Saving Permanent Meadows

16 September 2023

Not all pastures are created equal.

Despite being complex ecosystems with which humans interact, there is a substantial difference between cultivated, fertilized, and regularly mowed pastures and permanent meadows.

The latter are regularly grazed by animals and are often found in high mountain regions, appearing as if they are a part of a natural landscape. In reality, even these permanent meadows are maintained thanks to human intervention. Indeed, without human intervention, these terrains would slowly give way to tree species and become woodland.

The reasons for preserving and saving these permanent meadows were discussed during the conference held on the first day of Cheese, which was dedicated to the topic, which serves as the overarching theme of this year’s edition of the event.

Where are the permanent meadows found in Europe, and what are they used for?

To put the scope of the issue into perspective, it’s worth noting the data presented by Giampiero Lombardi, a professor at the Department of Agricultural, Forestry, and Food Sciences at the University of Turin. Permanent meadows in Europe cover an area as vast as the entire country of France, accounting for 35% of the total agricultural land. A significant portion of these pastures are found in the United Kingdom and Ireland. These pastures are of human origin, created centuries ago through deforestation and controlled fires set by humans to replace forests with grassy surfaces. And today’s meadows are only maintained through human activities, such as mowing and grazing.

What are they used for? They primarily produce fodder for herbivores, but they also provide ecosystem services. They facilitate carbon storage, which is crucial in combating the climate crisis, and maintain plant, animal, and microbial biodiversity, contributing to water purification.

Animals that graze on permanent meadows produce food at a more cost-effective rate compared to animals kept in confinement and fed on cereals, and protein-rich feeds. That’s not all: dairy products from pasture-raised animals are healthier, as they are richer in beneficial substances like polyphenols and have an optimal ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 compared to industrial cheeses.

A resource under threat

This extraordinary resource is under threat. The land area of permanent meadows has decreased over the last 50 to 60 years for various reasons: they have been replaced by rotational agriculture and converted into arable land (a practice which is now prohibited). Many farmers and herders have abandoned mountain regions, while urbanization in the lowlands has resulted in the expansion of parking lots, shopping centers, and roads on pastures. Climate change also poses a risk to the survival of permanent meadows as droughts and irregular precipitation patterns have a severe impact.

It is worthwhile saving these landscapes. That’s precisely what the Lattebusche cooperative has been doing in rugged area of the Dolomite foothills. The cooperative’s manager, Antonio Bortoli, explains: “We gathered all the producers together and expressed our desire to initiate an organic conversion project. We transitioned from traditional to organic pasture management, paying more for the milk. Today, we produce high-altitude organic milk and yogurt. The difference in taste and protein quality between this milk and milk from conventionally-raised animals is enormous, thanks to their diverse diet. The defense of these pastures and the farmers who work on them is essential for the health of this mountain region.”

Slow Food Italy launches a petition

Fortunately, permanent meadows are resilient landscapes. They can be maintained and restored. That’s why Slow Food has launched a manifesto and petition to Save Permanent Meadows, which you can sign here (note: currently only available in Italian).

Carlo Petrini at the inauguration of Cheese 2023. Photo: Alessandro Vargiu

Caring for Stable Pastures and Supporting Those Who Do It Right

But how do we actually protect stable pastures? Through care. Stable pastures are not plowed, sown, or treated with synthetic chemicals, but they are not wild either. They cannot be abandoned; they must be managed, requiring attention and expertise. They are part of a delicate agro-silvo-pastoral ecosystem in which humans and animals work together. Herders are an essential part of this system, tending to pastures and haymaking, living in the mountains.

Yet herders need to earn a sufficient income, otherwise, understandably, nobody will continue doing this job for passion alone. “Politics has a duty to support those who do good work,” said Slow Food’s founder, Carlo Petrini, at the inauguration of Cheese 2023. “Virtuous behaviors must be rewarded fairly. We can no longer talk about quality without paying for it, boasting that we’re the best in the world and playing the price-cutting game instead. The right to quality belongs to everyone, and we have an obligation to recognize its true value. The work that pastoralists do in caring for the ecosystem and revitalizing areas incorrectly labeled as “marginal” is priceless.”

“Slow Food is committed to mapping permanent meadows in Italy, and to providing consumers with tools to identify the products that originate from them,” added President of Slow Food Italy, Barbara Nappini. “We urge institutions to make these permanent meadows accessible to young people, to improve services in rural areas, and to facilitate their work.”

by Paola Nano, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

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