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Of hearts and minds: the example of social agriculture in Italy at the European Parliament

23 October 2018

If you have not heard of social agriculture and social farming, it is high time to catch up, because in some European countries like Italy they have been around for half a century already.

Whether you cherish Mother Earth or you cannot leave the skyscrapers not even for one minute; whether you are a country mouse or a city mouse and you would never swap places like the two animals do in Aesop’s fable, it is undeniable that we all need the countryside, the products of agriculture and farming that we consume. However, some particular vegetables, fruits, cheeses or jams have a background, layers of efforts, and stories of emancipation that are worth telling. Sometimes what the work in agriculture brings to people is not only its delicious and crucial products: in some extraordinary places, agriculture and farming bring dignity, a new identity and a very meaningful feeling of belonging to those who work on the land.

If you have not heard of social agriculture and social farming, it is high time to catch up, because in some European countries like Italy they have been around for half a century already.

With thousands of social cooperatives active in agriculture and farming, Italy is the leading example in Europe when it comes to social inclusion of marginalised people through these activities. Among all enterprises recognised as social agriculture firms, 46% of them are social cooperatives, which means that they commit to hiring people coming from very vulnerable backgrounds: former convicts, people with intellectual disabilities, refugees, and people struggling with addiction. One of the first cooperatives ever active in social farming was founded by Franco Basaglia, the father of democratic psychiatry and the promoter of the abolishment of the mental hospitals in Italy. More recent examples involve cooperators challenging directly the issue of organised crime since many agriculture and farming social cooperatives work on the lands confiscated to mafia bosses, concretely owning back what organised crime has taken away from the citizens and the State.

Often in a virtuous system involving cooperatives, suppliers, local governments and healthcare services, the people involved in the social agriculture and farming are proven to be healthier and are capable of delivering high-quality products into the marketplace. Social agriculture and farming are enterprises, not charitable NGOs: in order to be profitable and cost-effective they need their products to be competitive and their workers to be competent and knowledgeable. Their success is indeed the proof that a link between entrepreneurship and the engagement of the most vulnerable ones is possible. Not only that: if coordinated with the relevant actors, this link represents an opportunity for a new life of dignity keeping together economic value (the enterprise is financially viable), human value (personal and collective emancipation of marginalised people), and cultural value (relationships with consumers to accompany them towards the purchase of environmentally and socially sustainable products).

Social agriculture and social farming were indeed the topic of a meeting hosted by MEPs Elena Gentile, Paolo De Castro and Roberto Gualtieri (S&D, Italy) on the 17th of October 2018 in the European Parliament in Brussels where civil society organisations, local grassroots actors and CECOP were invited to contribute to the discussion.

Among other guests, Ms Ilaria Signoriello from the Euro+Med Agri Network mentioned that examples of social agriculture and farming similar to the Italian model are present in Portugal, Czech Republic and Hungary.

At the presence of distinguished officials of the European Commission, our CECOP President Giuseppe Guerini, former President of Federsolidarietà, took the floor to address a topic he has mastered for a very long time given the expertise of our Italian members in the field of agriculture and farming social cooperatives.

Mr Guerini highlighted the importance of economic biodiversity, stating that only a society fostering and promoting a variety of economic models can be a thriving one. In reaction to the local actors, who intervened in the meeting putting forward their touching experience with individual emancipation of the “last ones” through social agriculture and farming, Mr Guerini called for a stronger alliance between social agriculture and farming cooperatives and the public decision-makers stressing out the health and economic benefits of supporting people when they exit poverty, get an opportunity to work, prove their value in spite of their disability or supposed weakness, get a second chance in life.