Three ingredients and a world of biodiversity

15 September 2023

Few other products in Italian food culture boast a “complex simplicity” like cheese. Milk, rennet, and salt: these three simple ingredients, processed in a thousand different ways, represent an extraordinary example of gastronomic and biological diversity.

At Cheese, the international event organized by Slow Food in Bra, Italy, from September 15-18, there are hundreds of different cheeses on offer, not just from across Italy but 14 other countries, too. What sets them apart is the use of raw milk, rennet, and salt, all crafted by the skilled hands of expert cheese makers who, in the vast majority of cases, are also the far,ers responsible for raising the animals, leading them to pasture, taking them to the mountains in the summer, milking them multiple times a day, and nurturing a deep connection with the environment and the biodiversity of the land.

The Biodiversity of Cheese

Producing cheese means talking about biodiversity, from breeding to aging, beginning with where the animals live and what they eat. This is why every step must be carefully followed if we want to talk about products which represent a community and break free from the standardization of the agribusiness.

The intensive model of animal farming is not sustainable. Land consumption, water usage, groundwater pollution, disposal of sewage sludge, the market for high-impact animal feed production and transportation—it all takes a toll. Furthermore, this milk often comes from selected breeds, severing any connection between the product, the land, and the community of farmers and cheesemakers. It becomes solely an industrial product, with a significant environmental impact.

Yet the alternative survives. Responsible livestock systems can be sustainable, and even part of the badly-needed ecological transition. There are powerful tool at our disposal, like permanent meadows, which play a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance within the framework of farming.

Permanent meadows are covered in a variety of plant species. The more species they contain, the greater the biodiversity available for the animals that feed on them, whether in the barn or directly in the pasture. This also promotes soil permeability, which is particularly useful in preventing landslides and avalanches. In both the mountains and plains, permanent meadows make a real social and ecological difference.

Herders, meadows and animals in equilibrium

In upland areas, we witness a gradual migration of rural communities, leading to the abandonment of the land and the encroachment of uncontrolled woodland. In the lowlands, industrial agriculture has replaced the meadows, resulting in a significant loss of fertility and a range of ecological imbalances. In Italy, we have lost nearly half of our grasslands in half a century, but this process is visible the world over. Conserving this resource is a necessity if we are to address the increasing need for ecosystemic balance in which both plant and animal biodiversity play a crucial role. It’s also part of preserving the extraordinary rural landscape which symbolizes the coexistence of the agricultural ecosystem and nature, where farmers and herders are custodians of an inestimable cultural and environmental heritage.

In a permanent meadow, animals feed on biodiversity and return this value through a nutrient-rich product: their milk. Humans and animals may thereby work together to preserve the fertility of the land, prevent geological instability, and improve soil quality.

Permanent meadows mitigate the climate crisis

Thanks to the permanent vegetation cover and biodiversity of permanent meadows, they have a greater capacity to drain surface water, reducing the risk of stagnation and runoff. This makes them more resistant to erosion and landslides. But above all, permanent meadows are an incredible tool for combating the climate crisis, thanks to their significant carbon-sequestration capacity, which remains locked in as long as the grassland is managed correctly. The carbon absorbed from the atmosphere and transferred to the soil through plants becomes the foundation for enhancing the microorganisms, bacteria, fungi, and microfauna that form the soil’s fertility.

We are witnessing a progressive loss of soil fertility due to industrial agriculture and models tied to synthetic chemicals, which significantly impact the effectiveness of the microbial network. By conserving permanent meadows, we support an ecological transition that become even more tangible where there is a shift the focus away from monocultural and industrial models and back towards models where biodiversity plays a primary role.

by Francesco Sottile, member of the Board of Slow Food

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

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