Articles in Politics

In Italy, there's a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce

Between revelations by Italian police in December linking organized crime to 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, and an estimated four-fold increase in adulterated extra virgin following the dismal 2014 olive harvest, there is no denying that fraud remains rampant. With 72 percent worldwide sales of olive oil at stake and all eyes on industry practices, Italy is fighting back.

EU and Italian government and trade organizations, including members of parliament, the Italian Trade Agency, UNAPROL (a consortium of Italian olive oil producers), and even an emissary of the Vatican, met last month to both address the problem of olive oil fraud and to outline their plans for a comeback.

“We must recuperate our damaged reputation,” said Colomba Mongiello, an Italian senator and president of the Counterfeiting Commission. She was responding to a survey conducted at Expo Milan 2015 in October, showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors involved believed that Italian olive oil was adulterated and that the consumer was being cheated. “Our objective is to reach the U.S. market and make them understand the difference between what looks Italian and what is Italian,” she said.

Officials meet

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

The conference, billed “Extract,” is part of a larger Italian effort to promote the country’s food and wine in the U.S., where imitation products labeled with Italian names, or colors of the Italian flag, are often mistaken for genuine imports. The strategy is two-pronged: legislating tougher penalties for fraud by going after Italian producers who don’t follow regulations, and launching the largest marketing effort ever made to inform American consumers how to taste and use extra virgin olive oil.

“We have to do the same thing we do with wine to get people to understand olive oil,” said culture guru Franco Maria Ricci, who spoke. “Four-year old children in France are taught that wine is an angel. Italy is an olive oil culture and [its] significance needs to be transmitted in the same way …. If we don’t understand its qualities and terroir, we won’t understand its value.”

Crime has always been associated with olive oil, a substance so precious and prized in Mediterranean culture that its production and trade has invariably had a dark side. Merchants have been known to cut extra virgin with cheap oil to increase their profits since ancient times, and farmers had to fear brigands waiting in ambush as they transported oil to market.

Today there is a different kind of criminal on the olive oil trail. It is the unscrupulous producer who intentionally mislabels oils to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying genuine Italian virgin olive oil when they are not. Such murky practices have both hurt ethical producers and confused consumers. As journalist and Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” told me recently, “The problem … is that there are two kinds of olive oil in the world: commodity oil and excellent oil, which is usually estate-bottled and always very carefully produced …. [but] we keep trying to judge excellent oil as a commodity and vice versa.”

World’s best olive oil

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If Italy, which arguably produces the best olive oil in the world, has been a hotbed of fraud, it is also at the forefront of combating crime in the business. Where else are police trained to sniff out fakes at every stage of the supply chain? And who, but the Italians, have a system–IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the more stringent DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin)—that regulates the way it is made and that can lead us to the very trees it came from, and practically, the humans who crafted it?

From the terraced slopes and soft valleys of Italy’s central regions and the microclimates of Veneto and Liguria, to the expansive southern plateaus and sun-drenched islands, come some of the most sublime olives oils, produced by artisans who have the passion for making it in their bloodlines. Like the country’s new breed of winemakers who focus on quality over quantity, they are making delicious oils with the flavor peculiarities of their particular landscape. Utilizing the benefits of modern technology for cultivation while practicing sustainable growing and traditional picking methods, they are no doubt making better oil than their ancestors did.

How to buy good olive oil

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

That said, not all well-made olive oil carries the DOP seal. If we were to limit ourselves to those alone, we would miss out on many fine extra-virgins. As with “USDA Organic,” the rigorous and costly bureaucratic process discourages many a small ethical producer from applying.

Assuming you are not an expert, the best approach to finding good olive oil is not unlike that for choosing good wine: Find a knowledgeable retailer to guide you. If such a place doesn’t exist in your neighborhood, you can order online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of these retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is ethically produced from the current harvest:

Gustiamo in New York City, New York (

Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (

Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (

Main photo: In Italy, there’s a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

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Villagers dance at the Beh Dienkhlam festival in Mosakhia as men carry a life-sized oxen effigy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya is rich in native food traditions. Sandwiched between Bangladesh and Bhutan, and with Myanmar to its east, Meghalaya is a lush, hilly area of forests and lakes, with high rainfall, spectacular waterfalls and “living” bridges woven from trees that attract local tourism. Yet many of its villages are remote, with few main roads or other means of access.

Their inaccessibility has helped preserve many traditional food customs, from rice growing to beekeeping.

Keeping the traditional ways

Women bundle freshly cut rice for threshing in Mosakhia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Women bundle freshly cut rice for threshing in Mosakhia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Our region has been proud to host this year’s Indigenous Terra Madre,” said Phrang Roy, chairman of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS). The event brought 600 members of international indigenous food-making communities together in the city of Shillong for a five-day meeting. “It offered us a chance to showcase the many foods and traditions of the indigenous Khasi communities that are still well-preserved in Meghalaya and its neighboring region, Nagaland.”

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the third in a series.

» Part 1: Native cultures push for sustainable food solutions

» Part 2: The fight to preserve traditional pastureland

» Part 4: How Slow Food’s philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India’s "greenest" luxury hotel group

During the conference, the delegates were invited to visit some of the villages to experience these customs firsthand.

In Mosakhia, a village of 94 households in the Jaintia Hills so small it’s not on Google maps, a large crowd gathered to greet the visitors. They re-enacted Beh Dienkhlam, a colorful food festival that is usually held in July. During the festival, two life-size oxen effigies are raised on a large wooden platform and carried in increasingly rapid circles as the population rushes behind them, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of loud drumbeats.

“Its purpose is to drive away epidemics during the rainy growing season,” explained H.H. Morhmen, a NESFAS director in that area. “With their brooms the villagers sweep the evil spirits away.”

A native variety of nutritious brown rice, rymbai, is grown in the small rice terraces around Mosakhia that the villagers harvest in November, the women cutting it and the men threshing it by hand.

An ancient method of beekeeping

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong shows his unusual beehive, made of a hollowed trunk.Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong shows his unusual beehive, made of a hollowed trunk.Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong demonstrated his unusual hives. Made of hollowed-out sections of tree trunks (of dieng maleng or dieng shyrngang wood), the hives are positioned in the surrounding forests and in natural rock crevices. They attract local varieties of yellow or black bees.

Khongiong, a cheerful, sprightly 50-something, has been a beekeeper for 37 years but never uses any protection when working with his bee families. He pulled a large chunk of honeycomb from one of the hives barehanded, simply blowing the bees that were on it gently away. The honey was exquisite: With the delicate floral notes of a citrus honey, it maintained its depth and mineral intensity long after it was eaten. Only 12 people still continue this ancient method of beekeeping.

Fish that’s a delicacy

Fish are smoked for several hours beside the fire in the rural village of Umladkhur. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Fish are smoked for several hours beside the fire in the rural village of Umladkhur. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Nearby, the equally rural village of Umladkhur is reached by a dirt road through rice paddies and forests. Alma Mulat squats outside her house by a hose of clean, running water as she washes a batch of fish. When she’s satisfied they’re cleanly gutted, she drives a pointed bamboo stake through each fish, attaching them firmly with cane knots. She carries the fish down to the smokehouse behind her dwelling and smokes them for three to four hours using wood from the local otsyiah tree.

“We call these khabah in our native language,” she said, pointing to chunky fish in the carp family. “My grandmother and ancestors did this smoking too, back when our rivers were clean. But 40 years ago surface coal mining began in this area, and our rivers became poisoned and the fish died. Now we buy fish from a nearby region, though the mining has recently been stopped and river life is gradually returning.”

Smoked fish from this and Thangbuli village are a delicacy in Meghalaya, and Mulat and other women take them to market at Jowai to supplement their families’ incomes.

Going to market

Shillong has one of India's largest and most colorful markets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Shillong has one of India’s largest and most colorful markets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Back in Shillong, we visit one of India’s largest and most fascinating food markets. Built in colonial times, it covers a hill in the town with steep, narrow alleys, each filled with boxed stalls of local produce vendors. They come to a pinnacle in the large, open square at the top where brightly colored foods and fabrics compete for the visitor’s eye.

The maket — and the street-food vendors who surround it — showcase the many local and native plants and grains that contribute to the diets of the people of Meghalaya.

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Members of Meghalaya tribes dance during the Indigenous Terra Madre gathering. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Six hundred representatives of native communities around the world recently gathered in Shillong, northeastern India, for  Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM), an event that helps forge a global network of indigenous peoples, activists and their supporters.

The event, under the auspices of Slow Food, takes place every four years. This ITM was held in cooperation with the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty (supported by the Christensen Fund) and was hosted by the Indian region of Meghalaya and the North East Slow Food Agrobiodiversity Society. Their individual stories vary but are closely linked.

Focus on food sovereignty

Rice varieties from northeastern India at ITM, where the focus was on food sovereignty and other sustainability issues. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Rice varieties from northeastern India at ITM, where the focus was on food sovereignty and other sustainability issues. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chi Suwichan is a member of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand. His people have lived there for centuries, yet the current Thai government does not recognize them as citizens. Maria Bautista Leon, from the Tzeltal indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico, and a descendant of the Mayans, is protesting the increase of monoculture and the threat of genetically modified corn in her country. Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people’s local wild rice as she fights for tribal land claims.

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the first in a series.

»  Part Two: At Indigenous Terra Madre, members of international pastoralist communities show and tell.

»  Part Three: Indian region Meghalaya, which hosted Indigenous Terra Madre, boasts many native foods and a rich food-making culture.

» Part Four: How Slow Food's philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India's "greenest" luxury hotel group.

The focus at ITM is on environmental, biodiversity, food sovereignty and other sustainability issues linked to these communities’ way of life, many of which are increasingly under threat. Members of 140 tribes from 58 countries on five continents attended the 5-day event. Open meetings were arranged by themes, including: learning about food systems from matriarchal societies; building bridges between the private sector and indigenous communities; oral history; pastoralists and their challenges; and the future of food.

Prince Charles, who has long been a champion of these kinds of issues, sent a video message for the inauguration. “In our modern world, we are totally disconnected from indigenous knowledge,” he said. “The essential unity of things as reflected in nature has become dangerously fragmented. The modern world has shifted away from the holistic indigenous cosmology of seeing ourselves within nature to us standing apart from it. We must look after the earth and help it maintain its health and balance.” He suggests we listen to indigenous wisdom for the guidance we need to live in harmony with our planet.

Uniting voices for change

Chi Suwichan, of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand, says they are no longer allowed to practice traditional farming. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chi Suwichan, of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand, says they are no longer allowed to practice traditional farming. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Carlo Petrini, who founded Slow Food 30 years ago in Italy and later created Terra Madre to bring together food-making communities from all corners of the globe, also spoke at the meeting. “Our planet is suffering from the greed of those who want to steal its resources,” he began. “We hope the Climate Change conference in Paris will make constructive decisions about this disaster. Our food has lost its value. It has been turned into a commodity to be paid as little as possible for. The truth is that 500 million small household food communities feed 70 percent of the world, yet they are treated the worst of all. The large multinationals claim ownership of their seeds and promote intensive, genetically modified farming and monocultures that are destroying the lives of these indigenous food-producing communities. There can be no sustainability if we don’t change this model.”

With most delegates attending in their native dress, the get-together was colorful, musical and emotional. At large communal meals hosted by local chefs (the most memorable was an invitation to dinner for everyone at the Shillong Sikh’s Gurdwara temple), there was plenty of time for people to share stories, problems and solutions.

“My people’s history was written in song, in folk tales and by calling the mountains and rivers names in our language,” said Suwichan, one of 500,000 Karen in northern Thailand. “We used traditional natural farming, with a seven-year rotation for our rice and other crops. But since the government has declared our area a national park we are no longer allowed to practice this kind of farming, which has forced us to use chemical fertilizers. We lived in symbiosis with the forest and relied on it for wild plants and foods as we protected it. Now our forest has been designated a wildlife reserve and we are no longer allowed to take anything out of it. But they never consulted us about this, they never consulted our ancestors or our community leaders. My parents say we are now like orphan chickens, that we each have a small voice, but together with the others at ITM it may become louder.”

‘A universal language’

Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people's local wild rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people’s local wild rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“As Carlo Petrini says, we need to defend our native plants and animal breeds, our flavors and methods, for they are a universal language,” LaDuke said. “We have fought to reject the patents industrial agriculture has tried to put on our indigenous varieties. Our food is pre-colonial, pre-GMO and pre-petroleum. We are part of a movement to stop the theft of our seeds and land, and the theft of our economies. We fight against the politics of those who try to oppress us, and the closer the links between all of our tribes can get, the stronger our resistance will be.”

Main photo: Members of Meghalaya tribes dance during the Indigenous Terra Madre gathering. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company in Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,” “misshapen” or “funny-looking” -- but how about “practically perfect”? Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Would you like to reduce agricultural waste, save water, support innovation, lower your grocery bill and eat farm-fresh produce all at the same time? Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay has you covered.

In “Wasted,” a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, scientist Dana Gunder estimated that 40% of all the food produced in the United States is lost due to inefficiencies in the supply chain. Her analysis showed that, in the case of fresh produce, these losses occur before it even hits retail stores, the greatest percentage happening in the field and post-harvest in the packing sheds — primarily as a means of meeting customers’ “expectation of cosmetic perfection.”

Three committed food-waste experts — Ben Chesler, Ben Simon and Ron Clark — founded Imperfect Produce to reduce this waste by developing a supply and distribution network that brings physically “flawed” yet edible, in-season fruits and vegetables culled from packing plants directly to customers’ homes via a weekly delivery service. As the slideshow explains, it’s a perfect solution.

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Main photo: Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company Imperfect Produce in San Francisco‘s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,”misshapen” or “funny-looking” — but how about “practically perfect”Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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Alice Waters sits between Carlo Petrini and Naseegh Jaffer in the front row at Terra Madre's opening ceremony. The person in red behind Waters is a food maker from Colombia who is in traditional dress. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Farmers in Africa who trade their farmlands for mobile phones or even a bicycle become the unwitting victims of corporate greed. That’s the word from speakers at Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial event held in Turin, Italy. The practice of “land-grabbing” by multinational corporations isn’t new, but the fact that the concept is being extended to oceans and fisheries is more recent, according to presentations at the global conference.

At the event, people from food-producing communities across the globe are brought together under one roof. So you’re as likely to come across the lofty figure of a camel-herder from Chad as you are a group of female cocoa-growers from the Amazon, with their colorfully embroidered dresses and hair ribbons. African farm workers from Mali’s Dogon, swathed in the bold patterns of tie-dyed indigo, smile with South Korean Buddhist monks — with shaved heads and wearing pale grey — whose Temple Food pop-up was one of the event’s culinary hits.

Terra Madre is not just a convivial get-together, though that’s part of the excitement. Carlo Petrini, Slow Food Internationals founder and president, had the radical idea 10 years ago to expand the Italian food fair, Salone del Gusto, to enable real-time, real-life exchanges between hundreds of people from more than 150 countries. In a rousing address at Terra Madre’s opening ceremony, he underlined the event’s serious side.

“What does it mean not to be alone, but to be part of a global community?” he asked. “If Slow Food is the rope running through this network, your food communities are its knots. You are the real defenders of biodiversity. We have over 7,000 plants that can feed the planet, but our food system is based on just 30 or 40 of them. Don’t be shy or afraid to protect an unknown vegetable: This network of active defenders is the only valid testament for the future.”

His speech touched on the some of the big themes at the core of Terra Madre’s working sessions: family farms and climate change; the “10,000 Food Gardens for Africa” project; indigenous peoples and sustainability; school food; the politics of farmers markets; food waste; secret international food treaties; animal rights; and land-grabbing.

“Seventy percent of the world’s food is being produced on 25% of the world’s farmland by small and medium farms,” Eric Holt-Giménez, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, said as he opened the large conference on Land and Ocean-Grabbing. “Contrary to what we are often told, we currently produce one and a half times more food than is needed to feed our planet. There have been record harvests recently, yielding record profits. Yet there is record hunger. In particular, it is women who are going hungry. Indeed, 70% of the world’s hungry are women farmers. Hunger is due to injustice, not a lack of food.

“An area five times the size of Italy — 212 million acres — has been stolen by corporate food regimes in the last seven years from peasants in Africa and other developing nations,” he continued. “The term ‘land-grabbing’ may be new, but states and other groups have been taking foreign land and resources for centuries. The result continues to be the dispossession of the indigenous people whose lands have been grabbed.”

During the conference, many stories were told about recent versions of this phenomenon. In Africa, poorly educated farmers are being offered “gifts” in exchange for their land: mobile phones, fancy watches, even a bicycle is sometimes enough to convince local people to part with land that has been in their family for generations, and without which they are unable to feed their communities.

Ana Paula Tauacale. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Ana Paula Tauacale. Credit: Carla Capalbo

But who is buying this land, and why? In sub-Saharan Africa, as Ana Paula Tauacale, vice president of the Mozambique small farmers’ union (UNAC) explained, it is the multinationals with a vested interest in corporate models of farming that are snatching the land from local peasants without negotiation.

“People are being evicted and relocated to infertile lands where nothing grows so the corporations can plant genetically modified monocultures, look for gas or build trains to transport the plundered natural resources,” she said. “We have petitioned and tried to block them, and we’ll fight to the death if necessary.”

In South Africa, Ethiopia and Central America, communal land is being “bought” by investors acting on behalf of the Chinese and other nations in the rush for fertile land and extractable minerals.

Land is also being seen as the latest commodity for capitalist investors. Holt-Giménez explains: “There’s a crisis of capitalism today, with lots of cash around but very little to invest in. So if you can grab land and fisheries now, you’ll reap the benefit in five years or so, when their values go up.”

Ocean-grabbing is another aspect of this trend, though the concept is not well known. As Naseegh Jaffer, Secretary General of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples in South Africa, explained, the term covers a range of situations. They include the draining of natural habitats like mangroves in Ecuador to build shrimp farms, the pollution of traditional fishing waters by power stations and industry, and the more complex result of the privatization of the world’s fisheries.

A slide from Eric Holt-Giménez. Credit: Carla Capalbo

A slide from Eric Holt-Giménez. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Brett Tolley, a fourth-generation fisherman from New England and community organizer of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), explained: “The real tsunami is a global strategy to transform fisheries policy from publicly managed access into privatized property, effectively displacing independent family fishermen, putting enormous pressure on the marine environment, and ultimately turning fish into commodities for the international market. This is often done in the name of conserving fishing stocks, but the results can be disastrous for small-scale fishing communities.”

Only through sharing knowledge and solidarity can today’s Davids — be they family farmers or indigenous fishing communities — hope to stand up to the food world’s Goliaths. In this battle, Terra Madre is a great place to start.

Main photo: Alice Waters sits between Carlo Petrini and Naseegh Jaffer in the front row at Terra Madre’s opening ceremony. The person in red behind Waters is a food maker from Colombia who is in traditional dress. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

When Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, the global grassroots nonprofit association, launched the “1,000 Food Gardens in Africa” project in 2012, he could never have imagined that within two years the project would have doubled its results and increased its goals tenfold.

“We’ve already launched 2,000 gardens, and are now aiming for 10,000 to be established by 2016 in all 52 countries of the continent,” says Slow Food International vice president Edie Mukiibi, from Uganda, who has coordinated the project. (Californian chef and activist Alice Waters is the association’s other vice president).

Mukiibi was speaking at Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial five-day event which, with Salone del Gusto, is underway in Turin, Italy. Both are open to the public. Terra Madre is a global network of food-producing communities from more than 150 countries worldwide, and this year it brought hundreds of representatives from 2,500 of those communities to Piedmont to meet, share knowledge and exchange ideas.

Mukiibi explains how the African gardens project has been able to increase so fast: “We’ve set up a network using local radio stations and mobile phones to spread the word about the importance of this project in remote parts of the country.” The objectives of the gardens are practical, symbolic and political.

“We have a heavy responsibility to lift Africa from where it now is,” he continues. “Africa is an old continent in terms of its creation but now it has the energy and fresh ideas of its youthful population. This gives us lots of opportunities. Our generation has access to communications and education so we must act and react against industrial farming’s brainwashing. Biodiversity and sustainability must be priorities in the fight against the monocultures of the cynical, market-driven corporations that are trying to dominate the world of agriculture.”

Gardens benefit families and communities

The food gardens follow different models. The largest, of several acres, are community gardens, worked on by many members of a local tribe or village. Family food gardens are also being established wherever possible to increase self-sufficiency. School gardens are another important part of the project. As Alice Waters, who has long led the fight to put school lunch on the curriculum in the U.S. and to create food gardens in schools, says: “Food gardens breathe life into education.”

At the African Food Gardens conference at Terra Madre, many Africans shared stories about their experiences. Moudane Hassan, from Somalia, explained that his people were originally nomadic camel herders who had never traditionally planted vegetables.

“We now have 54 gardens in Somalia, of which 19 are in schools and 24 in communities,” he said. “They are helping us get improve nutrition and free ourselves from dependence on international food aid.”

Julie Cissé, an activist from Senegal and founder of GIPS/WAR (a group of initiatives for social progress in an area called War), has another inspiring story to tell. She runs a network of 300 women who work the land.

“We’ve battled for women to become owners of the land they work, and we’ve had to ask permission for this from our elders and local administrators. We’ve even lobbied government.

“Our most effective argument is to explain that we want to re-create the kinds of vegetable gardens our grandmothers had, and that strikes a chord even with the most macho of men,” she says.

“We believe in sustainability, in farming the land without chemicals and pesticides or genetically modified crops. Now the men see just how productive we are, and how much we are bringing in as food and resources, and they are enthusiastic.”

The Senegal gardens are either family gardens of around 150 square yards, or much bigger, 15-acre community gardens on which up to 120 women may work. Slow Food helps by providing access to technical support and, in some cases, sponsorship from companies and individuals abroad.

Illustration of the "one woman, one chicken coop" concept.  Credit: Carla Capalbo

Illustration of the “one woman, one chicken coop” concept. Credit: Carla Capalbo

The group also came up with an innovative solution for city women and for those who have lost plots to land-grabbing but who want to produce food. Called “One woman, one chicken crate,” it involves wooden crates that are 1.7 square yards. The women can keep chickens in the crate and use the top to grow a vegetable.

“A crate or two can always be fitted into a courtyard or alley and provide the women with a source of healthy vitamins while supplementing the family income,” Cissé says.

Mukiibi agrees: “Our grandfathers fought for independence. We too must stand up and fight malnutrition and the neo-colonialism of land-grabbing and imposed monocultures. Let’s support the biodiversity of our food to save African gastronomy. Start by spreading the word.”

He might have added that this doesn’t apply only to Africa: Planting food gardens in our own schools, communities and backyards can turn the tide on junk-food wastelands and the health problems they are creating everywhere.

Top photo: Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

The demographics of the United States reflect an increasingly global world, and so do the demographics of our farm operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the nearly complete Agriculture Census for 2012, a database that is completed every five years.


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership.

Part 2: Female farmers of color.

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos.

With each update to the census, the type of statistical information available increases, in particular in the area of farmers of color. Yet, a simple Google search on basic statistics and stories about Native American farmers or African-American female farmers, for example, uncovers few detailed stories.

More often than not, the information that can be found is about those who dominate the agriculture industry — white male farm operators. Numbers often determine what and who is covered in depth. But equally true is that this country has a long history of institutional exclusion and racism against Native American and African-American farmers, other farmers of color and women. Yet it is Native American and African-American farmers and their ecological knowledge of farming traditions that built this country.

Data on farmers of color in the United States

In the United States, the vast majority of farmers continue to be white men, but the number of farmers of color is increasing.

More than 80% of all principal farm operators in the U.S. — the person primarily responsible for the on-site, day-to-day operation of a farm or ranch, as defined by the USDA — are white men (1.7 million out of a total of 2.1 million), according to the 2012 Census. Of the total principal operators nationwide, 95 percent are white, including 96% of male farmers and 93% of female farmers.


Picture 1 of 3

Credit: Sarah Khan

Between 2007 and 2012 — the period included in the 2012 Agriculture Census — every category of minority principal farm operators increased. Latinos farmers increased significantly, followed by American Indian, African-American, Asian, multiracial and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.

Where are these farmers of color — in what states and counties do they farm? This series of  four informational maps shows the top five states where farmers of color – Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian — are growing roots by county and state.


Credit: Sarah Khan


Credit: Sarah Khan


Credit: Sarah Khan


Credit: Sarah Khan

Historical exclusion of farmers

Civil rights abuses in USDA state offices existed from the agency’s inception, based on a 1997 USDA-commissioned investigation,”Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” and the General Accounting Office’s 2008 report “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.” More recently, the nation witnessed the Pigford I and II settlements, class-action racial discrimination lawsuits filed by black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid between 1981and 1996. Many farmers included in the settlement are still awaiting disbursement.

The Pigford settlements, which lately have been mired in accusations of fraud, highlight the country’s ongoing divisive stance about race and reparations. Meanwhile, other groups, including Latino, Native American and female farmers are seeking compensation and awaiting judgment or payment.

To quell growing discontent about reporting civil rights complaints, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack produced a civil rights fact sheet on “USDA Accomplishments 2009-2012.” As of July 2014, the USDA has announced grants to help veteran and farmers of color get started in the industry. Despite these efforts, a profound distrust of USDA offices and officials continues.

Reparations and the white environmental movement

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a piece on “The Case for Reparations” in the May 2014 issue of Atlantic. Coates begins by explaining how government programs, instituted from the end of slavery to the present, systematically denied, stole or swindled African-Americans out of their land and home ownership.

In June 2014, Carolyn Finney, a geographer at the University of California Berkeley, published Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans to the Great Outdoors in which she redefines African-Americans’ long and profound relationship to the environmental movement, though it has largely been invisible or ignored. Through her own family’s story of land dispossession and those of others, Finney has collected the stories of unseen pioneering African-Americans and their diverse connection and commitment to the great outdoors. Her research reinserts African Americans back into the predominantly white environmental movement narrative in the United States.

And finally, the Green 2.0 Working Group published The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies in June. The report concluded that a green ceiling for people of color; unconscious bias, discrimination, and insular recruiting practices; and a lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity still exist in environmental organizations across the country.

Finney’s book, Coates’ article and The State of Diversity In Environmental Organizations Report reveal a historical context that have allowed exclusion to persist to this day. Both Finney and Coates begin and end with land ownership and dispossession, and both elegantly shine a light on African-Americans and other people of color. They make visible the invisible, and they make people of color the main story.

Main photo: Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Pyale Paşa Bostan, a market garden in Istanbul.

The purple skin of the Kavak fig is so thin that the fruit can be eaten whole, without peeling — and so fragile that it cannot be transported long distances. One of the few places this Istanbul delicacy is grown is a small market garden (known as a bostan in Turkish) in Rümeli Kavağı, a windswept waterfront settlement near where the Bosphorus Strait opens into the Black Sea.

“It’s probably the last historical bostan along the Bosphorus, just 100 meters from the water. It’s registered as green space, but threatened with development because of the third Bosphorus bridge being built nearby,” explains Aleksandar Sopov, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies who is researching Istanbul’s Ottoman-era agriculture.

Fruits and vegetables were once widely grown within city limits, with many neighborhoods becoming well known for their specialty produce. Istanbul old-timers still wax poetic about the flavorful romaine lettuce of Yedikule, near the Byzantine city walls; the fragrant strawberries grown in the Bosphorus village of Arnavutköy; and the cucumbers from Çengelköy, along the Asian side of the strait, and from Langa, now part of the gritty central-city Aksaray neighborhood.

As recently as 1900, historical sources indicate, Istanbul was home to more than 1,200 market gardens covering as many as 12 square kilometers. Today, most have been plowed under and paved over — and most of those that remain face the threat of a similar fate. But the wheels of urbanization and development that began churning vigorously in the 1970s and 1980s have more recently also spurred a grass-roots resurgence in urban food growing.

Volunteers at the Tarlataban community garden. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Volunteers at the Tarlataban community garden. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

The Tarlataban garden in the Rümeli Hisarı neighborhood was among the first in this new wave.

“When a Starbucks was opened at Boğazici University, there was a protest against the increasing food prices and commercialization on campus and some of us said, ‘Let’s see if we can grow our own food instead,’ ” garden volunteer Pınar Ercan recalls as she sits on a tarp picking chard seeds from a stack of dried stalks and gathering them in a jar. “We didn’t know if we could do it or not.”

Three years later, the small plot of land on a woody, remote corner of the university campus supplies produce to a student-run collective kitchen and serves as a laboratory for seed saving, composting and other sustainability initiatives. From a distance, the growing area looks like a wild tangle of plants, but move in closer and bright purple eggplants, red tomatoes and green peppers emerge from their vines, while robust melon and squash flourish in the undergrowth. (Crop diversity and rotation are notable characteristics of traditional bostan, which typically yield 15 to 20 different types of produce a year.)

A small group of volunteers tends the Tarlataban garden each week using techniques derived from the environmentally friendly practice of permaculture. Learning as they go, they have recently been sharing the knowledge they have acquired with students from other local universities who want to start similar projects on their campuses.

Demonstrations spur urban gardening projects

Istanbul’s new urban-gardening movement got a dramatic boost last year, when mass protests broke out in response to the threatened destruction of a centrally located green space to make way for a shopping mall. During the week or so that demonstrators occupied Gezi Park, some of them planted a small vegetable garden along its northern edge. After the park was cleared by police, similar gardens began to pop up around the city.

“Many places were cultivated after Gezi — empty plots of land owned by city municipalities and often threatened by development,” Sopov says.

In the Cihangir neighborhood, a short walk from Gezi Park, the Roma Bostan sits on a vacant hillside with a million-dollar view of the city, next to a staircase often crowded with young beer drinkers and littered with the broken bottles they leave behind. A sign on the fence surrounding its cornstalks and cabbage heads reads: “In the summer of 2013, this area was cleared of garbage for the first time. The soil was treated, planting beds created, and vegetables and healing herbs planted from local seeds. … It is kept alive by the collective effort of neighborhood residents. We await your support to keep it clean and protected. …”

Across the water, on the Asian side of the city, residents of the Kadıköy district have rallied, so far successfully, to keep their postage-stamp-sized Moda Gezi Bostan from being covered with asphalt for a parking lot.

“It’s all totally free — people plant and take whatever they want,” says a local who ambles up to chat with a visitor.

Small in scale and tended by hobbyists, these community plots can’t make up for the destruction of the historical bostan whose gardeners passed down a lifetime of knowledge from one generation to the next and fed the city for so many years with the produce they grew to sell at local markets. But the Tarlataban garden’s Ercan and others hope they might just be able to point Istanbul in a new direction.

“We understood after Gezi that we can be an example,” she says. “We’re trying to make what we need for ourselves, and the garden is a way to show people a more sustainable model for living.”

Main photo: Piyale Paşa Bostan in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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