Farming on the fringe: Q&A with Anna Meroni
in Environment on 10 January 2012
Why should people care about agriculture on the city fringe?
I AM a designer – I believe that people really understand something when they are touched by the issue, not because of rational drivers. If I have to convince someone that the food produced just close to the city is important, I would say that it’s a matter of wellbeing and wellness of the whole environment. Frankly speaking, sometimes there is no added value in quality, but it’s better because of the story of that food. The more green you can keep around the town, the better the air and the quality of your life because you can find a place nearby you really enjoy.
I’ve often been asked by people, ‘What changes in reality my body if I eat an organic tomato while I’m breathing the air of a town which is very polluted?’ Okay, nothing changes – it is not the tomato that will save your life. But the more you eat sustainable things the more you increase the possibility for your town to be less polluted.
Tell me about the project you’re working on?
In 2015 we will host the international expo in Milan and the tile of it will be ‘Feeding the planet, energy for life’. Over a bottle of wine with the people from Slow Food, we said this is a huge problem because it will be an opportunity for Milan to build more instead of less.
We decided to design another scenario for a sustainable Milan in 2015 where the biggest possible quantity of food consumed in town is produced around the town. We named this project ‘Feeding Milan, energy for change’.
In the south of Milan there is a safeguarded agricultural area, which is around 50,000 hectares. You can build on a percentage of the space, but you have to cultivate the land.
We said let’s start from the good practices we find and help them grow, because emulation is a very powerful tool. You cannot do things from scratch. Find the best, connect the best and try to support them to become leaders of bigger transformation.
We started by opening up a farmers’ market following the rules of the Slow Food markets. It was the first in Milan. We decided to open an ideas-sharing stall where we do a design activity with producers and visitors, and we use it as a first contact point for new ideas to come about.
We try to create a broader range of services for people who want to buy local food and for producers who want to deliver local food. It’s too much for farmers to work at the market more than once a month – for the rest of the time you need to find other solutions which are not the traditional retail system, like a food box for delivery at home, or pick your own like you have here for strawberries, or collaborative supermarkets. This is more or less the philosophy: try to widen the scope of zero mile production and consumption.
How easy will it be to scale up these kinds of schemes?
We all believe very much strongly in the power of bottom-up initiatives. In Milan, through these small initiatives we’ve been able to create a huge pressure from the public. But what is very clear to all of us is that new business models are needed, where there is a mix of public and private initiatives, profit and not-for-profit, consumers and producers.
The rules of the public policy have been made according to the traditional way of retailing food, with companies, big retailers. What we are seeing now is that there are these purchasing groups such as community-supported agriculture, initiatives led by consumers or by farmers, which are in between profit and not-for-profit, which have struggled to find a formal identity according to the law. They are often categorised as black market because they don’t find any other way to exist. We need policies to encourage these brand new ways of making social business. They must have a legal framework to exist and operate otherwise we won’t really evolve. This is first.
I’d like to see brand new protection policies. So far we have seen that food policy has protected certain kind of situation and institution: the big multinationals. But there are other places that need to be protected. It would create a lot of discussion and debate, but I’d like to see certain fragile economies protected with special rules, and with a clear ethical distinction between good and bad farming practices.
Watch a video of Anna’s presentation here.