Working to save an agricultural breed from extinction is not merely about being attached to the past or idealism. The Slow Food Presidia are protecting dozens of breeds connected to local territories around the world, but this commitment is not dictated by nostalgia or a fascination with biodiversity, but by a more complex rationale that concerns more than food and looks to address the major problems and injustices of the industrial meat and dairy industry today.
When rural communities are abandoned or farming is modernized, agricultural and food traditions are lost. Animal breeds and plant varieties disappear, and we face the demise of small-scale local economic systems that are centered around products derived from animals and human activities associated with them: sustainable farming systems, healthy meat and dairy processing and consumption dictated by the rhythms of nature rather than industry.
Many cheeses, for example, would not be able to be continued to be made if the breed that provides the milk for production becomes extinct, as the composition of other milks is simply too different. The milk from Holstein cows, today’s most commonly farmed breed, cannot be used to produce a Sicilian Ragusano or Provolone del Monaco from Sorrento. While the replacement of native breeds with these black and white milk machines, which produce almost twice as much milk as many traditional breeds, is steadily reducing variety in dairy products, this standardization has also led to ridiculously low milk prices, which don’t event cover the costs of production.
Protecting breeds for food production means giving them the value they deserve and restoring the correct price to the product derived from them, supporting local economies so they may once again become profitable. It means recreating local communities, enticing young people to return to and nurture the countryside instead of building industry and repossessing a relationship with the land. It means protecting our regions in the most gentle and loving way we can.
Moreover, it means we can continue to enjoy the pleasures of food derived from these breeds. Today it would be better all-round – for human health, animal welfare and the environment – if we eat less meat, but of better quality. Italians consume 92 pounds per capita each year: 250 grams per day, while nutritionists recommend not to exceed 500 grams per week. Choosing to eat less and better, and favoring local breeds where possible, can have a big impact. We can pay the right price to sustainable producers, promote local regions and protect the environment in one fell swoop.
Slow Food International President
Last month Slow Food Italy launched a new guide to sustainable meat consumption Diamoci un taglio. Come scegliere la carne: poca ma buona, pulita e giusta, (Take a Slice: How to choose meat: small servings but good, clean and fair), available in Italian online here.
Photo: Grigio Alpina Cow Presidium, Trentino Alto Adige, Italy