Agro-ecology today is care and closeness

16 April 2020

An innovative project to supply organic food to all the health-workers who are involved in the fight against Covid-19 in the Sant’Orsola-Malpighi Polyclinic in Bologna


A few weeks ago, we asked ourselves what we could do, as we realised that the Covid 19 emergency wasn’t going to be a passing phase in our lives, but that it was going to keep us busy for months. We still, at present, don’t know how many. We watched the number of affected people rise, first further away and then closer to us, numbers that, like an unstoppable wave, started to crush into us without discernment.   Being at home, and working from home, is a privilege that many can’t afford, especially hospital workers since they’re required to work double-shifts, with both their bodies and minds, exposed to the infection of this yet unknown virus. The idea of a project available to all healthcare personnel in the city of Bologna came about from within the personal care service offices of the Sant’Orsola-Malpighi Polyclinic, together with the Sant’Orsola Foundation.   We called on farmers and food artisans from our Apennine hills, most of them organic, to offer fresh, healthy produce through a dedicated online platform. Inside the hospital complex, in a space turned into an operating warehouse with a refrigerated area, shopping bags are prepared for health workers to take home at the end of their shifts.   A formidable network of partnerships was created. Life, an agency in Bologna, has made available an entire operational department to build, in just a few days, a dedicated e-commerce operation. Chloe, a cooperative in Modena, contributed experience and equipment. Zanarini provided a cold room, the Rusconi Foundation in Rome supplied cleaning services, the Sant’Orsola Foundation offered all they could, given the current hectic moment. As ever, the farmers, winemakers and bakers put in their work and enthusiasm.   In the terrible emergency in which we find ourselves, with all the resulting limitations, the action we’re initiating represents at least two innovative elements: the first is that hospital staff are able to collect their shopping on their way home, with considerable savings in terms of logistics, transport and related energy and CO2 costs.   The second is that, focusing increasingly on a particular range of users who work in the same place and share the same profession, it’s possible to put forward propositions aimed at their specific needs, initiating a dialogue that ultimately reduces frills and waste.   The idea of a project aimed at health-workers in Bologna was also, for us, an opportunity to confront the grave consequences of this pandemic by means of a social and economic initiative.   Amongst them, we will confront an economic desert that will, as usual, hit firstly the weakest and then most of us, and that will foster a race to concentrate the production and distribution of goods of any area and sector, starting with manufacturing and agri-food ones, with even more devastating effects on the latter. The monopolies we have witnessed in recent decades are in danger of becoming increasingly dominant in an era of rules which are suspended because of a state of necessity such as the one we will experience in the immediate future.   And if this process is generally negative in terms of the drawing of natural and human resources from lands and territories towards a profit far away, it becomes dreadful when applied to agriculture, livestock-breeding, food and to the ecosystem these three elements together create for the basis of human life on this planet.   It is truly time to challenge the next-generation latifundism that drains the land of people and life, to challenge the exaggerated pursuit of meat and milk productivity and the economies of scale which industrialised food-transformation enforces in order to cost little.   Guido Dotti, a friar at the Bose community, argues we are not at war, we are at care. Us and the planet.   And care feeds on compassion towards the other. Food is certainly care, in spite of what a recent cultural and artificial manipulation has achieved in the last decades. And if food is life, everything that surrounds and constitutes it concerns a welfare that doesn’t belong to any multinational or local wannabe, doesn’t belong to some agrochemical corporation, to some monopoly around the corner or even to the farmers: food belongs to everyone because agriculture, the environment and the fostering of life are the same thing.   And we are talking about real economy!   If we must (and we will have to) rebuild, repair and restore, it is advisable to do it with a new planning ability, a new organisational and associative design able to integrate human beings, natural ecosystems and new technologies in a dimension that look to territories and protects them.   The enterpreneurial gigantism that belongs to the 1900s, (the mantra to pursue an ever-growing size/scale) has only partially enriched the planet, destroying many of its resources and generating inequality everywhere.   Protecting territories today means not barricading ourselves in them, but developing an open, entrepreneurial culture which goes beyond industrial sectors, extant representations, corporative divisions of centuries-old approaches, as far as including, in a more proactive way, the administrative function.   We need a new, shared mind for a shared action that casts aside differences if the target is the safeguard of territories and their economies, of people as such rather than of distant markets, of the environment to strengthen and of that civic consciousness we don’t intend to forgo.   Food can return to being a protagonist and participate not in an emergency strategy that erases history and its distinctive features, but actively in all its economies, from agro-ecological production to small scale transformation, to the catering industry to distribution, which should turn into participation.   We don’t need short supply chains but close, affective businesses, widespread entrepreneurial culture and knowledge. We require know-how, a truly agroecological, agroforestry vision, which also includes industrial processes that are groundbreaking in nutritional quality and accessibility. In order to create, not just extract, value from land specificity.   Today, all of this is possible for technology and control even on a small scale, provided they are part of a network and have a broad, open-minded vision. If there is a positive aspect in this terrible experience we are living through, it is that many producers, restaurateurs and artisans are increasingly approaching people rather than markets: this attitude will last and will be one of care and closeness.   In all this, local government and politics play a role, especially when rooted in the territory. They become essential aid and support, an integral part, an endorser rather than the regulator of projects that, yes, have to include major works, but not concentrated in a few, super expensive, faraway realities, rather spread over the territory.   Reconstituting integrated economies that are ecologies.   This change is necessary if we want economical, environmental and social benefits to be equally widespread.   No doubt, now is the moment to go from supply chains to affection. To look after, become friends, nurture passion.