Produced for The Lexicon by Douglas Gayeton, Philip Ackerman-Leist, Michael de Rachewiltz and Pier Giorgio Provenzano
MALS, ITALY — Walking through this small farming community in Italy’s South Tirolean Alps, you would be hard-pressed to spot any one of the now internationally-renowned provocateurs who forged a new model for aspiring pesticide-free communities around the world. The citizens-turned-activists don’t walk with exaggerated swagger or sport provocative t-shirts and campaign buttons. They blend in with the town’s mix of pedestrians carrying shopping bags, helmeted mountain bikers, and leather-clad scooter aficionados.
So how did a group of ordinary citizens succeed in advancing a bold agenda that would establish them as the first town in the world to vote for a referendum supporting the implementation of pesticide-free ordinances?
The people of Mals are no strangers to invasions or to putting up a fight, traits partially explained by the town’s unique geographic setting; it’s located at the convergence of three major valleys bordered by Italy, Switzerland, and Austria, in a region strewn with castles in various states of glory and disrepair. The town’s medieval watchtowers and outlying villages with perfectly intact medieval walls further serve as reminders that “Malsers” have long known how to stand their ground.
However, the invasion they face in the 21st century is something different. Aided by a warming climate that was melting glaciers and moderating valley temperatures, apple growers—many of them from the warmer and wealthier portions of the lower Vinschgau Valley—were beginning to transform some of the hay meadows and grain fields into apple orchards. Rows of perfectly trellised apple trees, built with concrete posts, hail nets, and chain link fences, were just beginning to replace what was for millennia a diverse agriculture that had supplied the region with the food and fiber the people had needed to survive. With this new kind of agriculture came a new threat to the Malsers’ view of paradise: pesticide drift. This incursion has been more gradual than that of previous invaders, but inevitable nonetheless. In fact, by 2015, every town further down in the Vinschgau Valley below Mals had already succumbed. Apple orchards, interspersed with vineyards, pears, and cherries, had replaced what was once a diverse agriculture that had supplied the region with much of what it needed to survive — for millenia.
Ötzi the Ice Man, a 5300 year-old mummy discovered in the melting remains of a glacier only 20 miles from Mals, left numerous clues about the foodways of his era in his clothes and other belongings—as well as in his digestive tract. Those discoveries align with numerous archaeological excavations in the region that have catalogued more than forty different grains from the Ötzi era, including the barley, emmer, and einkorn he consumed in his final meals. The Ice Man’s diet of meats, legumes, and grains are nothing new to the modern-day residents of the Vinschgau: in fact, they’re still part of the valley’s traditional diet, a diet to which many have now returned for health reasons.
Boasting a history as rich and deep as its soils, the Vinschgau was once known as the Breadbasket of the Tirol, even supplying the Vatican and the British Royal Family with its exceptional grains that grew at elevations up to 1700 meters. Alas, the cutthroat competition of the international grain market lead to a fall in the region’s grain production during the twentieth century, plummeting from a peak of 4200 hectares to a mere 50 hectares today. While there was an ancient grains renaissance underway in Mals in the early years of the twenty-first century, the farmers that remained faced an age-old question: would they give it all up for a bite of the ever-tempting apple, and even more importantly, would they be willing to live with the pesticides that came with it?
Beginning in 2014, the team of Douglas Gayeton, Philip Ackerman-Leist, Michael de Rachewiltz and Pier Giorgio Provenzano began documenting how a grassroots movement rose up in opposition to the use of pesticides in a small Italian town.
The path that led to these activists’ unlikely success is captured on the following pages. It include an explanation of pesticide drift; the cultural and culinary traditions at risk due to pesticide use; an introduction to the cast of characters who toppled Goliath; a toolkit that shows activists around the world how to oppose pesticides in their own communities; and finally a timeline that explains the “miracle of Mals”.