In contrast to my naivety regarding Italian food policy (as mentioned in my last blog post), before I arrived here, I did do my proper share of reading on Italians’ common definitions of “food security”—which stray from people’s perceptions of food security found in my other study cities. Of course, all of my Italian interviewees could certainly google ‘food security’ and encounter the FAO’s/international organizations’ and governments’ typical “enough, healthy food to live an active lifestyle” criteria. Yet, I am less interested in my research contacts googling abilities and more interested in what food security specifically means to them.
For reference, here is the FAO’s 2001 definition of ‘food security’ (which I employed in defining the term for my own research):
“Food security is situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” – FAO
And, here are a few GAS members’ responses to my questions on how they would define ‘food security’:
“Food security is about the method to produce food—what producers use to grow, where they grow, what they feed their animals…” It’s related to food quality and safety and to the methods [of production] and distribution practices. – Giuseppe
“Food security… yes. I would use a different word, maybe not food security but food quality. Because industrial products… are causing in the long-term, many, many diseases. And nowadays, we are realizing that food maybe it’s not secure food for the people who are only relying on [those] kind of products… Security means that the quality of the food must be at a level where the ingredients—what is inside the food—are not unhealthy. As food—as that total food that you are eating because a component maybe is not unhealthy, but the way industrial food is produced, like some uh… I don’t know, an example… have you read about Nestles? Yeah [laughs]. That is in my opinions, producing unhealthy food—unsecure food. In general terms, not that particular product, but the way the food is produced, and the way [producers] are trying to sell their food. Because the food is full of sugar…and people are appreciating the taste, but it’s not good for their health, in the long term.”
Food security means “to know personally how food is produced.” The concept of food security is related to “how food is produced, treated, and to the whole food production lifestyle. It, for example, includes principles to not use harmful chemicals, consuming food in the right season, and the ‘zero-kilometer principle’.” – Alessandro
Food security in Italy is “more of a cultural thing. Eight out of ten of my friends have a decent, varied diet, so the focus is more to improve the quality rather than the variety [or sufficiency] of the diet.” – Sergio
Generally, my interviewees highlighted the “nutritious” and “safe” components of my food security definition through a perspective novel to my good ‘ole American one.
I never explicitly defined what “nutritious consumption practices” means for my own research. Nonetheless, the most-used nutrition metric I found in my literature review on food security studies food security metrics is dietary diversity, which means meaning people have access to the nutrients they need to be healthy resulting from their access to a wide variety of foods, e.g. not just carbohydrates (check out my post on matooke in Uganda). Furthermore, my conception of “food safety” is based upon articles I’ve read about crops produced near city roads containing high levels of heavy metals and how radiation from the Fukushima accident infiltrated Japan’s food supply; I generally conceive of “safe” food as food that won’t make its consumer noticeably sick due to one or a few instances of consumption. In contrast, every GAS member whom I asked about GAS, nutrition, and food safety responded in a more abstract, ethically/politically/socially motivated manner and through a longer-term perspective than I initially expected. GAS members specified two keys themes in their answers: industrial vs. non-industrial food and food quality.
One shared value of my GAS members is that “industrial food” is bad.* Beyond industrial producers’ lack of regard for ethical and environmentally-friendly production methods, GAS members expressed their considerable concern regarding how industrial food affects its consumers, for example, because of how…
- – Sugar/fat/salt is addictive and unhealthy
- – Pesticides/herbicides/GMOs are unsafe/harmful to humans’ health/unhealthy
- – And more conceptually, industrial food doesn’t taste good/is not fresh/is transported long distances/is produced through irresponsible production methods/is low quality and therefore is unhealthy
Beyond “food security” and “local food systems,” in Italy, “quality” became my new research buzzword. My interviewees explained some new definitions of ‘high quality’ food for me. To be of high Italian quality standards, per my interviewees, a food must not only taste or look good, but it must check off several of the following standards regarding its production, distribution, and manifestation as a thing that will be consumed and digested by a human being:
- Agricultural production:
- – Organic (or produced by organic methods, even if lacking the certification)
- – Non-GMO
- Social components of production:
- – Labor practices – fair wage, fair working hours, no violations of human rights laws, etc.
- – Doesn’t support the mafia economy
- – Only transported a short distance; adhering to the ‘zero-kilometer principle’
- – Relationship to producer –if due to environmental/economics restrictions, a product is not produced nearby, then the socially just distribution system accommodates for the geographic distance (e.g. coffee purchased through XX from South American and almonds and baked goods in Sicily purchased from anti-mafia organizations in Sicily)
- The final realization of food to be consumed:
- – Freshness
- – Preparation – it was prepared on a stove/in an oven/by someone’s hands and not a microwave or behind closed doors
- – Taste
Brunori, Malandrin, and Rossi (2013) sum up well how to Italians, food security means much more than availability and affordability. Rather, food is one of the principal ways for Italians to reassert their identity, which both explains the prominence of GAS in Italy and how in Italy, security cannot be separated from the broader discourse on quality. Brunori, Malandrin, and Rossi found that “food security policies cannot avoid taking into consideration consumers’ expectations and concerns about how food is produced and processed, where it comes from, and its impact on the environment and on society. Along with the recent history of the Italian food system, both ‘quality’ and ‘food security’ meanings have evolved, and a progressive integration of food security into a comprehensive concept of food quality has been built, through discursive coalitions that have reconciled positions initially very different from each other” (p. 20).
I’m sitting in the Rome airport now waiting for my flight to Budapest. And before I leave Italy, I feel obliged to give thanks for all of the GAS members who welcomed me to their homes, their organizations, and their social lives this week. Thank you to those members of SeiGAS, GAS Martezana, GAS Dem, GAS Vittoria, Terra e’ Liberta GAS, GAS Feltre, Gas LoLa and GAS Crescenzago, along with all of the other GAS members who responded to my emails but whom I couldn’t end up meeting with! I was astounded each day by these GAS members’ commitment to ethical, environmental, and community values, and I so highly appreciate my ability to be welcomed into that culture–even if just for an interview, meeting, or a meal!
*I had further difficulty when I asked my interviews to define “industrial food.” Generally, I found that they meant food produced or distributed by any national or multinational corporation. They also counted regional corporations greater than a certain size or lacking stringent environmental or social standards as “industrial.”