"I’m optimistic about the future of food systems in the lagoon! So much has changed for the better in the past few decades, and the new generation sees that the choice is simple: we have to turn towards sustainability" says Francesca, a food activist for most of her life. But what does sustainability mean to the young generation of European food entrepreneurs? In this essay we dive into three dimensions of what the sustainability of agri-food systems means: ecological, social and economic dimensions intersect in the experiences of four young entrepreneurs we interviewed in Venice, Italy. In the European Year of Youth, what can Europe learn from their stories of positive change towards towards sustainable food systems?
Nearly half of European land is used for agriculture, which shows on the one hand the potential for food sovereignty and on the other the scale of negative ecological footprint when agriculture is not sustainable. Agriculture relies on biodiversity and biodiversity relies on agriculture, but despite efforts from The European Union, (EU) biodiversity is in decline. The agri-food sector is depleting the soil fertility and waterbeds, and is among the major drivers of negative environmental externalities. In fact, agriculture contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for more than 10% of total CO2 emissions in the EU-28 area. But the issues with unsustainability of European agri-food systems does not lay only with production: today, the European food system is characterised by unhealthy dietary trends, food waste (20% of all food produced is wasted), and a dependency on an ageing farming population.
A case in point is Italy, a flagship country in terms of both agricultural production and one of the major recipients of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policies subsidies. Furthermore, the region is a culinary traditions hotspot, home to many famous dishes and food products, and one the most biodiverse countries in Europe. Buying groceries in a local supermarket gives one the pleasure of finding loads of fresh and local produce in wide varieties. At the same time, the country is one of the major European agricultural areas in terms of emissions, traditional diets have a big ecological footprint (animal protein heavy). The farming population is among the oldest in Europe: the last agricultural census data shows that only 5% of Italian farmers were younger than 35, while 30% were older than 65: the vast majority of Italian farmers are between 35 and 64.
The recent pandemic seems to have changed the ageing trend: in 2021 the number of young farmers increased by 14% in comparison to 2015, and within Italian universities have registered an increase of 15% more enrolled in Faculties of Agrarian Studies. In comparison to European standards, Italy is now leading the generational renewal of the farming population. Farmers Unions are calling for increased and sustained support of the new generation of Italian farmers, both from the Italian government and the European Union. This is not only good news for the much-needed generational renewal of the farming population, but also for the ecological sustainability of the agricultural sector: in fact, it is shown that the younger generation of farmers is more inclined to adopt sustainable solutions (e.g. organic farming, climate-smart and traditional crops). More and more people from the younger generations are dedicated to becoming a farmer or to working in the food system with this aim in mind: doing what elder generations did in a more sustainable way.
In this essay, we take you on a trip to Venice and its surroundings, as zooming in on the lagoon offers us a view on a unique and extreme, but positive case study of where we see signs of a young generation of agri-food entrepreneurs trying to shift the food system towards a more sustainable one. The lagoon of Venice is as much a natural ecosystem as it is man-made: the rivers that brought debris into the Adriatic sea formed islands, and early Venetians started populating and reclaiming the lagoon by building their homes and trading hubs. Historically, the Serenissima Republic of Venice built its splendour around trade, and relied on a wide territory extending along the Dalmatian coastline. However, despite the exotic produce and spices coming from the East, Venice was food-secure thanks to its very own vegetable garden: Sant'Erasmo Island has been feeding the urban population since the XV century AD. Urban dwellers and farmers from the islands have been co-dependent for centuries, and while the depopulation of the islands is making room for unsustainable (mass) tourism, the farming populations in the northern lagoon around Sant’Erasmo remained stable. And this is the very starting point of a new generation of farmers that wants to shift the course of its destiny in a sustainable direction. We will tell the stories of Andrea, Francesca, Carlo, and finally of Davide, a farmer on Sant'Erasmo.
While ‘sustainable’ has many different meanings, for young farmers and food entrepreneurs, it is much more than reducing emissions. Below, we explore three types of sustainability that the next generation is aiming for in the food system in Italy, trying to improve the ways of older generations.
This most obvious way of understanding sustainability is in its ecological sense. This understanding refers to the environment, the climate, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, pesticides and fertilizer usage, resource consumption, biodiversity. Italy is leading in organic farming in Europe. This transition is encouraged by the EU: 25% of agriculture should become organic by 2030, while it is currently only reaching 10%.
It is early February and Andrea, a young Venetian farmer working in the mainland, will have to start sowing the beetroot seeds soon. Before he took over part of the farm from his family, beetroots were not grown on the 50 acres of land, but growing beetroot is a good way to diversify the types of crops on the original prosecco grapes farm. Although Andrea grows his beetroots organically, the company he is selling to processes non-organic beetroots as well, so his beetroots will end up among those. Another difficulty in his efforts to farm sustainably, is that it takes time to slowly but steadily convince the person helping him out with ploughing and seeding that the tillage should not go too deep, avoiding to kill the life in the soil. Generally, producing prosecco is not done in an organic way in Italy, but Andrea is pushing for that transition. Next to diversifying the farm, growing different types of vegetables and hemp for medical purposes, he is currently building an educational facility with the help of EU subsidies. These are all small instances of revolt against and transition away from dominant ways of farming that have caused ecological harm and exhaustion of soils. "This is a movement of young people", says his mom, who still manages the prosecco part of the farm. Although there are many things they disagree upon, she is supportive of Andrea’s ambitions to green the farm.
Ecological sustainability does not stop at growing food. It also has consequences for the diets and nutritional habits of Italians: increasingly more, and especially the younger generation, is turning vegetarian or even vegan – a sustained and rising trend in the past years. Transitioning to more sustainable diets remains also a tough mission in Italy, as it is in most European countries. The Italian cuisine is animal-protein heavy and the country is a large pork exporter.
Francesca sees it as her mission to broaden the scope of vegetarian options in a culinary hotspot like Venice: she started cookeneim, her plant-based home restaurant and catering. Naturally, she would rather start by offering vegan dishes with her catering services right away, but she knows such a transition takes time. Only a handful of restaurants on the lagoon currently serve a vegetarian menu. Personally, she leans towards a vegan diet, convinced that taking a radical position helps to open up the debate further. "Change has been on its way since several decades: in the ‘90s we had the independent food movement Genuino Clandestino, and in the last ten years you can find more and more biological and vegetarian offerings also in conventional supermarkets. And now there are even entirely biological supermarket chains, like NaturaSì and Ecor! Biological agriculture is scaling up, and there is a growing request for tasty and nutritious vegetarian and vegan dishes". Indeed, Francesca reflects on important trends that have been underway on a national scale, and are reflected in the lagoon as well. Genuino Clandestino is a movement that started to reclaim the access of small producers to food distribution systems, and to ensure alternative quality guarantees independent of official certifications. Non-certified organic producers make this choice both out of necessity (certifications are expensive), as well as a political choice to ‘resist’ conventional food systems that are unsupportive and unsustainable for small food entrepreneurs. Indeed, an important aspect of sustainability is the social one.
Food is not only social and convening for dinner is not only a cornerstone in Italian daily life, it is also highly political. Take the example of farmers producing non-certified organic food. They organise themselves by building relationships and trust by directly selling to consumers. Every Friday evening, when Venetians of all walks of life gather at Bar Squero for aperitivo, Carlo docks his boat in the canal next to the bar, bringing fresh produce from his farm in San Erasmo. "You see my clients trust the quality of my food, they can taste it." Indeed, the guarantee of quality of Carlo’s vegetables is its face value: he produces non-certified organic vegetables, and deliberately chooses to stay out of the "certifications business" that in his opinion are not a true guarantee of organic. His agribusiness is a story of personal relations with the consumers, who visit the farms, entertain chitchats and conversations at the selling points, and want to buy km0 (local) and quality seasonal produce – and indeed as we’re talking, a consumer ‘sets the table’ with a cloth, salami, plate and baguette for all those who gathered around Carlo’s boat. The solidarity between Carlo’s enterprise and the consumers, is also a story of resistance to the retailers chains and political neglect. Farmers in the lagoon have higher costs than in the mainland, because of transports, logistics, land and machinery. However, they bypass the middlemen of the conventional agri-food chains. As such, producers and consumers feed each other, literally.
We ask him what he thinks of Europe and its subsidies to agriculture, but he answers by shaking his head: "we’re the last wheel of the wagon", meaning they play the Cinderella role, as they’re too small to receive subsidies. Yet, by cultivating on 10 hectares of land in Sant’Erasmo Island, Carlo and his brother are able to feed about 500 families per week with a variety of 15 to 30 types of vegetables, depending on the season. His prices are accessible, the offering is seasonal, biodiverse and organic.
But his 20-years long experience is more than agricultural production: Carlo is very active in the community of farmers, and he is heading the association of the violet artichoke which is typical of the island, and is recognized as a Slow Food Presidium. He is also heading the island’s division of Coldiretti Venezia, the largest farmers union in Italy. In fact, he is committed to strengthening the representation of farmers in the lagoon, of whom he says: "the territory (meaning soil and culture) would be poorer without them".
The resistance to conventional food systems has its origin in the fields, but it’s driven by consumers in the cities. It is as much of an environmental concern for sustainability, as a social one: food sovereignty concerns rural and urban consumers, and can be achieved in self-managed farmers markets that promote healthy, organic and local food produce as much as social inclusivity. Such a market is that of Campi Aperti, in Bologna, where consumers and producers are co-responsible for certifying the ethical and biological production in a system of mutual trust. On a smaller scale, the self-organised food distribution of Carlo offers such an inclusive food system to Venetian consumers.
But the lagoon does not only produce vegetables: hidden in monasteries, private gardens, and mostly on Sant’Erasmo and Vignole islands, vineyards continue a centuries-old tradition of wine making. A mentor to many winemakers in the lagoon, Gastone Vio, allegedly saved the autochthonous variety of grapes ‘Dorona’ from the flood of 1966, after which the local wine makers abandoned the thousands-years-old grape (Dorona is reported in documents of the 7th century a.d.) and started cultivating non-native grapes. Wine makers founded the association Laguna Nel Bicchiere (literally, ‘lagoon in a glass’) – which is part of the Urban Vineyards Association(verwijst naar een andere website): an international network of urban wine producers that spans Italian, French and American cities, with the intention of promoting historical recovery of landscapes for urban sustainability. Once again, environmental sustainability passes through the social sustainability of self-organised food systems.
Young farmers are difficult to find in Italy: in comparison to other European farmers, Italians are among the oldest, together with Portugal and Ireland. Making a living and starting a farm from scratch is hardly possible for the youth. Even if land is owned by a family and available to a young family member to cultivate, youths struggle to farm organically, constantly having to challenge the dominant laws and systems of conventional farming. The marges are slim, intensification and scale are almost a necessity.
Made-to-order models emerge, for instance on the micro-farm managed by Davide, a vegetable farmer on the island of San Erasmo, on a 40 minutes boat trip from Venice. After the first attempt at setting up his agribusiness failed, he almost lost hope of working in agriculture again: for youth without family assets, it is too expensive to buy land in the lagoon. Indeed 95% of agribusiness in Italy is conducted on family farms, and youth without family assets are the minority. But in the beginning of 2021, a collective of 13 restaurants called ‘Osti in Orto’ (literally ‘tavern keepers in the garden’) decided to rent 4 hectares of land in Sant’Erasmo, and offered Davide (who’s 36) and his friend Mario (who’s 22) to manage the agricultural production. It is basically a CSA, community-supported agriculture, where the investors are the restaurant managers. Davide has a university degree in Economy and Management, but he did not imagine a happy career for himself sitting at an office desk: "I consider myself to be a lucky farmer, look around here: this is the best quality of life you can have - and you haven’t yet seen the island in the summer! It’s paradise here".
When asked about whether small-scale and organic farming would suffice, the young farmer reminds us of the waste that happens in the chain and that higher quantities are not the answer. He is right, producing quantity belongs to the paradigm that has been dominant since after the second world war. The initial success of the Green Revolution has now turned its back on farmers, as the industrialization of farming has contributed to exploiting soils. The current nutrient collapse, a trend shown by many crops that they are less nutritious now than decades before, is a result of the heightened CO2 levels in the air, poorer soils and more chemical usage in farming. This is a further reason for quality above quantity, and according to Davide, people are willing to pay decently for quality food. Working in the frame of a CSA allows him to increase his profit since he is not losing income to the middleman, the party earning the most in most food value chains.
Considering the depletion of the soils, CO2 and GHG emissions, unhealthy diets, the ageing of farmers and the food waste that results from large retailers, deep transformations are necessary to make European agri-food systems more sustainable. The next generation of farmers is already embracing more sustainable food systems, but they need support from the European Union. However, this transformation needs to account for all three dimensions of sustainability - and this will necessarily bring policy-makers to appreciate (local) solutions of small holders. According to Davide, economic, environmental and social sustainability find an ideal balance in ‘micro-farms’ that produce intensively and organically for the local consumers: "I could feed many more with just these 4 hectares!", he told us.