISELY. 

3) I WOULD ELIMINATE SUBSIDIES TO INTENSIVE FARMING: THEY GENERATE AN ENVIRONMENTAL, HEALTH AND SOCIAL COST THAT MUST BE ELIMINATED.  

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