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Agriculture matters to everybody, not just to farmers

The historian Rossano Pazzagli helps us to understand the issues of the rural world. Today, there is a worldwide need to rethink the models of development. A return to the past does not make sense, but it is not possible anymore to ignore the values of sustainability

Rossano Pazzagli was bron in 1958. He graduated from University of Pisa in 1983 and is now professor of History of Agriculture and of History of Environment at University of Pisa, University of Florence and University of Molise. He is author of several publications on economic and social history topics, in particular on the transformations of the territory and of the rural world during the modern and contemporary age. He is director of the research institute on the territory and environment “Leonardo” in Pisa.

Professor Pazzagli, does and how much the concept of technical agriculture has affected the phenomena of environmental damage that have been occurring lately, as an effect of major changes, not all favorable to the environment?
Technology has certainly helped the agriculture, but it has often provided illusions, too. It has been speculated for years that the mechanization and chemistry could maintain a balance with the environment, which has not been the case, since they have markedly contributed to the conflict between environment and agriculture, which had historically been in a balance. Since the XIXth century, the agriculture has not been a source of food any longer, but it has evolved into a user. The energy balance of the agricultural sector has been negative, in the Western countries, for several years, that is, more energy is used than it is produced. Energy is not just the fuel for tractors, but it is also the energy used to produce fertilizers and phytodrugs, to make transportation possible, etc. The production has been increased at the expenses of the balance between agriculture and environment.

Speaking of technique and technology, it seems that deeply different philosophies and conceptions of agriculture have been developed in the last years. Some support a return to the past, to the organic, biodynamic, to an absolute respect for the environment, even at the expenses of years and years of scientific progress; others support the idea of following the road of innovation, convinced that science will provide with all responses and solutions to the problems that will occur down the road. Is there any possibility of compromise between these two models? Which one has an edge?
It is not just a matter of revisiting the conception of agriculture. I personally reckon that the industrial model that has been preponderant since the XVIIIth century should be reformed, since it has proved to be all but sustainable. The problem of the future, of the next generations has never been considered enough. This model has been surprisingly productive but has had no vision. Today there is the necessity, all around the planet, to re-discuss the development models, either agricultural and industrial. As to agriculture, I do not think that the we have to encourage a return to the past, but it is rather desirable to look ahead without any false trust in an unlimited progress that has characterized the XXth century. The contradictions that characterized that model should be acknowledged and science, technology and all our knowledge should be maximized to recreate a balance with the available resources. This is what the concept of sustainability is about. It does not imply going backwards, but using science more and better for a more reasonable, conscious and balanced use of the resources of our planet.
Today we are in a transition phase, where no precise new model has been developed yet, but we have been searching for solutions to limit the damages. We cannot apply alternative approaches, yet. The main question should be: how can we reconcile the modern agriculture, the needs of business and farmers, with the protection of our environment? If the goal of research is instead producing more and more at lower costs, no matter what consequences may happen, I do not think the lesson will be learnt.

by Alberto Grimelli
03 may 2010, Food Notes > Miscellanea