Angelo di Mambro (@angelo) is a longtime Edgeryders community member and journalist who started focusing on agriculture and food in 2008, after the global price spikes in food commodities. The second wave of price spikes, in 2010, was even more impactful (it was one of the reasons behind the end of ‘bread democracies’ in the MENA region) and he had the chance to write, with others, a book edited by Paolo De Castro, MEP. The work had some little fortune in Italy and was accepted from an important niche British publisher. They were writing about sustainable development, but did not call it as such… Since 2016 Angelo has been covering also the EU news on climate, energy and environment. He is the “Green Deal journalist” for ANSA, the main Italian news agency.
As a journalist, which aspects of food do you follow most closely or write about?
I try to apply a comprehensive grasp, from food production to food safety. Then, it depends on the news. I wrote about ‘food scandals’, plant and animal health (pests and diseases), nutrition labeling, organic, intellectual property regimes such as the PDO/PGI in Europe, Common Agricultural Policy, chemicals and so on. I like to do that for various kinds of media outlets, such as specialized magazines as well as mainstream media, and more research and academic-oriented circles. For instance, currently, I am contributing to the dissemination of the results of an EU Horizon2020 funded project on plant health (XF-Actors, on Xylella fastidiosa)
Which are the most significant effects of the corona virus crisis on the way governments or consumers think about food?
We are seeing the acceleration of some trends:
a) Localisation for consumers, gastro-nationalism for governments. This also means an attempt to reduce dependency (see point b), even if that cannot be fully achieved and the shift in diets on a global scale is somehow unstoppable. The rice surface in Japan and South Korea is shrinking because of the shift in diets. Meat consumption is decreasing in the EU, but rising in Asia.
b) National food self-sufficiency being pretty impossible, governments might pursue a ‘strategic autonomy’, producing more food and stocking more food at the regional level (EU, Mercosur, ASEAN trade blocs). China was the biggest stocker of commodities in the world. Before the pandemic it had started to empty the silos. After the pandemic, it started stockpiling again. This, however, has not stopped China to increase food imports.
c) Big unknowns about the AI and digitization impact on the contractual power in the food system. We might see the reinforcement of the power of the final part of the chain – that will be Amazon – to the expenses of farmers and producers. For sure, digitization of the supply chain will mean new challenges in terms of standards in a very fragmented sector. And the consumer? He wants to be comfortable and safe. Unfortunately, this is achieved more easily through a standardized system with few actors.
What makes you personally feel unsafe when it comes to the food landscape? What worries you the most?
I do not like the current state of the debate on food and agriculture. Too much marketing, too less science. Too many religious wars. It’s like we have monocultures in the head. The risk that worries me the most is widening the distance between urban and rural areas. I mean, all the sustainability debate is monopolized by urban dwellers. Yellowjackets’ movement in France was not a matter of history (like the XX century revolutions liked to see themselves), but of geography instead. Maybe, it is just that I am exposed to Brussels bubble too much…
I’m curious how you personally consume food: for you and your family… Where do you buy it? Are there initiatives that you support?
I am the cook at home, so I am the one in charge of buying food. And I buy food everywhere. I have the chance to live in an area with different options: supermarkets, borough markets, specialized shops (organic)… More rarely, also online orders and home delivery. I bought from a groupe d’achat for a while, then I supported the short-supply chain experience of Epelia in Germany. Now, I admit, I lost contact with it.
Agriculture in Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe is extremely interesting because there you have young farmers. They are more prone to innovation, to change mindsets, to do things…
In EU, you have less than 10% farmers under 35 years. Most of them do agriculture in a more traditional way, where you are obliged to cope with nature and natural phenomena - floods, pests etc. Agriculture is slow, it cannot be fast, unless you grow vegetables in a greenhouse.
Be careful: you cannot grow soy or beans, or wheat (the core of nutrition) in a greenhouse. The idea that greenhouses could feed the whole world is a myth.
When the Berlin Wall fell down, the transformation of agricultural structure in some Eastern countries has been to transform the big state cooperatives in big enterprises: in the Cz Rep, Slovakia, Hungary. They have huge farms that they inherited in a sense. But in Poland and Romania, the reaction was the opposite: when I was in Cluj 10 years ago, I talked to a professor saying: we have these new coops, but with the agrarian reform every Romanian wants their own plot of land, but this is not feasible because they were too fragmented. The mindset in these countries is that you have the big companies, but also the small ones, that want to do something on their own - ex. If they have their sheep, they found a way to sell their milk and other products to local supermarkets. There is this feeling of nostalgia.
But when young farmers come in, they can transform nostalgia into something good.
What kind of structures are needed to support innovation in agriculture?
Traditionally, innovation happened through researchers studying in the lab and then going to the field to show farmers what can be changed.
After the Green Revolution, this has collapsed in the West, where food is no longer an issue of security, but where we think about new things. Corporate funding has replaced public funding, which is not entirely great - when you have public funding, you can do long term things, and bear the weight of asking questions for the environmental and social wellbeing. In corporate world, they want the return of investment, it’s not their job to think in social terms.
The EU has tried to finance and to support bottom up operational groups in the European Innovation Partnership in Agriculture (EIP AGRI). They are conceived as heterogeneous, with farmers, NGOs, researchers. Even with public support, the solutions they find have problems to scale up and be replicable.
The issue of public support now is not giving money, is to interconnect these projects. You have a website with hundreds, thousands of projects, but who’s going to connect the dots? If the state of public power does not do that, someone else has to.
How can we work together to support localisation of food? A webinar to learn about opportunities in the EU and beyond, 30th October 18:00-20:00
Come meet Angelo at the Webinar!.