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Catia Bastioli: The synergy between the bioeconomy and food

Sustainability / -

Catia Bastioli
Catia Bastioli

Catia Bastioli is a leading figure in the field of sustainability both in Italy and in Europe. As CEO of Novamont, the company that developed Mater-Bi, Bastioli tells us what the future holds for bioplastics in agriculture and food.

The European bioeconomy is worth two trillion euros and employs over 22 million people. In addition, for every one thousand tons of bioplastics, 60 new jobs can be created. What are the dynamics in this sector?
The bioplastic supply chain is very complex. Bioplastics are made up of many components. We have tried to break down the products and create new technologies for each individual component. Unlike oil, from which it is possible to obtain a fixed amount of hydrocarbons, for bioplastics there are many types of intermediate components that require different technologies. Various raw materials can be used to create bioplastics, such as first- and second-generation sugars that can be extracted from a range of plants. To do that, we have to carry out further studies into our natural resources because our knowledge is currently limited to just a few crops that are grown on a large-scale.
 
You have said that, "the future is in the connection between businesses and the land, between industry and agriculture". What does this mean?
The bioeconomy is intimately linked to the land. You need to look at the sustainability of the area to come up with a strategy. For example, it is important to know how much space an area has in which you want to build a factory. This is exactly what we did at Matrica, in Sardinia. We analyzed the mistakes that had been made in the past, the difficulties that we encountered in an area that had been torn apart for years. It was for this reason that they needed more effort and support to be able to start again. Because heritage is important.
 
Let’s go back to Matrica, an example of using local crops, such as thistles, that do not compete with food crops.
It’s not only the thistle in Sardinia that doesn’t compete with food crops, but Matrica also gives new life to degraded land, one that is full of rocks, land that would otherwise not be cultivated as it’s economically unsustainable.
 
This looks like an interesting way forward. Are you able to outline the dilemma between energy crops and food crops and Novamont's position on this?
A fundamental need of the bioeconomy is that the soil, water and air must not be damaged in any way, because these represent the natural resources on which it is based. Destroying these resources means destroying the economy itself. We need to focus on supply chains that respect the sustainability of the land. Only then is biomass sustainable.
 
The bioeconomy is a way to regenerate the land, and efficiently use the available resources. You can’t apply the oil production chain to the production of biomass or you'll risk anomalies, as we've seen with the expropriation of land with the small-scale farmers in Africa. The bioeconomy can not be like this. There can be no competition with food crops, just synergy.
 
What other raw materials are you exploring for the bioplastics of the future?
We are also assessing food waste. There are products and materials that are currently not worth exploiting but that, with innovative technologies, research, and ethics together with transparency, legality and other key concepts of the bioeconomy, can also become economically sustainable.
 
Speaking of waste, an example that closely concerns you is Milan, a city that has managed to reach, in just a short space of time, 90 kilograms of organic waste collected per capita, thanks in part to the biodegradable bags that your company is producing.
Organic waste is a real masterpiece. The engineers who implemented the separate waste collection in San Francisco, one of the most advanced cities in this field, were stunned by the results and the plants. Milan is a European and global example of which we should be proud, and an important calling card for Expo Milano 2015. Novamont’s biodegradable shopping bag is a symbol. This bag frees us from the problem of pollution caused by old-style plastic bags and helps Italy eliminate organic waste from landfill.
 
In Italy, the use of bioplastics for shopping carrier bags is well-known, but it would be interesting to know what uses you are proposing for the food industry.
We have looked to develop applications that are still linked to organic waste, eliminating any possible problems. There is a part dedicated to catering. We’ve been able to create materials for injection molding, such as the rigid materials used for cutlery, that can also be used for printing smartphone packaging. These materials have a greater mechanical strength and at a higher temperature than polystyrene, but are able to biodegrade through normal composting.
 
For food packaging, we are able to offer a wide range of biodegradable transparent film, which can have a number of different uses: from food packaging to sheeting for mulching. Unfortunately, while these new products are an important reality, it’s difficult to reach the market via the intermediaries, which makes distribution difficult.
 
2015 is a pivotal year for sustainability. For a start, there is Expo Milano 2015.
The Expo needs to be the impetus for Italy to become the country we want it to be. I would like it to be represented as a new model for development. We need to bring together the best of our country because maintaining the status quo makes no sense. Italy must put sustainability and efficiency at the center, with food as a key element, as well as legality and transparency. New quality standards should emerge from Expo.
 
You are also president of Terna and the Kyoto Club. What do you expect from the UN climate conference in Paris?
There is a need to increase targets on reducing CO2 because we now need to move quickly, we need companies to be inspired by new models that create jobs. I hope that, through the Kyoto Club, it will be possible to bring new life to this field and reduce our impact on the climate.
 

Slavery and food chains. 3,5 million of slaves behind the food on our table

Culture / -

© Gideon Mendel_Corbis

On the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery proclaimed by the UN, we take a look at a phenomenon that is still alive yet hidden behind what we eat. It is an invitation to reflect on who brings food to our tables: to eat consciously we must give it our attention.

Slave trade, ocean crossings on ships from one continent to another: men, women and children who are denied their freedom and their dignity. The concept of slavery is connected to the past, to vivid imagery, tales and novels. Yet there is no question of a phenomenon that is over and done with. Far from it. It has taken on a variety of forms and moves which are not always so easy to detect. It pervades our daily life, afflicting people of all ages, sex and race: the ownership of human beings, forced labor, exploitation of labor for paying off a debt, the trafficking of children and women, domestic slavery and forced prostitution are just some of the examples through which slavery rears its head in the modern world. According to the new report of the Global Slavery Index 2014, produced by the Australian Walk Free Foundation, which examines 167 countries, about 30 million people in the world live in a state of slavery.
 
"No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." These are the words contained in the fourth article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document on individual rights that for the first time addressed all people of the world, signed in Paris on December 10, 1948, and its preparation promoted by the United Nations. News stories show that these words are ignored on a daily basis around the world, especially with regard to agricultural work and child labor.
 
The slaves behind what we eat
Agriculture, forestry and fisheries, according to the report of the International Labor Organization Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour  in 2014, employs globally about 1.3 billion workers, or half of the workforce in the world. Of this number of workers it is estimated that 3.5 million people work as slaves: in many countries, in fact, agricultural work is mostly unregulated and the legal protection of workers is very weak or absent. Often behind the food that arrives on our plates there are seasonal workers who work in conditions that disregard every rule, every human dignity.
 
 
Where you least expect it
A few years ago the Rosarno case hit the headlines in Italy: migrant workers in harvesting citrus fruits were living in conditions of exploitation, forced to live in degrading conditions, without any sanitation. Amnesty International Italia has compiled Lavoro sfruttato due anni dopo, research that is precisely that, an update on the situation of migrant workers employed as laborers and revealing wages below the minimum wage negotiated between companies and unions, late or missed payments and long working hours.
 
This phenomenon is not just about Italy: just take an example of what is happening in the state of Michigan, the largest producer of blueberries in the United States. Children, mostly immigrants from Mexico, are exploited in the fields to harvest fruits because they have small hands, which are better suited to picking the delicate fruit.
 
The documentary Food Chains, directed by Sanjay Rawal and narrated by Forest Whitaker, presents the situation of farm workers in Florida. Tomato pickers live in a state of modern slavery: they have to work in shifts of nine hours for a salary that is around $40. The fast movements of the film are not a special effect, but the actual pace of work of those picking 480 kilograms of tomatoes a day and, as one of the workers in the film declares, living "like animals in cramped quarters".
 

Laura Safer Espinoza. A penny more for tomatoes, in order to save the women in the fields

Economy / -

Laura Safer Espinoza intervista

With a penny more per pound of tomatoes we can eliminate abuse, rape and crimes against workers. This is the key message of the Fair Food Program, an agreement that links farmers from Florida, tomato producers and buyers’ associations, thanks to which much of the abuse suffered by workers in fields has been eradicated. This is why Bill Clinton first, and later Barack Obama decided to recognize the programme monitored by judge Laura Safer Espinoza.

Many big American chains have already joined the Fair Food Program, a binding agreement between the Florida Tomato Growers association and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Its purpose is to guarantee better payments and acceptable work conditions to the workers in the fields, eliminating critical situations that can even include sexual violence. The partnership between workers, property owners and buyers is supervised by the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC).
 
Taco Bell and Walmart are some of the big companies that have already subscribed, accepting to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes that come from the agricultural enterprises which respect the CIW program. Laura Safer Espinoza, former judge of the Supreme Court of New York, is the director of the Fair Food Standards Council. And she states: "I feel it is an honor, a privilege, to be part of a moment in history in which buyers, property owners and workers come together to correct a historical injustice. How many people can say the same thing, in their lifetime?"
 
One of the vehicles of the Fair Food Program is education. What are the conditions that prompt the initiative? 
We start from the fact that today many workers in the fields are still not educated, or even literate. Through our program, with information and videos that describe what should happen in agricultural companies, we help to raise the workers’ awareness about their rights. Cooperating with various associations that help us to monitor the situation of the farmers is also important for us. Everybody needs to know that there is a program that can help put an end to abuse, and when we receive reports about what is happening, this means that people have become aware.
 
The fact that critical situations have also been indentifed in a State like Florida, in communities of immigrants from Latin America might seem surprising... 
And not only in the wealthy state of Florida, with its beautiful beaches. Our program is expanding to other States of the US. Our commitment is now above all to beat human trafficking, again by adopting an approach that aims to eliminate abuse. This approach has in some cases resulted in the confiscation of the lands from the owners responsible for this abuse.
 
How is the Fair Food Program structured, how does it work?
I have had direct experience of women and men who cultivate the food we eat but who, for various circumstantial reasons, are unable to sustain themselves or their family, even if they are surrounded by food all day. This is why the Fair Food Program was created, and it is structured to enable the buyers of agricultural products, including no less than thirteen of the major corporations, to buy only from agricultural companies that respect a behavioral code in relation to basic civil rights and minimum wages. Even by paying one penny per pound more, no less than 20 million dollars have been given to those who cultivate the land, in order to let them provide food for their families.
 
What thoughts are raised by a convention like this one by Valore D, the Women's Forum Italy 2015, where the themes are food, energy, equality, with many other concrete projects? 
Being familiar with the conditions in which food is produced is as important as having it; and as important as ensuring that there is enough for everyone. Considering the role that women already have as mothers, teachers, wives, it is no surprise that here in Milan so many of them have come together, with decision-making roles, capable of making new decisions.
 
Emma Bonino has talked about the diversity of women as a source of energy. What have you learned about the strength of women, in your job as a judge for more than twenty years, that could be useful for the new generations? 
What I could say to young women is not to stop at titles and labels, but to follow your own mind and passion. It has never been a problem for me to go personally into the fields to verify in person the conditions of the workers, among strain and discomfort, because thanks to my association I could help them recover their dignity. One of the best things I remember is when I would meet the children of the people we were helping… I can say this, invest in what you believe in.
 
This meeting takes place as part of the Women’s Weeks organized by WE-Women for Expo. Is this program the right way to create a valuable heritage also for future Universal Expositions?
Yes, I believe that it is. I think that when women unite, they transmit respect, energy, they introduce a new way of seeing things. I think that it would be marvelous to see this also in the future Expositions. I have seen women working in the fields, women who have experienced a past of rape, suffering and negation of civil rights, and who are now able to claim their right to life and to dignity. I think that my version of what I have seen, and the versions of the other speakers who joined me in taking to the stage, are the voices the world needs to hear.
 
It seems as if your appeal also goes beyond the theme of food. 
Absolutely. On every front of social justice women are in the front line.
 

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