Professor, Farmer and Author Philip Ackerman-Leist Discusses How One European Town was Able to Push Back Against Pesticides, Big Apple to Save Their Traditions.
In A Precautionary Tale Philip Ackerman-Leist tells the story of “how a group of unwitting activists in the small town of Mals, high in the Italian Alps, came together to confront the pesticide-intensive apple industry that sought to take over their valley, only to become the world’s first pesticide-free township.”
He stumbled into the story in 2014 while leading an agricultural study tour for graduate students in the South Tirol, the autonomous German-speaking province where Mals (pronounced Mahltz) is located. Currently he is bringing lessons and inspiration from Mals to activist gatherings around the world, from Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya Foundation’s celebration of poison-free communities in the Himalayas to a Europe-wide meeting of leaders in the Pesticide-Free Towns campaign in Brussels.
Ackerman-Leist’s association with the South Tirol spans 35 years, and he speaks the Tirolean dialect, giving him a unique perspective on this story. In the early 1990s he managed the vineyards and orchards at Brunnenburg Castle and Agricultural Museum for almost four years. As a young man in North Carolina, where his grandfather, a plant pathology professor, developed pesticide spray programs for southeastern fruit growers, he worked on conventional farms.
Currently a professor of Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems at Green Mountain College in Vermont, Ackerman-Leist developed the college’s undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture as well as the nation’s first online graduate program in sustainable food systems. Both have become top programs at the liberal arts college.
He first came to GMC in the late 1990s to start the on-campus Cerridwen Farm, which has grown from a half-acre organic garden into a 23-acre organic livestock and vegetable farm where students produce and process food for the college and community.
Ackerman-Leist and his wife Erin manage a grass-based herd of 30 to 60 Milking Devons and grow produce for their family at UpTunket Farm. He is the author of a memoir about the farm, Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader (2010) as well as Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems (2013).
Interviewed by Tracy Frisch
Banning Harmful Pesticides
ACRES U.S.A. Your new book, A Precautionary Tale, documents the inspiring story of how people in a small agricultural town in the Southern Alps achieved the unimaginable. Is Mals really the first municipality in the world to ban pesticides?
PHILIP ACKERMAN-LEIST. We haven’t found any other place that has utilized a public referendum in order to ban all pesticides. If there is another community that has, we’re happy to know about it.
ACRES U.S.A. What’s the setting for this remarkable feat of citizen action?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Mals is a township comprised of 11 different villages, the largest of which is called Mals. Since the town is at the nexus point of Switzerland, Austria and Italy, it has always been at the confluence of cultures, with the potential for conflicts between different ethnic groups.
ACRES U.S.A. If we flew over the town in a helicopter, what would we see?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. You would be totally blown away. The low-lying villages in Mals are at about 1,000 meters or just over 3,000 feet, and the highest village is at about 1,700 meters or close to 5,500 feet. That’s one of the highest elevations at which people in Europe have historically grown grains. For the Alps the valley is broad and flat. With 300 days of sunshine, it’s also the driest in the Alps. Some people consider it to be the equivalent of a steppe region. Although it’s dry, for now there’s plenty of water coming from the glaciers and the higher elevations. With such a dry climate and access to irrigation, the valley is ideal for growing apples, certain other fruits and also many other forms of agriculture.
ACRES U.S.A. When I was reading the book, it took me a while to figure out what country it was taking place in.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The South Tirol region was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I, the Americans accepted the Italian nationalists’ version of a map of modern Italy based on the southern and northern watersheds, and the region was ceded to Italy as part of the bait for joining the allies. But the people kept their allegiance to their Austro-Hungarian heritage and the German language. In the 1920s under the fascists, the Italian government took over the lower areas of the South Tirol where the railways, post offices, banks and other infrastructure were located. At much higher elevations farmers were able to maintain their independence and culture to a pretty astonishing degree.
ACRES U.S.A. Do the people speak both Italian and German?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Now you will find more people that can and readily do speak Italian. But when I first went there in the ’80s, the old farmers especially were reticent to speak Italian because it was the colonizers’ language. But now the UN considers the region to be a model for resolving ethnic conflict.
ACRES U.S.A. What’s the population of South Tirol?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Around 530,000.
ACRES U.S.A. What first brought you to this region and why did you keep going back?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. I grew up in North Carolina, mostly in the eastern part around cotton, tobacco and other commodity crops. As a college student in 1983, I was fortunate to go to Brunnenburg Castle and Agricultural Museum in the South Tirol and study with Siegfried de Rachewiltz. He’s an expert on the agricultural traditions of the area and has been a lifelong mentor for me. The South Tirol is the first place where I encountered an agriculture that made sense and appealed to me. Its agriculture is diversified in a way that you’re hard-pressed to find in the United States. On these steep slopes people have somehow eked out their sustenance for 30 or 35 generations while maintaining the soils and their agricultural craft. In 1987 I took a group of students to Brunnenburg Castle. Then from 1990 until 1994, I lived there. After six months, the farmer died of a heart attack, so I took over the management of the farm. It consisted of vineyards and orchards and involved spraying pesticides. Though I had been around pesticides, I had never liked them, but I was hard-pressed to find examples of successful organic agriculture fruit production.
ACRES U.S.A. What should we know about the agricultural heritage of Mals?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. For several centuries Mals was considered the breadbasket of the Tirol, and the grains grown at its high elevations on its rich soils were revered. Going back to the Habsburg Empire, the Vatican and the royal family in England used the grains of Mals. Fortunately, agriculture in Mals is still diversified. Dairy farmers generally milk eight to a dozen cows, though some farms are as large as 25 or 30 milk cows. They may ship the milk or create a value-added product. Farmers typically had an apple tree or two and perhaps other fruit trees and grew a lot of their own vegetables.
ACRES U.S.A. Describe the livestock and traditional food ways in Mals.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. A lot of the cattle belong to heritage breeds. They tend to be smaller, stockier animals with big hooves and really thick bones. Their low center of gravity is good for dealing with those slopes. In the summer the cattle graze at elevations up to more than 2,500 meters (8,000 feet). They also have traditional breeds of goats, sheep, pigs and poultry. The South Tirol has a very rich tradition of charcuterie. Speck, which some people call Tirolean bacon, originated there. It’s cold-smoked — traditionally in home ovens with Kaminwurzen (chimney sausages) where the cool smoke comes out at 80 or 90 degrees. Now some butcher shops there have replicated it.
ACRES U.S.A. What is the connection with ancient grains?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. It all goes back to the Iceman, as he is known internationally. The Iceman’s body, tools and garments were discovered in 1993 under a glacier not far from Mals, in nearly perfect condition — which is stunning, since he died 5,300 years ago! So these people have more than five millennia of documented traditions in grain growing, and farmers there still produce the types of grain that were found with the Iceman — einkorn, emmer, spelt, barley and millet. Rye was probably brought to the region in the Middle Ages, when the Bavarians came in.
ACRES U.S.A. One might guess that the South Tirol would be a rural backwater, but the people there seem to have a level of sophistication and awareness about the world.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The people of South Tirol are deeply rooted to place and culture, yet they’re certainly aware of the broader world. The church made literacy important. While the eldest son inherits the farm in order to keep the family property intact, other brothers and sisters who’ve gone out into the world beyond South Tirol very often come back with fresh perspectives.
ACRES U.S.A. Given the traditional character of the agriculture in this town, it’s surprising that this region uses more pesticides per hectare than any other part of Italy. What’s going on?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Fortunately, Mals hasn’t been subjected to that onslaught quite yet, but 42 kilograms of pesticide product per hectare is the average annual usage in communities further down in the valley. That’s an extraordinary 90-plus pounds per hectare or around 35 pounds per acre.
ACRES U.S.A. How did pesticides come to be a new threat to the people, agriculture and environment?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The region has historically been devoid of monocultures. For example, they’ve grown grains in rotations as part a farm’s whole enterprise. Apples though have become very profitable in the rest of the South Tirol, where farmers are netting between 25,000 and more than 40,000 euros per hectare. (The Euro’s value is currently at $1.20.) And farmers there do not pay income tax. That was a progressive idea until suddenly farmers become so wealthy. Now that those farmers growing apples further down in the valley have made a lot of money, they’re able to purchase the land in Mals. It’s basically land-grabbing. Climate is another factor. With warmer temperatures, suddenly Mals has become prime territory for apples. Farmers can buy land fairly cheaply, put in apples and make a small fortune. Growing apples in Mals 20 or 30 years ago was pretty much unheard of, except for a couple of trees around your house, because late freezes made it too unpredictable.
ACRES U.S.A. I was surprised by how small these farms are. In the United States it would be very rare for an apple grower to make their living with a 3- or 4-acre orchard.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. They adopted the slender tree trellis method developed by the Dutch, who are known for their efficiency. Then they built the markets. Their farmers’ cooperatives were very effective at building a brand. They encouraged the Russians and everyone around Europe to buy their apples. Now, if you buy an apple in Europe, you have a one in seven chance that it comes from the South Tirol. They did a lot of things that we can admire.
ACRES U.S.A. What features characterize this very controlled method of apple growing?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The dwarf trees on the trellis make it more efficient to use drip irrigation and more efficient to spray, prune and harvest. Instead of buying hail insurance, farmers often buy hail nets, which pay for themselves in two to three years. The nets also minimize bird damage and their dark color prevents sunscald. In the end what you have are monocultures — and also a monolithic landscape. Where once even the mountainsides showed off a wonderful, diversified agriculture — now you see concrete posts, chain-link fences, hail nets and trellises all over the place.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m guessing that pollinators wouldn’t survive on their own in this pesticide-laden environment. Do the growers have to bring in bees?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Ironically, the beekeepers haven’t yet stood up to the apple growers because they’re so dependent upon the orchards, and they might be put out of business.
ACRES U.S.A. How much land does the apple industry have in the region?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. About 19,000 hectares — nearly 47,000 acres.
ACRES U.S.A. Where does the labor for the apples come from?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The farmers are very heavily involved and in most cases they’re still the foremen, but for pruning, and especially for the harvest, they tend to hire Eastern Europeans and some North Africans.
ACRES U.S.A. It sounds like people have a lot of incentive to start growing apples.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The net profit is much higher than dairy farming where you have to take care of the animals twice a day and always be there. With apples there are months when you don’t have to do anything so it’s pretty appealing. Some landowners and farmers in Mals decided to go into apples.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m curious why you call the apple industry there “Big Apple.”
ACKERMAN-LEIST. I have to give Douglas Gayeton at “The Lexicon of Sustainability” credit for that. He said, “Let’s call them Big Apple,” because it’s sort of equivalent to our big ag.
ACRES U.S.A. How did you come to collaborate with “The Lexicon?”
ACKERMAN-LEIST. When I stumbled into the story in 2014, I was blown away that the citizens of Mals were willing to take a stand on the pesticide question. I had always loved this crown jewel of villages at the upper end of the Vinschgau Valley. In that valley I had sprayed pesticides, and I knew how important these agrichemicals were to the fruit industry. To see these people taking such a brave stance amid this cultural paradigm, I felt that the story had to be told in a sophisticated way. I couldn’t do that on my own, so I invited Douglas Gayeton from “The Lexicon of Sustainability” to begin documenting it with me. We’ve spent about three years working on this project. We’re trying to document it in as many ways as possible. Douglas says it’s important for activists to be platform agnostic to reach as many audiences as possible.
ACRES U.S.A. In other words, don’t just do the book, don’t just do the film. Do a website. Do exhibits.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. And that also gives the story multiple lives.
ACRES U.S.A. How did you first discover this story?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. In 2014 I was taking a graduate student group to this region to explore turning traditions into markets. A few days before the study tour began my friend Brigitte told me that they were doing a referendum in Mals to ban all pesticides. I was sure she was joking. Then I thought someone must have concocted the whole idea, since there was no way it was going to happen. We changed the study tour schedule and went up to Mals to meet with one of the provocateurs that was pushing the referendum forward. He spent two hours with us recounting their progress to date. From that day on, I haven’t been able to stop digging into the story.
ACRES U.S.A. How had they gotten to that point?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. In this kind of story there tends to be a canary in the coalmine. Günther Wallnöfer had turned the family farm into an organic dairy in 2001. In 2009, he saw two apple orchards being planted beside his hayfields. He realized that the 3-meter buffer required by law between spraying on one farm and the crops of another farm was not going to protect his hay.
ACRES U.S.A. Only 10 feet!
ACKERMAN-LEIST. You can’t even turn your tractor around in a 10-foot radius! In 2010, Günther had his first cutting of hay analyzed. Sure enough, it was tainted, as were the second and third cuttings. He told the mayor that they had to do something. All dairy farmers, conventional and organic, were affected. And the grain growers and anyone growing organic herbs or vegetables were going to face this same thing. He reminded the mayor that they were trying to be a sustainable community and market themselves that way and therefore they were all in trouble.
ACRES U.S.A. You wrote about an herb farm.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The Gluderer family is further down in the valley, midway up. Within a couple of years of starting their organic herb business, they were totally surrounded by apple orchards. They had been an apple-growing family who cut down all of their apple trees except for one as a reminder. Urban, the father, started the organic herb business. He no longer wanted to be a conventional apple grower. He had been working with psychologically disabled adults and after he learned how to farm organically from a mentor decided that an organic herb business made a lot of sense. But confronting pesticide drift from every direction, they spent a quarter of a million dollars on greenhouses to cover everything under cultivation. They left some display gardens uncovered on the perimeter so that people would know what was underneath.
ACRES U.S.A. Wouldn’t it be too hot in the greenhouses for summer production?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. It’s brutal. They try to ventilate, but in the middle of summer days it’s miserable. If they have to, they put the sides down to protect against pesticide drift. Whenever it rains, they have to make sure the water that sheds off of the greenhouses goes off the farm because the runoff is considered toxic. Not only can’t they consume or sell anything in the display gardens; they also have to dispose of it off-site because of the pesticide residues. They’re a 15-minute car drive from Mals.
ACRES U.S.A. So they were like a sentinel and they spoke up. Did they ask government officials to intervene?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The Gluderers spoke to government officials in the provincial capital and never got an adequate response. When the mayor of Mals found out about the predicament Günther was in he asked provincial and local government officials to do something. They said they’d establish two test orchards in Mals to monitor pesticide drift. What they didn’t tell him is that they would be trialing new fruit varieties there. Much to the dismay of the folks there, they put in those new research orchards. They talked about changing the buffer laws, but nothing happened. In the end, however, the small parcel sizes worked to the Malsers’ advantage.
ACRES U.S.A. How does their concept of property rights differ from ours in the United Sates?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The idea is you have the right to do as you wish on your own land until it impacts your neighbors. They took that notion from the philosopher Emmanuel Kant and interpreted it. It’s a long-standing tradition in agriculture there and important as an ethical idea, but it has also permeated some of their legal system.
ACRES U.S.A. Would that also apply to things like terrible smells, runoff or toxic leaching?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. In Germany, some hotel owners have even made a claim against the sound of cowbells! It can go both ways.
ACRES U.S.A. I recall that some of the dairy farmers in Mals walk their cows down village streets?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. In some cases the rights of way go back not just centuries, but millennia. Hiking trails and biking paths go through or adjacent to orchards. The intersection of public property and private property ensures that you’ll have drift issues.
ACRES U.S.A. I suppose that means people coming on vacation may walk through clouds of pesticides.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Exactly. Are you on a vacation or a spraycation?
ACRES U.S.A. In the U.S. people talk about the right not to be impacted by someone else’s pesticide application, which has been called chemical trespass, but I don’t believe that it’s enshrined in our laws.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Chemical trespass refers to involuntary exposure to pesticides or other toxins of a person or their property. The issue is popping up in the U.S. media right now — both in agricultural settings and in residential and public areas. In agricultural areas, there was a lot of discussion last summer and again this year about several very toxic agricultural pesticides — chlorpyrifos, dicamba and 2,4-D. A neurotoxin, chlorpyrifos, is particularly dangerous to children and seemed to be on its way out until the Trump administration again allowed its use. Dicamba and 2,4-D are two herbicides that are both highly toxic and prone to drift but were sprayed on commodity crops a lot last year.
ACRES U.S.A. On the 2,4-D and dicamba-resistant crops that Monsanto introduced to counter super weeds that can tolerate glyphosate.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Right. And in residential and public areas there is a swell of resistance to the use of glyphosate — the primary ingredient in Roundup — the weed weapon of choice on lawns, in parks and even around schools. As the scientific evidence against glyphosate has mounted — despite the best efforts of Monsanto and allies to suppress it — parents have become the change agents as they’ve realized that we’re poisoning our children, our pets and our futures, even when there are other options.
ACRES U.S.A. In Mals the organic dairy farmer whose hayfields were contaminated with pesticides wasn’t left to deal with it by himself. What factors led concern about the threat of pesticide-intensive agriculture expanding into Mals to grow beyond a few affected farm families?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. In a valley that has a wind bearing its name, the Vinschgerwind, drift is such a significant issue that people knew no one is immune. Since the parcel sizes are so small, everyone realized they were in jeopardy in some fashion, whether through their personal health, the quality of their food, or their drinking water. Also the medical community very quickly stepped in. When the town pharmacist, town veterinarian and town pediatrician are all aligned, you suddenly had a power to be reckoned with.
ACRES U.S.A. In the United States where most pharmacists work for chain pharmacies, hospitals or other big corporations, I can’t imagine many pharmacists sticking their necks out on pesticide issues. Were these outspoken individuals in independent practices?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Yes, they were both independent and independently minded. Johannes, the pharmacist, was officially elected as the spokesperson of the citizens group. His pharmacy is located on the town square of the biggest village, where the farmers’ market takes place every week. He said, “As an independent pharmacist in a small village, you’re not just the person giving out prescriptions. You’re taking in information about people and their issues. You’re everything rolled into one — the Red Cross, the counselor, and the first aid supplier.” As the town chemist, he understands the dose makes the poison. “When I see something jeopardizing the population here, which is coming in tiny increments, just in the same way the medicine I give out is prescribed in tiny increments, there’s no way that I see that as appropriate.”
ACRES U.S.A. I would question the idea that the dose makes the poison. For instance, some endocrine-disrupting chemicals are more toxic and biologically active at lower doses.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Johannes didn’t just stick with the dose makes the poison argument. He very much believes that we don’t have a good appreciation of the effects of combinations of these active ingredients. Similarly, Dr. Irene Witte, one of the toxicologists the citizens group brought in, talks about the combinative effects. She said sometimes they’re synergistic and sometimes they’re antagonistic — in many cases, you would not have ever expected what they do in tandem. Johannes says, “We’ve got all of these unknowns. We don’t know what the single active ingredients do. We don’t know what the combination does, and we don’t have any clue what’s going on with the so-called ‘inert,’ or inactive ingredients.”
ACRES U.S.A. That’s a great lead-in for the precautionary principle.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The precautionary principle was a driving force and a theme for the campaign. The citizens of Mals felt that it wasn’t their job to prove that these pesticides were dangerous. They put the burden of proof on the manufacturers to demonstrate that their products are safe, but even the manufacturers don’t have that information. The manufacturers seldom have truly independent science documenting the safety of the active ingredients. And it’s impossible scientifically to figure out the impacts of all of the combinations of pesticide products.
ACRES U.S.A. Where did the precautionary principle come from?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. It came out of two prominent conferences. The Rio Declaration was issued in 1992, and the Wingspread statement in 1998. The Rio Declaration tried to understand sustainability and assess how to move forward. While it was an excellent early step in promoting the precautionary principle, it emphasized the potential economic consequences of implementing the precautionary principle. In a subtle but important contrast, the Wingspread statement veered away from the “cost-effective measures” language used by the Rio Declaration in favor of a purer form of precaution in which economic considerations don’t derail efforts to do the right thing.
ACRES U.S.A. Does the precautionary principle have a place in issues of pesticide policy and chemical regulation in the European Union?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The EU has embraced the precautionary principle. In fact, the folks that I talked to with the Pesticide Action Network UK are really concerned about Brexit. Without EU-driven regulations, they risk losing the guidance of the precautionary principle. In contrast, the U.S. has probably been the most forceful of any industrialized country in pushing back against the precautionary principle.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m confused. Although they have the precautionary principle, some of the European regulatory agencies can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that glyphosate, as a probably carcinogen, needs to be phased out or banned. There have been some steps forward with neonicotinoids, but some categories of neonics are still allowed. Are we seeing precautionary principle light?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. That’s an excellent point. My understanding is that the precautionary principle is embraced pretty strongly by most of the EU regulatory organizations as a guiding philosophical tenet, but when it comes to specific chemicals and research, the chemical industry and their in-pocket researchers are sometimes fairly effective in allaying concerns put forward by independent science. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) assessment of glyphosate was making a lot of headway in the EU until the German minister of agriculture sabotaged that vote back in the fall. France now seems to be moving independently to ban glyphosate, and Germany seems poised to do the same.
ACRES U.S.A. In the United States, do any of our regulatory agencies recognize the precautionary principle?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Generally not. It’s total anathema to the corporate chemical world. Discussions have occurred with the EPA, but they never seem to go anywhere. But people in California have told me that their state government uses the precautionary principle to some degree.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m guessing they’re referring to California’s Proposition 65, which requires warning labels for products containing carcinogens. How did the agrochemical sector and the apple industry fight back? In most situations they seem to control the narrative, but here they did not.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. There is no evidence that the agrochemical industry was directly involved there, but they didn’t have to. The apple growers, through the provincial government and the South Tirol Farmers’ Association, had plenty of power themselves in the region. However, neither “the Apple Lobby,” nor the provincial officials took the Malsers seriously in the early days of the campaign. As Peter, the veterinarian said, “They thought we were a bunch of green crazies.” That was Big Apple’s first mistake. When they finally figured out that the Malsers were not only serious, but also savvy, they started to pour on the heat. They have continually exerted significant political pressure on Ulrich, the mayor, who is a member of the region’s main political party. They began a media counter-offensive with posters, conferences and websites. It got really ugly and it still is. Farmers destroyed Johannes’ garden and desecrated his family’s graves. There were threats of physical harm and even death against Johannes and others. The South Tirol Farmers’ Association has helped pay the legal fees for any farmer who sues Johannes, the mayor, or the town council for their actions.
ACRES U.S.A. Was there a lawsuit?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Yes. Multiple lawsuits. Some farmers took the legality of the referendum to court. A judge ruled that the referendum was illegal because an advocacy group sponsored it. The Malsers saw that as a technicality. But the ordinances for a pesticide-free Mals were not overturned. They went into effect on April 1st of this year so this is the first summer.
ACRES U.S.A. When was the referendum passed?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. It was held from August to September 2014. It passed by 76 percent, which was astounding. They tried to make sure the referendum couldn’t be challenged. The mayor and town council couldn’t speak about it during the polling period. Residents could vote in three ways, in the town hall during business hours, in a 24-hour box, or with an absentee ballot.
ACRES U.S.A. Were people worried that the referendum might fail?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Prior to the referendum, Peter, the veterinarian, and his environmental group hired a polling company to see if people would support a pesticide-free future. Almost 80 percent of the respondents indicated that they would, but the activists had a hard time believing that most of the people would actually vote for it. Soon after the referendum, Mayor Ulrich Veith was re-elected by a three-quarters majority. The numbers are stable.
ACRES U.S.A. As I understand it, the citizens’ approval of the referendum wasn’t sufficient to stop pesticide use in Mals. Voters alone couldn’t change the law.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. About a year and a half before the referendum, Ulrich, the mayor, had very shrewdly talked to the town council about creating a new policy whereby it would have to consider any referendum proposed and passed by the people. That didn’t make it a binding referendum with a predetermined outcome.
ACRES U.S.A. In other words, the town had to address it, but they didn’t have to approve it?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Yes — and once the referendum passed, it took more than a year and an election of town councilors before they actually voted to develop the ordinances to implement the referendum. In the meantime, an interesting power play was taking place. The ordinances were passed in March of 2017 and implemented a year later.
ACRES U.S.A. What’s so interesting is that pesticides in the South Tirol were synonymous with the loss of tradition. I always want to understand what gets people to organize. They were facing a threat to their way of life, whereas in other places people have grown used to pesticide use.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. For these folks in Mals, it hadn’t become a fact of life quite yet, but they had seen it go that way lower down in the valley. They could literally see and smell what was coming. Big Apple was challenging the food traditions that the people of Mals were trying hard to rebuild. Ulrich, the new mayor — who didn’t expect to be immersed in this controversy — ran for office in order to create a sustainable municipality. Their new train service was designed by the Swiss. They were putting in micro-hydro-systems to produce their own electricity, which could then power the train and other electric vehicles. They were capitalizing off of ecotourism. Mals had the first organic hotel in the South Tirol and the first whiskey distillery in Italy, which utilizes grains grown by local farmers. Alexander Agethle, the cheesemaker who I profile in the book, was selected as a finalist for the prestigious 2018 Italian Cheese Award. Pesticides represented the death knell to the renaissance that Alexander, Ulrich, Günther and others had worked so hard to bring about.
ACRES U.S.A. Were there examples of the apple industry’s response backfiring?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Probably the biggest mistake Big Apple made was overestimating their actual economic importance. Agriculture only accounts for 6 percent of the South Tirolean economy, while tourism is closer to 25 percent. It’s hard to bring tourists in to watch a parade of tractors spraying orchards; that’s an easy way to convince tourists to go somewhere else. Suddenly, Big Apple found itself up against the wall with the tourism industry, especially in Germany and Austria, key markets for tourism in the region. Mals is a living counterpoint to most of the rest of the South Tirol. When Malsers invoke green tourism, they really mean it. You go to the organic hotel and get organic foods and you don’t get sprayed while you’re riding your bicycle, whereas in the other areas, that’s what was happening. This week on social media channels in the area, a video was posted of people riding their bicycles as a farmer drove his tractor spraying pesticides. He kept spraying until he braked in front of the bicyclists — they stopped recording the scene when the farmer got right in their face. Thanks to the Malsers, these realities can no longer be swept under the rug.
ACRES U.S.A. When the citizen campaigners in Mals looked at the official integrated fruit-growing recommendations, what did they find?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. In a single season 30-40 different pesticides might be used in an orchard, and one farmer might spray 25 to 30 times or even more. So you have the number of sprayings, the quantity of pesticides and the irony of integrated pest management (IPM).
ACRES U.S.A. Which supposedly is a way to reduce the use of pesticides.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. When I was working at Brunnenburg Castle I appreciated that my boss would get the emails indicating the level and type of threat from diseases or insects. The alert system that they have for fungal diseases is really fantastic.
ACRES U.S.A. So many pests in conventional agriculture are secondary pests. If you weren’t spraying to begin with, they wouldn’t reach an economic threshold, but the pesticides decimate the food web, including their natural enemies and competitors.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Try to find a ladybug in these high-spray areas in the South Tirol! They’re almost non-existent, yet the fruit growers’ emblem in the Vinschgau Valley is a ladybug. Calling their approach “Integrated Fruit Growing” hides it even more.
ACRES U.S.A. To be truly integrated, you would have to create habitat where beneficials can live and build soil health. But typically they just look for the pests.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. And we don’t measure the negative impacts at all in terms of the whole ecological cycle.
ACRES U.S.A. You talked about the combinations of pesticides. What other sorts of information did outside experts present to the residents of Mals to call the claims of safety and necessity of pesticides into question?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. One of the strongest arguments was that we don’t need to use the pesticides. Researchers like Dr. Hans Rudolf Herren, a world-acclaimed entomologist who lives in Switzerland and California, presented living examples of successful organic practices. They had about 24 sessions with different experts to promote dialogue as well as community-visioning sessions. The Advocacy Committee also brought in a leading EU food safety expert who is a proponent of “safe pesticide use.” That was a testament to their openness. Her statements about the safety of pesticides really riled the community, but Alexander Agethle, the organic cheesemaker, stood up and contested her claims and that ended up winning the day. It’s not necessarily who you bring in, but the chemistry of the community meeting afterwards.
ACRES U.S.A. How many citizens groups were involved?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The environmental group, the Umweltschutzgruppe Vinschgau, which already existed, was keeping an eye on the whole valley. Peter, the veterinarian, and Albert, the forester, were key members. The next group that kicked in was Adam & Epfl — Adam and the Apple. Those were the provocateurs who used guerilla art to push back.
ACRES U.S.A. Their activities sound like a lot of fun.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. I think they really enjoyed envisioning what they had and what they wanted to make sure they retained. In 2013 their guerilla art efforts brought people together in a hiking, biking or driving tour of the valley to look at key things that might be lost. They turned the day into a playful event. Serpents appeared in hayfields and apple orchards. Women walked around dressed as Eve, offering apples as the temptation to passersby. Watch out for apples in Paradise! They did a good job of awakening and energizing the local community, but they weren’t able to capture the media or the politicians.
ACRES U.S.A. Why not?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. They were still considered the green crazies and so didn’t seem like a threat. It was the women who kicked it to the next level. At a hair salon, an architect named Martina, who had just moved back, asked Beatrice, the hairdresser, “Why isn’t anything about this appearing in the press.” Beatrice said, “I don’t get it either. The men have had their chance, so now it’s time for us.” They did a letters to the editor campaign that the media picked up on. Then came their campaign in which they made banners out of bedsheets, turning a tourist industry byproduct into an activist tool. In making the banners, Pia Oswald, the beekeeper there, said, “We’ve got to be careful what we write on these banners. If we use the words ‘no, not, never, ban,’ then we polarize the community. But if we call for a positive future, then we can bring people together.” Their banners called for a “pesticide-free future” for Mals. On a particular summer night they were going to secretly hang them from balconies of houses and hotels. Nobody knew exactly who was doing banners and who wasn’t. At dawn, banners were hanging in all 11 villages! From the outside, it looked like the beginning of the real rebellion.
ACRES U.S.A. Now that the ordinance is in effect, have apple growers stopped moving into Mals?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. They’re not allowed to spray now, and the municipal police are charged with addressing any infringements. So far, everybody is abiding by the ordinances. There are also the national police, the carabinieri, and the EU food safety police. If they get involved then things get really sticky.
ACRES U.S.A. What are the apple growers doing?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. They are having to shift to organic.
ACRES U.S.A. How does the organic apple grower you visited run his orchard?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. It’s amazing. His apples, pears and grapes are beautiful. If I hadn’t seen the fruit, I never would have believed it. Ägidius Wellenzohn was a conventional apple grower who 30 years ago decided to go organic. Eventually he even weaned himself from copper and sulfur, which most organic orchardists still use. He plants at half the intensity, so with half as many trees and adds no compost or fertilizer. He aims to encourage all the biological cycles. He uses his tractor twice per year, once to mow between the rows. After that, he turns the scythe handle (without the blade) upside down and whacks all the weeds between the trees. He told me he just wants to make the plants senescent to maintain the habitat for all of the beneficials. He’s trying to slow down the growth, to reduce competition and make it easier to pick. But sadly, during the last week of September 2017, someone came through and sprayed his orchard with glyphosate. He said, “For 30 years, I’ve added nothing to this orchard, and now to have someone come and do this.”
ACRES U.S.A. That is tragic.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. I’ve got a video of the orchard taken a couple days afterward. It makes me cry every time I see it.
ACRES U.S.A. I hadn’t realized the antagonism was so strong.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. That ruined Ägidius’s crop for this year and his organic status. The town put together the equivalent of a GoFundMe to help him and his family get through this year. In messaging back and forth with Ägidius, he said, “Obviously, this is not something I ever wanted, but I also realize that this is the price sometimes you pay for activism. It’s still worth it to me to have been this involved.” Last week he was on a tour in five different places in Germany giving talks on organic apple orcharding. He remains hopeful. Ulrich, the mayor, did an interview for a prominent German tourism magazine last fall. It’s just a little sidebar. The reporter called to ask him why tourism is doing so well in Mals. He essentially said, “We offer the perfect opportunity for ecotourists. Why wouldn’t you come to Mals, where you don’t have to worry about pesticide drift in your hotel or being sprayed when you’re out bicycling?” For saying this government officials from the South Tirol viciously went after him. But Italy has been fairly accommodating. Some people think that the Slow Food movement, which has permeated so much of Italy, has been a bit of a buffer. And the people in Rome are far enough removed from agriculture that they’re not swayed by the agrochemical industry’s arguments, which surprised me.
ACRES U.S.A. I was surprised that the ordinances don’t call for pesticides to be banned in the town.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The mayor and town council describe their ordinances for a pesticide-free future as being divided into three strategic categories. Ulrich, the mayor, was thinking ahead about the lawsuits that it would provoke. They were trying to identify precedents in Italy that they could build on and figure out how they could move ahead without having the whole ordinance overturned in one swoop. The first part of the ordinance bans what the EU deems the two most toxic classes of synthetic pesticides. The second part institutes a 50-meter buffer zone for all pesticides. Since the parcels are so small (most of them are 1-5 acres in size), the 50-meter prohibition acts as a de facto ban. And if a farmer or another adjacent landowner were to prove that there was drift, then that person would have to stop using those other synthetic pesticides.
ACRES U.S.A. In other words, if your field is 300 feet wide (less than 100 meters), then you can’t spray anywhere!
ACKERMAN-LEIST. I’ve watched the video in which Ulrich and the town council announce the passage of the ordinances. You can almost see the storm clouds in the audience’s faces. People were wondering if it was a very savvy compromise or if they had failed. Actually it turned out to be a really brilliant move. If it had been an all-out ban, the courts would have tossed out the whole thing immediately.
ACRES U.S.A. Why are the parcels so small?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. It’s pretty much due to inheritance. The tradition of passing on land and houses and barns from eldest son to eldest son stabilized the parcel size. A farmer may have 10 or 12 of those small parcels scattered around the area because of purchases they’ve made.
ACRES U.S.A. Did the campaign from the pesticide ban turn conventional farmers against organic farmers?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Not among most farmers. The only farmers who were really perturbed about it were the apple growers and other farmers who wanted the potential to be apple growers or to sell their land to apple growers. Some of the people who voted for the referendum told me that it was difficult: they weren’t comfortable with this idea of telling other people how to farm. Like here, farmers have an independent streak. Yet they saw that Big Apple was going to overtake them if they didn’t pass the referendum.
ACRES U.S.A. Has the momentum to ban pesticides spread to other European municipalities?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. It’s really extraordinary. Mals is now the beacon for a Pesticide-Free Town campaign around Europe, which is largely being orchestrated by the Pesticide Action Network EU. Non-governmental organizations like Friends of the Earth and ICLEI, a global consortium of towns focused on environmental legislation, have embraced it, as have certain politicians. I’m going to Brussels in early June for a gathering of these different groups with the EU’s Social and Economic Committee. There’s almost a competition to see how far towns and countries can go. In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a lot of interest pop up in Italy. Denmark, the largest purchaser of organic goods of any country in the world on a per capita basis, has embraced it very strongly.
ACRES U.S.A. Talk about your invitation to the Himalayas from Vandana Shiva, who wrote the foreword to your book.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Vandana’s vision is to unite communities around the world that are pushing to become “poison-free.” Vandana invited Ulrich, the mayor, and me to an amazing conference celebrating 30 years of her organization, the Navdanya Foundation. She wanted to get together people from the Alps and the Himalayas for a ceremony celebrating poison-free communities.
ACRES U.S.A. What’s going on in the Himalayas?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. In the Indian state of Sikkim, the Chief Minister there, Pawan Chamling, has been re-elected five times. Part of his platform has been to make Sikkim 100 percent organic. Bhutan aspired to become the first country to be 100 percent organic, but they’re not there yet. Sikkim has gone the whole way and gotten there first. They are still working through some of the challenges but one of the interesting things I’ve learned is that they’ve been able to make organic more cost effective there because they no longer have the expenses associated with segregating conventional and organic products.
ACRES U.S.A. You were recently a plenary speaker at the Beyond Pesticides Conference. Are any of the elements that you’ve seen in Mals present in the United States?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The conference was held in Irvine, the first municipality in Southern California to ban the use of synthetic pesticides for “cosmetic purposes” (like weed elimination) on publicly owned properties. A mother new to the area had seen the signs posted that herbicides were being sprayed on the school athletic field and found it unacceptable. She spoke to the principal and started a campaign, with the support of a deputy mayor who was a cancer survivor. It carries the hash tag #NontoxicIrvine, and that movement is spreading around the country. The folks from Irvine are traveling to different communities around the United States, telling them how they did it. South Portland, Maine, and then Portland, Maine, have also achieved a similar pioneering success. It’s exciting.
ACRES U.S.A. What have you and the people of Mals learned about how to make something like this happen?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. A key lesson is that these movements aren’t dependent upon experts. The momentum comes from concerned citizens. Very often women are the most important provocateurs in these discussions, which I attribute to nature, nurture and nutrition. Women are more attuned to the realities and to the precautions we should be taking but may not be paying attention to. We’ve put a lot of pressure on organic farmers, and also on consumers, to be the agents of change, but actually I think the biggest successes for good, fair and just agriculture are borne out of what we do as communities. It’s not just how the farmer changes their practices. We need to change how we support those local farmers that we really trust. I now believe that the real discussion should be much less about the certification of individual farmers and more about how community members come together and create first the will and then the economic channels and infrastructure to create not just toxic-free agriculture and truly safe recreational areas and public spaces but also a local political system that upholds these values and associated markets. I’m also pushing back on the idea that local trumps organic. One element of the Mals ordinance involves shifting to organic food in all public settings. They started was the kindergarten. Now all the food served there is organic.
ACRES U.S.A. Here questions of toxicity and environmental impacts are often omitted because people are promoting local. We get the message that we need to support agriculture in our county or region regardless of their practices. That probably wasn’t the original intention of the local food movement, but that’s what has occurred.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. I’ve come to see almost any farmer as a farmer who can potentially be persuaded to use organic methods and markets. I think you can break through certain farmers’ mind-sets, but it is much harder when people are locked into certain infrastructure or they’re leveraged so heavily that they can’t change. But I’d like to think that in the long run there’s almost always the potential.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m impressed by what you’ve been able to develop at Green Mountain College.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. In 1997 we started with a small organically managed garden. It was less than a quarter-acre. We had no resources and at first we struggled to get students interested. Now we range from 45 to 55 students in the undergraduate major and 70 to 90 in our graduate program. Combined, the college’s undergraduate and graduate programs in sustainable ag and food systems typically mean that we have the first or the second-largest program at the college. It has been amazing to be a part of that — all spawned by one year’s seed order 20-something years ago. We also started the nation’s first online graduate program in sustainable food systems. For someone who’s hands-on and highly experientially oriented, online education is not what I expected to be doing. With this year’s graduation, more than 100 students scattered around North America will have gotten their Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems. They’re predominantly women, about 20 percent are veterans, and 15 to 20 percent are dieticians and nutritionists. Some are very high up in the corporate sector, working in the conventional food system. They’re either horizontal jumpers or vertical leapers — folks who are moving into food systems from other professions or people who are looking to advance their careers within the food and ag sectors. It has been really fascinating. They come to the college for about five days each year in February, when we have a prominent visiting scholar join us. Everything else is online, unless they want to join a study tour! It takes about two to two and a half years to get through the program.
ACRES U.S.A. Could you name some of the people who have come to Green Mountain College as visiting scholars for the annual five-day residency?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. Fred Kirschenmann was first. Next we had Helene York, who worked for Bon Appétit of the Compass Group for a number of years, transforming their food system. Then we had Natasha Bowens, who wrote The Color of Food. Douglas and Laura Gayeton came to help us investigate digital storytelling and art as a tool of change. Then nutritionist Melinda Hemmelgarn of Food Sleuth Radio joined us, followed by agroecologist Barbara Gemmill-Herren, who was joined by her husband agroecologist Hans Herren. It has been a great crew, full of inspiration and rubber-meets-the-road expertise!
ACRES U.S.A. What kind of expertise do the graduate students gain in the program?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. We extensively explore the farm gate to dinner plate piece and help them understand the leverage points for change in relation to food justice, the marketplace for farmers, ecological practices and land conservation. A lot of the territory is fairly new and pretty challenging for them and for us, but every student has their sweet point and their comfort zone. Marty Strange, who started the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, teaches the policy class, which is a real eye-opener on the nuts and bolts of federal policy, and he also designed our history of agriculture course. He’s brilliant and a phenomenal teacher. As people come into the food systems world, they often lack depth in their understanding of history and policy. They may think they know a lot about economics and business of the agricultural system, but there’s still so much to explore. Throughout the program we focus on food justice. Everyone comes in as a beginning expert on their own bioregion with professional expertise that inevitably informs our online discussions. That all adds to the conversation. The average age of these graduate students is between 34 and 37, and some are in their 60s. It’s a sophisticated bunch. Frankly, it’s pretty intimidating.
ACRES U.S.A. What do you teach?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. I’ve taught the Contemporary Food Systems course, which is the first class they take and usually the Sustainable Livestock Production course, which has a heavy emphasis on the various certifications and trying to understand livestock from that perspective.
ACRES U.S.A. How big is the college farm now?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. It’s 23 acres. The vegetables and the poultry are certified organic. Though it was never an agricultural school, Green Mountain College had a really powerful agricultural heritage. At one point it had three farms. We found a wonderful postcard the early 1900s that talks about coming to the dining hall for wholesome food fresh from the college farm. At some points in time students even paid their tuition and room and board in cows and chickens. Until 1947 the college served unpasteurized, raw milk. But by 1950, the college had given up its agricultural enterprises.
ACRES U.S.A. Hearing about that history is making me curious about the college’s changing mission.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. It started in 1834 a teacher’s college. After that it had lots of iterations. Until 1972 it was a women’s school. During World War II for a short period it was co-ed. One of the college’s struggles 20 to 30 years ago was that it couldn’t figure out its identity or what it needed to be. We created an environmental liberal arts mission 22 years ago, and now we’re calling that the sustainable liberal arts.
ACRES U.S.A. What were you hired to do?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. I came to start the farm, but the only way to do it was to teach English to the international students.
ACRES U.S.A. Did anyone know about your goal?
ACKERMAN-LEIST. The president did. When they found out about it, the board of trustees wasn’t very happy. The whole farm infrastructure was sitting here. They were renting it out to raise horses for the racetracks in Saratoga and Yonkers. I saw a beautiful farm waiting for something to happen to involve the students.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s an uplifting perspective. I wonder how are you bringing what you’ve learned from your research in Mals to the sustainable farming and food systems program at Green Mountain College.
ACKERMAN-LEIST. I find myself introducing more pesticide literacy into the program. I think students need to understand what it is that they’re ultimately pushing back against. For a long time, I concentrated on the positivity of the organic agricultural piece, but I think they also need to understand the other side with more complexity. Without literate policy fighters, we’re not going to get anywhere.
Philip Ackerman-Leist’s A Precautionary Tale is available from Acres U.S.A.