Giuseppe Li Rosi

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INTERVIEW WITH Giuseppe Li Rosi
(Terre Frumentarie, Sicilian Farmer;  http://www.terrefrumentarie.it/Terre e Tradizioni, Member and President; http://www.terretradizioni.it/)
 
Premise
Since the second half of the nineteenth century, humanity has observed a dangerous loss of agricultural biodiversity, not only in terms of  cultivated species (inter-specific biodiversity) but also in terms of existing varieties within the same species (intra-specific biodiversity). The use of a limited number of uniformed agricultural plant species, in defense of an industrialized and centralized high yield agricultural model,  has led to a fatal genetic flattening of the seeds.  This process can’t ensure the genetic diversity needed to address the following future challenges: climate change, population increase, resistance to new diseases and insects. 
Why is humanity  pursuing an agricultural model based on the homogenisation of seeds? Why is it important to protect the biodiversity of seeds? What are “native seeds”? What kind of benefits could rise from a sustainable agriculture based on the principle of free seed sharing? Giuseppe Li Rosi, a Sicilian farmer who is dedicating his life to the organic cultivation of Sicily’s ancient grains, answered to these and other questions.
 
Giuseppe Li Rosi: Giuseppe Li Rosi is a Sicilian farmer; he run the farm, "Terre Frumentarie". After a degree in “languages”, he has changed his life, devoting it to agriculture; he is  leading the family’s company that has a story of three generations. Li Rosi’s farm is very peculiar: he is growing ancient Sicilian grains with organic method; he has done it for about ten years, with the intent to protect them from extinction and enhance biodiversity. Giuseppe Li Rosi cultivates cereals and then sell or distribute them and their derived product at a local, national and international level. He was president of the Stazione Sperimentale di Granicoltura di Caltagirone, a research center which houses 49 ecotypes of local Sicilian grains. He is the main character of the documentary film "La clé de la cité du volley grain" (The stolen key of the city of grain) produced in Belgium by Jean -Christophe Lamy and Jean - Paul Vranken

Terre Frumentarie: The farm "Terre Frumentarie" is located in Raddusa, in Sicily, between the provinces of Catania and Enna. The farm covers an area of 210 acres of land that is at about 350 meters over the sea level ; this land is exclusively managed with organic techniques. Giuseppe Li Rosi, the owner, has dedicated most of Terre Frimentarie’s land to the cultivation of Sicilian ancient grains; in particular Terre Frumentarie focuses on five kind of grains:: Margherito (also called Bidi), Timilia, Senatore Cappelli, farro lungo or Strazzavisazz, and the wheat Maiorca. There are also five acres of prickly pear and an olive grove. Moreover, the farm has been housing, since 2004, a field experimental catalog of 5,000 square meters, set up and managed by the Stazione Sperimentale di Granicoltura di Caltagirone, in which 40-50 varieties of indigenous grains are preserved.


INTERVIEW - (May 2014)
The interview was realized in May 2014 and published in July 2014 - (Our translation on the original interview in Italian)
Subject: ancient seeds and biodiversity, ancient Sicilian seeds, seeds laws and local seeds, "liquid agriculture" and new agricultural models

 
Question 1: You are the founder of the Sicilian farm "Terre Frumentarie". This farm is very peculiar:  instead of growing modern commercial grains, it grows Sicilian ancient grains, using traditional and environmentally friendly methods. Can you better explain what’s the core business of your company? What made you decide to use this peculiar agricultural model instead of the industrial ones?

Answer
:
My decision to produce only local Sicilian grains and enhance agricultural biodiversity in my lands has strongly shaped Terre Frumentarie’s activities. These activities now basically consist of three elements: 1) make the populations of wheat distinct from each other; 2) use traditional techniques to enhance genetic improvements; 3) make our products marketable.
Therefore, firstly, I had to resume practices such as the “Ammannato  and the ”epurazione(purge), which  are selection or cleaning techniques aimed at  conserving the characteristics of the distinct populations of wheat, preventing them from the contamination from other varieties or species. Secondly, I had to allocate part of the land to traditional experiments (not made in laboratory) for genetic improvement, those used by  farmers over thousands of years to thrive and develop an extraordinary biodiversity. Finally, I had to go a step forward: transform the crop into finished marketable products and catch funds for the activity of biodiversity preservation. I always say that "biodiversity must be eaten to be saved."
What dragged me into this “relatively” “new world” was a child reading: "Terra, pianeta che sanguina" (Earth, the planet that bleeds) by Teresio Bosco, 1972. This book impressed me so much as a child that, when I became adult, I realized that agriculture is one of the fundamental pillars for the preservation of life on Earth. I realized that industrialized production systems derived by “the Green Revolution” are destructive for both lands and farming families. They are a dangerous attack against the whole humanity.
 

Question
2: What are the main differences between ancient grains and the commercial ones and why consumers should prefer flour and products made from ancient grains? What kinds of ancient grains do you grow in your farm?

Answer
:
Using local seed grains or any other local plant species is like entering a totally different world. It is like observing the agricultural reality through other eyes; you live in a different way. “You don’t destroy anything”; you do respect land, air, insects, birds, bacteria, microbial flora, and yourself. You produce less (yields per hectare are halved), but you extract more nutrients from the earth: the sole of the ancient grains is higher and their deep roots reach minerals, not reachable by modern commercial wheat. In other words, yours are higher-quality products. But there is another important factor which make ancient grains preferable for consumers: “gluten”; their gluten does not cause digestive problems; we have been eating these grains for thousands of years and our gut enzymes can digest its molecules without assimilation problems. Many people, with Gluten Sensitivity, declare that, by eating products made from local grains, don’t have digestive problems.
So what grains do we grow? We cultivate the Timilia, that is a very special  grain and is very versatile: with it, we can make pasta, bread as well as cakes and biscuits. We also grow the Majorca wheat and Strazzavisazzi, which seems to be the oldest in Sicily.
 

Question
3: Due to your work, you are often referred to as the "Guardian of Seeds". Apart from market objectives, why, in your opinion, it is so important to protect ancient and native seeds? Since you started your activity, have you observed a loss of agricultural biodiversity? What are the causes?
 
Answer:
Biodiversity is the result of a planetary experience based on millions of years of changes and evolution. It is the container of all codes necessary for the production of food. Thanks to its infinite number of variables, it's the only insurance against climate change (the higher biodiversity, the higher is the adaptability to climate change). Biodiversity is more precious than any other treasure. Its preservation is one of the most important conditions for the survival of life on this planet. In our daily life, each of us put great care in guarding the keys of his house and the code of his credit card, or in protecting his children from any pains, because his children represent his future. Well, we should know that “biodiversity is the future of all humanity”.
But biodiversity means also freedom and food sovereignty, and these two concepts clash with the interests of those few big corporations (men) who want to make money by monopolizing the food and agricultural markets. These corporations are trying to marginalize natural models of production, accusing them of failure and inadequacy. They have pushed all European governments in issuing laws against traditional production systems and, together with universities, they are strengthening the use of chemicals in agriculture. They are strengthening two systems of mass destruction: nitrate ammonium and herbicides.
 

Question 4
: Currently, what is the situation in Italy about native seeds? Are there any other companies like yours? What’s the trend: towards a further standardization of seeds or a return to tradition and biodiversity? Are there differences between North and South Italy?

Answer
:
Well, in Italy we are observing a “big awakening”. Concern with the environment and sustainable agriculture is no longer an isolated issue and a reverence for nature is growing in both the countryside and cities. Many farmers are introducing hard and soft grains, as well as, a great variety of fruit plants and animals in their activity. They are becoming more inclined to biodiversity. Meetings and courses on sustainable/biodynamic agriculture and permaculture are proliferating day by day and several groups of young people are developing urban gardens; in short, the concept of healthy agriculture is also penetrating cities.
Something is changing also at a policy level. “Recover the contact with the countryside.” That is one of the objective of the European Union’s policies. Over the past 60 years, we have forgotten how much Nature is important for us; We have to understand that Nature is the only place where modernity can be developed!
So, are there other farms which grow ancient grains? Yes, and many other are going to start. As for our experience, we are a farm very inclined to networking. We have  given our support to other 35 farms in Sicily; now they use Timilia seeds in about 500 hectares; we have also involved two processing companies (for making products) and two institutions as the University of Palermo and the Agriculture Station of Caltagirone (in our experimental activities). In the Agriculture Station of Caltagirone we are growing “germ-plasm” to be used by farms that want to make products for the market. Using ancient grains and the practice of seed sharing reflect what all farmers want: “more freedom in managing their business!”
On the contrary, big corporations (expression of few interests) are now the only subjects which push for standardized seeds; they want to convince both farmers and consumers that their system represent the best solution to solve future production problems; but that is not true: in reality theirs are old and inadequate systems. They are going to flop; their systems are economically and environmentally unsustainable: 1 industrial agricultural farm closes every 20 minutes!
Are there differences between North and South Italy?
Therefore, we are observing a return to biodiversity-based agricultural models. In this process I don’t see any substantial differences between North and South Italy: throughout the entire Italian territory there is a growing enthusiasm. However, it is worthwhile to highlight that Italy and in particular Southern Italy are a great source of Biodiversity: Italy owns 50% of all the European biodiversity and Sicily 50% of Italian biodiversity (that is a quarter of European Union’s total biodiversity). Therefore, South Italy is the land where a new process can start: a process which restore genetic resources, to be spread in as many farms as possible; a process that can oppose the  development of those bad practices, like the use of foreign hybrids and GMOs that are destroying our agricultural biodiversity.
 

Question
5: Vandana Shiva in India has created several “seed banks” in the context of the project “Navdanya”. Can you explain to us what is "seed sharing"? Do you Know experiences like this in Italy?

Answer
:
In India, multinational companies have caused serious problems to agriculture; the establishment of industrial systems, based on the adoption of chemicals and GMOs, has seriously limited the use of local seeds and has caused hundreds of suicides among poor farmers. Vandana Shiva has created a movement which defends the rights of farmers and supports the liberalization and sharing of local seeds. In Italy, Navdanya International is going to establish a memorandum of understanding to create the Bank of seeds, the University of the Earth or the Festival of peri-urban agriculture.
Moreover, in Italy there is a working group, called Semi Rural Network (in operation since 15 years ago); it is recognized at the national and European level and is a member of the European Coordination for Farmers Seeds. With its daily work and strong capabilities, it has supported the recovery of biodiversity, first of all by enhancing the practice of seed sharing.
Besides, some Italian regions seems to be very sensitive to the theme of biodiversity. Six regions, including Sicily, have a regional law for the protection and enhancement of agricultural diversity; there are special commissions which receive applications for the registration of endangered varieties that need to be endorsed and spread. (note: I was one of the main supporters for the realization of the Commission in Sicily when I was in charge of the Special Commission for the Stazione di Granicoltura).
 

Question 6
: International laws that rule the properties on seed varieties (i.g. the UPOV Convention and  the TRIPS), together with international trade agreements and lobbying activities from agribusiness corporations (which want to monopolize seed and food markets) are seriously threatening small farmers, especially in India and Latin America (where several local riots and judicial trials have occurred). Have all these factors also affected Italy’s farmers? In particular, in which way have these factors affected your farm?
  
Answer:
The European Union (EU) has enacted a seed law that favor industrial agriculture; indeed, according to this law, EU funds for agriculture can be delivered exclusively to farms that use seed varieties registered in national seed lists. Such seeds do not belong to biodiversity; they belong to corporations, private seed companies or universities! Accordingly, using local seeds does mean losing European funds.
Moreover, the purchase price of registered seeds includes the payment of royalties used to fund research centers. Finally, even a ban has been placed on the use of local varieties. The final results are: 1) seed varieties not recognized in national registers are disappearing; 2) the “millennial” practice of seed sharing between farmers is now “illegal.” Now, only seeds coming from "lab-genetic improvements" can be sold; plants coming from such seeds need to be "pumped" with chemical fertilizers and defended from the "weeds" (read nature) through the use of phyto-sanitary products (read poisons).
Therefore, my decision to use local varieties clashed with these laws; in other words, I’m a "criminal". But, working in absentia has only slowed down the development of my business: it has not stopped nor diverted it. But...
 
 
Question 7: Often, patented seeds and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are considered the path to the "future", the main solution to the following challenges: how to feed a growing population and how to face climate change. Can local seeds and a larger biodiversity better address these issues?

Answer
:
The growing global population (and the debate on the capability to feed it) has given room to build the “Nova Planetary Fear”; now big corporations are taking advantage of this fear; they are proposing GMOs as the most appropriate solution to that problem. They are creating a new market in order to make stable profits. But what do GMOs really represent?  They are nothing more than the exaltation of patent seeds; they are an attempt to overcome the failure of the patented seeds and the Green Revolution, which have disconnected farmers from nature and built an agriculture extremely vulnerable to climate change. Researchers are searching the solutions to this failure into the DNA of plants rather than by deepening the knowledge in how Nature really works. GMOs are not the answer to agricultural sustainability. GMOs have already caused strong damages in Argentina (financial crisis in the nineties), in India (erosion of biodiversity and mass suicides) and so on.
Actually, the way to sustain agriculture lies in the knowledge of Rural Civilizations, now obscured by an “overwhelming and arrogant science” which has built its “poetic methods” by using “only 5%” of the immense Peasant knowledge. Let’s stop for a moment and try to give an answer to the following questions: How did our ancestors preserve agriculture’s capacity over the past 9000 years? Have they relied on some research centers to tame wild plants? How did they create thousands of varieties of apples, wheat, rice, bean, each of them suitable for every microclimate or soil? Now there is only one variety for hundreds of latitudes and it depends on therapeutic methods from the agricultural science to survive. Scientist are looking for homogeneity, standardization and certification. That is a big mistake. It is not coherent with Natural principles; “Nature” is the expression of diversity, variability, evolution; Nature takes changing shapes: its shape is like that of a fire! Therefore, the first step towards sustainability is to understand these clear differences between industrial and natural principles in agriculture. Only by adopting models respectful of natural principles, we can effectively address the needs of a growing population. In my opinion, those men who are looking for a solution different from this one “are not earth-men.”
 

Question
8: Several studies (see the Report of the United Nations, Trade and Environment Review 2013) state that small-scale farmers and the return to traditional agriculture are the only way for an environmentally sustainable agriculture and to feed the growing population. What do you propose in order to promote a return to traditional agriculture and support small-scale farmers around the world and especially in Italy?
 
Answer:
Let’s me talk about my last innovative experience, thanks to which my farm was used as a case study by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Three years ago I started to adopt a method for genetic improvements completely opposed to those adopted by modern science; it is called “Evolutionary Genetic Improvement": it uses a mixture of 5,000 varieties and thousands of crossbreeds in order to cause the propagation of variants. This large diversity have all the elements needed for making a seed suitable to any fields in any parts of the world. By adopting this method, within a short period of time, the production capacity grows by 50% and become more resistant (thanks to its higher adaptability) to climate change. We also call this method “Liquid Agriculture”, as it adapts to the farm as a liquid to the shape of its container. So, a sustainable agriculture needs the “right seeds” and an “higher awareness” of the land.
Then, there is the question of market; firms that doesn’t have marketable products cannot exist. In that sense, the demand side plays an important role: consumers should ask for healthy products and be ready to spend more for them. The problem is that industry has pushed down both the price and the quality of products and now consumers are accustomed to spend less. They should be made in condition to understand the value behind eating higher-quality (and healthier) products. By this way, they will recognize a premium price to such products.
 

Question
9: Currently, many people are rediscovering the importance of agriculture and looking for a sustainable lifestyle, that is in harmony with natural cycles. A new phenomena is emerging: many young graduates are coming back to agriculture. That was also your path. What advice would you give to these new generation of young farmers?

Answer
:
Young farmers should have the "thirst" for knowledge! They should, for a time, turn off internet and go in search of “elderly farmers”, those who hold the knowledge that cannot be found in books. In fact, much of the agricultural knowledge belongs to oral traditions, often neglected by academic institutions and modern science. So, “Go in search of the agricultural history; Look for the vocation of your territory!” That is the most important message I want to give to this new generation of young farmers. During this research process, they will certainly find the starting point of their own story, their mission, their own role on this planet. It is true, during their pattern they will have some problems, but I think that those people who have the strength to come back to agriculture, also have the energy for facing those problems. However, my final message is the following: “Consider yourself as a small thing in a bigger project; try to interactively collaborate with the forces that stand behind (and govern) Nature. Then, Nature will compensate you!”
 

Question
10: What are your plans for the future?

Answer
:
In Sicily, we have already created a network of 35 companies for the production of local genetic resources. In Tuscany we have started a similar project, while in Friuli and Marche studies are already in place in order to bring there our experience. Our plans also include a beautiful project in Lesotho, in its ten provinces; there we are going to introduce the "Evolutionary Genetic Improvement" (EPB) in order to recover the wheat production capacity severely damaged by climate change; the revenues of this initiative will be allocated to social projects. The model is simple: draw on local genetic resources from germ-plasm banks and spread them throughout the territory. Ultimately, what we are trying to do is to improve and refine our “Liquid Agriculture” method; we want to create a new agricultural model which can be applied at a global level. “We want to sow, propagate and evolve!”