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"Farmers are cool". When the sign is held up, it is greeted by a mixed response of laughter, applause and words of approval from the public. That farmers are cool is acknowledged by everyone here at We Feed The Planet - Terra Madre Giovani, the Slow Food event that has attracted 2500 young people from all over the world to Milan, comprising farmers, stock-breeders, chefs and producers.
All of the meetings are interpreted in various languages of course but you just need to walk between one room and another to grasp that language differences are only of marginal importance here. There is a 17 year old female student from Ecuador who collaborates with Slow Food in her town and, despite her jet lag, smiles at everyone. There are two farmers from Kyrghyzstan, who speak no English but have brought to Milan the dried fruit they produce together with all the toil behind their (excellent) raisins and walnuts, managing to explain it perfect well without words. Then there is Rohit Jain, who works on a collective farm in Rajasthan alongside another 148 farmers, engaged in direct sales. Moira Samson, a Scottish farmer is there to say “It’s great to see there are lots of other young farmers like me. It’s good to know they exist, that we exist”.
Hacking the Future of Food was one of the most interesting moments of this densely packed and well attended four day event. A workshop open to everyone in which the participants were divided up into teams and faced with the challenge of finding a solution “to the main problems of the food industry”. After which, an expert panel of judges selected three ideas to be presented in two weeks’ time at the Expo Innovation Challenge (with the possibility to win 20,000 Euros and six months’ incubation and monitoring with technical entrepreneurs).
Among the projects, an e-commerce business dealing in products on the agricultural market, to be set up on a highly technological platform thanks to which it is possible, for instance, to visualize a map of the market and shop “virtually” at the stalls; Indie Farmer, a sort of "air bnb for farmers" enabling visitors to visit farms, take part in events and post reviews; a system for sharing and teaching new farming methods such as aquaponics. Whether they win or not, the lingering sensation was one of “Yes, we can!” of Melbrooksian recollections: the new generation of farmers knows all about sharing economy systems, it has grown up with the Internet and has often studied at university what their parents learned on the field.
"This is the first time since the Industrial Revolution that the trend has been inverted. We are experiencing a paradigmatic change: young people are going back to the country”, says Ludovico Roccatello (Slow Food Biodiversity Foundation) during the meeting on the topic, How marginal food production feeds the world. The importance of "marginal" food production was highlighted by various examples of small producers with an extraordinary capacity for resilience and sustainability, but thwarted by the present food system.
Such as terraced farming, a "heroic form of agriculture" with a great capacity to limit the erosion of land, or products – meat, milk, leather – of those populations engaged in sheep and goat farming: "Shepherds and the like never appear in international talks on food policies, but they account for more than 200 million people” explains Yon Fernandez de Larrinoa (FAO) "They are left out of the food system. And yet, by supporting their work, we prevent the disappearance of a universal heritage, made up of animals and plants that would simple vanish. The Great Irish Famine of the 1800s would not have been so tragic, if they had cultivated crops other than potatoes. Tomorrow’s food will be fruit of biodiversity not monocultures”. Then he goes on to quote a figure that embodies the significance of We Feed the Planet: "In 2050, 70% of the population will live in the city. So, who will feed all of these people? Who will produce, grow and breed?". I look around the room and hope the answer is to be found with these young people surrounding me.