WALKING THROUGH MALS, A SMALL FARMING community in Italy’s South Tyrolean 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 these accidental activists convince the first town in the world to pass a referendum that implements 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; Mals is 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 Mals faces in the 21st century is something different. Aided by a warming climate, apple growers — many of them from the warmer and wealthier portions of the lower Vinschgau Valley — began to transform hay meadows and grain fields into apple orchards. By 2011, rows of perfectly trellised apple trees, built with concrete posts, hail nets, and chain link fences, had replaced what was for millennia a diverse agriculture that supplied the region with the food and fiber people needed to survive. But this new kind of agriculture also brought a new threat to the valley: pesticide drift.
Ötzi the Ice Man, a 5300 year-old mummy discovered in a melting 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 aligned with numerous archaeological excavations in the region that catalogued more than forty different grains from the Ötzi era, including the barley, emmer, and einkorn he consumed in his final days. 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.
Boasting a history as rich and deep as its soils, the Vinschgau was once known as the Breadbasket of the Tirol. The area even supplied the Vatican and the British Royal Family with exceptional grains. In the twentieth century, grain production plummeted from a peak of 4200 hectares to a mere 50 hectares as the region faced increased international competition. Today, renewed interest in ancient grains has led to a renaissance in Mals, presenting farmers with a choice: would they give up their traditional grains 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?
IN THE PAST 30 YEARS, climate change has completely transformed Südtirol, a German-speaking South Tyrolean province in Northern Italy. Once known for its agricultural diversity, today the region is dominated by a single monoculture: apples. One out of seven apples grown in Europe comes from here.
Set on the southern side of the European Alps, Südtirol has both climatic and market advantages. The mostly alpine climate also experiences Mediterranean weather patterns, which helps these fruits develop the proper color, sugars, and shape. Despite the relatively dry climate and 300 days of sun per year — which minimize many plant diseases— there are ample water sources for irrigation. Südtirol’s central location also provides direct access to markets both in Italy and across Europe
The apple industry harvests over one million tons annually, but this economic boon comes with a cost. To satisfy a marketplace that requires blemish-free apples, apple producers depend on pesticides. Due to intensive apple production, South Tirol now has the highest pesticide use per-hectare in Italy.
Livestock farmers in the region face long hours and financial struggles, while apple farmers can potentially earn net incomes of 25,000 – 40,000 Euros per hectare without the pressures of constant, year round labor. Given these financial realities, some livestock farmers are opting to raise apples instead of animals, while others have sold their land to wealthier apple farmers. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that agricultural producers in Italy pay no income tax, giving wealthy apple farmers a serious economic edge.
The region’s rapid introduction of apple orchards has presented a variety of challenges for local residents. When pesticides are sprayed, they often escape their intended application area or target zone. The valley’s infamous Vinschgerwind lifts aerosol clouds with ease, transporting a toxic pesticide cocktail to unintended locations meters and even kilometers away.
The inefficiencies of so-called “target zone escape” or Zielflächenausbüxer not only come at an economic cost to growers — pesticides cost money — but also present environmental and health risks for downwind residents. It threatens the health of community members,the economic livelihood of the region’s organic food producers, as well as the livestock and grains of conventional farmers.
Enter Koen Hertoge. Originally from Belgium, Koen moved to Mals with his wife Martina and their two small children to live in Martina’s childhood home. Having worked in the travel industry, apples and pesticides were both outside his experience, but as he watched community activists mobilize against pesticide use, Koen recognized the need to help establish a network of allies and experts from outside the town. As a result, he and a colleague co-founded the Pesticide Action Network-Italy (PAN-Italia), forging a coalition of concerned citizens from across Italy to advance new policies that address concerns and support initiatives such as those arising in Mals. Koen is now a board member and treasurer of PAN-Europe, working to heighten the visibility and successes of other communities working toward a pesticide-free future.
When pesticides designed to treat trees and vines are sprayed in high wind areas like the South Tyrolean Alps, sometimes only 10-20% of these pesticides reach their target zone. What happens to the other 80-90%? Are winds strong enough to carry pesticides a few hundred meters or even several kilometers away? Do they reach nearby towns like Mals, with its bike paths, homes and school playgrounds, where people gather and recreate?
According to the EU, pesticides prevent, destroy, or control a harmful organism (‘pest’) or disease, or protect plants or plant products during production, storage and transport. They may include herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, acaricides, nematicides, molluscicides, rodenticides, growth regulators, repellents, rodenticides, and biocides.
What is a “Plant Protection Product” or PPP?
PPP is simply another name for the ‘pesticides’ primarily used in the agricultural sector, but also in forestry to protect crops or useful plants. They contain at least one active substance (chemical, plant extract, pheromone, or micro-organism) and either protect plants from pests and diseases, impact the life processes of plants, or destroy or prevent growth of undesired plants or parts of plants.
What is the difference between pesticides and plant protection products?
There is no difference—except there is often a stigma attached to the term “pesticide,” mainly due to the health and environmental impacts directly connected to their use. Therefore practitioners of industrial agriculture often use the more positive-sounding term “plant protection products.”
Shakespeare once wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Can the same be said for pesticides? Unfortunately, no; regardless of whether they’re called—“pesticides” or “plant protection products”—when farmers use regulated chemical inputs like pesticides that inadvertently (either by rain, wind, or misapplication) extend beyond their farms’ boundaries, they contaminate other crops, create environmental risks for flora and fauna, and unnecessarily expose people in neighboring communities to a variety of health issues.
For the people of Mals, an even more important question loomed, one called Pflanzenschutzmittelschutz. Was it more important to protect people or plants?
Alexander Agethle [shown here cutting hay] and his family milk about a dozen cows each year on Englhorn Farm, transforming their organic milk into internationally acclaimed cheeses. For him, the risks associated with the toxic cocktails of multiple active and inactive ingredients from pesticides sprayed on nearby farms are too high—endangering the entire food chain on his farm, from hayfield to cow to milk to consumer.
“With 25 to 30 different pesticides sprayed (in a season), you get an enormous combined amount that is beyond evil,” states Johannes Unterpertinger, a pharmacist in the nearby town of Mals. “The totality of their combined active ingredients is still totally unexplored, which is why every pharmacologist and every physician strictly warns against consuming something like this. One can see the long-term effects.”
Farmers practicing Integrated Pest Management (IPM)—now euphemistically called “Integrated Fruit Growing”—typically rely upon dozens of different pesticides in one apple season, many of which are sprayed multiple times during the growing period. As a result, substances from 20-30 average yearly sprayings mix, creating a “toxic cocktail” that contains not only multiple active ingredients, but also so-called “inactive” or “inert” ingredients. The noxious effects of single active ingredients for humans and other organisms are a serious point of concern and debate, while many of the inactive ingredients remain untested and are oftentimes listed as trade secrets. Recent studies on the inactive ingredients in glyphosate-based herbicides exemplify the concern, as many of them were found to contain arsenic.
Pesticides consist of “active ingredients” that kill (“cide” = death) and “inert ingredients” that help poisons stick to plants and penetrate cell walls and further into each cell’s tiny organelles.
Toxicologists warn that these ingredients, even at thresholds below governmental safety standards, can combine with one another to create unforeseen toxic effects that will never be fully researched, becoming Porzellanladenmolekularelefanten, or “molecular elephants in a china shop.” When unleashed in the environment, these synthetic chemicals may combine to create new compounds that can wreak havoc in unpredictable ways. Depending on where they end up, they can kill human cells or mutate their genetic coding – and children don’t yet have the enzymes to protect themselves
A PHARMACIST MEASURES OUT MEDICINALS in milligrams and parts per million while a farmer mixes pesticides in kilograms and liters. As any doctor or pharmacist knows, the dose makes the poison. But how can you manage risk if you don’t know the poison, much less the dose?
The pharmacist’s prescription of a single medicine is precise and targeted. A farmer follows manufacturers’ directions and warnings before heading out with a sprayer that can hold hundreds of liters of liquid pesticide transformed into aerosols composed of tiny droplets forced out of precision jets at enormous pressures to ensure total penetration into the foliage surrounding the tractor.
Alexander Agethle wasn’t the first farmer in the area to feel the effects of pesticide drift. The unfortunate victim was instead his neighbor, an organic dairyman named Günther Wallnörfer. In 2001, Günther transitioned his conventional dairy farm to organic in order to increase his profits and save the farm from financial ruin, so he was justifiably unnerved in 2010 when the first apple orchards appeared beside his hay meadows. Besides producing organic milk, Günther and his young family were retracing their roots and using a number of different parcels to grow hay, vegetables, and grains while also raising pigs and poultry.
The region’s infamous winds soon delivered Günther an “unwanted neighborhood gift” or Unerwünschtes Nachbarschaftsgeschenk, from his apple-growing neighbors: pesticides. Their drift tainted his grasslands and nearly caused his dairy cows to lose their coveted organic status. Worried that the required buffer strip of a mere three meters between his hay meadows and the new apple orchards was far from sufficient, Günther sent samples from his subsequent hay crop to be tested for pesticide residues. The analysis confirmed his worst fears: his hay was tainted by multiple pesticides. In order to maintain his organic certification, he would have to cut and dispose of that year’s entire hay crop.
Günther wasn’t sure what to do. A farm further down the valley had found itself surrounded by conventional apple growers; there was no way he could adopt their strategy for dealing with pesticide drift.
“If I find pesticides in my hay, what happens when children play next to these apple orchards?” Gunther asks. “Will pesticides be found on their playgrounds as well? We’ve done 40 pesticide residue tests over the past few years and the contamination here in the Obervinschgau (Upper Vinschgau) has always been 90% or higher. If I have a positive test [for pesticides], then a positive test again, I can lose my organic certification, even if I didn’t do anything wrong. Everyone says that organic agriculture has a future in Obervinschgau, but our future is being destroyed by pesticides.”
Located halfway up the Vinschgau Valley, three generations of the Gluderer family transitioned from conventional apple growing to an organic herb business, the Kräuterschlössl, in 2004. However, within a few years, apple plantations had surrounded them on all sides.
The family tried implementing buffer zones, hedgerows, and even ten meter high water curtains (pressurized water walls shot in the air around the perimeters of the farm when neighbors were spraying). They all failed. By 2009, pesticide drift from their neighbors forced the family to move their business inside a series of greenhouses that cost hundreds of thousands of euros. These “poison avoidance bubbles” or Giftschutzkokon, are the family’s last line of defense against pesticides sprayed by neighboring apple growers.
The Gluderers’ biggest dream now is to take down their hot and stuffy greenhouses within the next decade and once again open their farm to the sky and the elements. They know there are models for growing fruit without pesticides. For their family, the future of their farm depends upon apple growers adopting successful organic production methods. Methods like those used by an organic pioneer: Ägidius Wellenzohn.
Once a conventional apple grower himself, Ägidius Wellenzohn decided three decades ago not only to stop using his spray machine, but also limit all machinery use. Other than using his machinery for a single mowing during mid-summer, then harvesting his apples, pears, grapes, and other fruits in the fall, Wellenzohn does everything without his tractor. He plants his fruits at about half the intensity of other growers. That reduction in intensity, along with using disease-resistance fruit varieties and interplanting different fruits, and forgoing the copper and sulfur used by many organic growers, has been central to his success. In addition, he tries not to disturb the biodiversity of his orchard through excessive mowing, instead letting other organisms run through their normal life cycle, building fertility and providing ecological balance.
Unfortunately, since Ägidius is surrounded on three sides by conventional growers who spray their crops with toxic pesticides, his only defense was to plant hedgerows around his orchard. While not perfect, these “poison fighting trees,” or Giftbekämpfungbäume, block most of the pesticides that would otherwise drift onto his property. He also benefits from the “pesticide withhold period” imposed upon all growers several weeks prior to harvest, which further lessens the risk that his harvest contains pesticide residues once the fruit is ready to pick.
“My neighbors try to make sure nothing happens when they spray pesticides,” Ägidius notes, “but we have a saying. ‘What you don’t hold in your hands, you can’t hold.’ So what do you do with something that comes out of a sprayer?”
Outside inputs like pesticides aren’t part of Ägidius’ system. “Biodiversity is a natural thing,” Ägidius observes. “It’s a natural system with many different plants, insects and other creatures that complement each other and take care of themselves without humans having to intervene. As soon as man intervenes for his own advantage, he reduces biodiversity to guarantee higher production by a certain kind of plant. But the more one-sided a system, the more it’s vulnerable, the more it depends on spraying pesticides and artificial fertilizers.
An Apfelwüste (apple desert), or apple monoculture, contains nothing except apples and cement posts. Not a single hedge is visible. Underneath trees, where growers recently sprayed herbicides, the ground is brown. The soil and surrounding area are impregnated with pesticide residues that will remain for decades to come. If I don’t do that, I have diversity, I have the cohabitation of useful creatures, insects – and all that spraying becomes superfluous.”
Ägidius is nonetheless surrounded by farmers who think differently than he does. When he looks around him at the dense foliage of the hedgerows separating his methods from those of his neighbors, an old German saying crosses his mind: “Die Freiheit des Einzelnen hat ihre Grenzen am Recht des Nächsten” (The freedom of a single individual is bounded by the rights of his/her neighbors.) That phrase would resonate increasingly for others in Mals as the story of their ground-breaking referendum unfolded.
AFTER RAISING THREE CHILDREN, Edith and Robert Bernhard moved back to Robert’s hometown and assumed the task of collecting and sharing the region’s seeds. The couple eventually built a storage facility, or “seed bank,” in their own basement. Each year, the Bernhards also grow out hundreds of varieties of vegetables, grains, and herbs in six different trial gardens, including a spectacular display garden where they offer tours and workshops.
Their division of labor is straightforward: Robert cares for the health of the soil while Edith manages growing out and conserving seeds. Seedsavers don’t think in terms of supposed “instant fixes” offered by pesticides. Rather, they develop practices while considering years, generations, and even millennia in the past and for the future. Edith is a Lebenskapselbewaherin (keeper of life capsules), a seed saver who preserves and catalogs the genetic material of vegetables, grains, herbs and flowers for later use.
As industrial agriculture quickly took hold in the Tyrolean Alps, other townspeople like Edith began saving seeds in their basements to preserve the genetic record of crops that had grown there for thousands of years. Seed conservationists from across Europe now seek out the couple for advice and whatever seeds they can acquire from these two pioneers. As apple production slowly creeps up the valley, pesticide drift threatens not only their livelihoods, but it also puts their entire seed collection at risk.
“The European Union wants everything to be homogenous and look the same – but the old varieties have biodiversity,” she contends. How serious is the threat to biodiversity in this region? In the last century, 75% of crop varieties in the Vinschgau valley have simply disappeared. Without people like Edith and her husband, many vital bio-regionally adapted crops that have developed here over thousands of years would be lost forever. The disappearance of traditional crops is a clear threat to the community’s nutritional security (Ernährungssicherheit) and their ability to protect their food supply for future generations.
When Garret Hardin, an evolutionary biologist, wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, he showed how shared resources — like a public commons —are misused when individuals prioritize their own needs over those of the community. This selfishness first diminishes then eventually destroys that precious, common resource. What will happen if one generation steals from coming generations by depleting seed banks, soil diversity, and fertility … all through monoculture practices and the use of pesticides?
In the EU, over 400 pesticides are allowed; 77 are highly toxic. Can anybody guarantee how long these poisons persist in the soil and water?
“The cheaper our food, the less we ask the hard questions,” Robert Bernhard notes. “A critical point for the future is that our children and grandchildren – the next generations – will inherit poisoned earth with ruined soil. They will have no foundation for a healthier life if their soil is destroyed – and we don’t know how long it will take the soil to regenerate.”
In earlier times, towns like Mals defended themselves from invaders by building walls. How can these people defend themselves today when the enemy – pesticides – is carried in by the wind?
CHRISTOPH HÖHENEGGER LEADS a new movement of farmers who have rediscovered the region’s traditional grains in hopes of building both healthy soil and new organic markets for future generations.
After years of conventional dairy farming, Christoph sold his herd and began retracing his steps to follow the practices of his ancestors, first by gathering seeds from the Bernhards’ seed bank and other farmers, and then planting traditional grains steeped in local history. Christoph now grows grains with shorter, thicker stems that are uniquely adapted to withstand the intense Vinschgerwind that blows down from the surrounding mountains.
Christoph and his network of concerned farmers are also developing new markets, which requires educating consumers. “It’s a different kind of grain from what most modern consumers are accustomed to,” Christoph explains. “The new grains [used in industrial food production] are bred for machines—they’re nice and round and easy to clean. Every grain is just like the other. The old varieties are a little longer and can’t be cleaned as easily because when you clean long grains, some may be sliced open. So there’s always a little of the hull left, making it look different when you go to buy it. Right now, some people aren’t ready to pay twice the price for it—but eventually, if it’s something good, something a bit older, they will. In the end, the food people choose to consume is a vote for what will happen in the future. When consumers ask for more organic products, that’s what farmers will grow.”
Beyond rebuilding local markets for heritage grains, Christoph is also using new farming practices that rebuild the soil itself. “When you have children,” he observes, “you want to leave them a healthy soil—it’s critical. Today it’s no longer a situation of owning the land and doing as you wish, extracting everything without replacing it. Instead, it’s good when you hold back a little and build up the soil, doing in one generation what it took nature 1000 years to accomplish.”
In rebuilding his soil, Christoph has encountered unexpected challenges. “Pesticides are a special chapter in our agricultural story,” he says. “These poisons shouldn’t have anything to do with our soils. The more you battle something, the more problems you face. New poisons and more research every year. It never works.”
It’s a story that repeats across the valley. When Eduard and Helga Marth inherited their farm, the “Migihof,” the inheritance included all of the skills needed to manage a small, diversified farm that could support the nutritional needs of their family and provide some supplemental income. But when Helga noticed her father-in-law spraying the roses near the vegetable plants as she was tending her young children, she also realized that pesticides had no role in traditional agriculture and no place on their farm.
The Marth family keep a few dairy cows. Whatever milk they don’t consume goes to a local processor, and much like their ancestors they grow grains, potatoes, and an assortment of vegetables. They also cultivate old varieties of fruits in a traditional Streuobstwiese, a mixed orchard consisting of apples, plums, pears, apricots, and berries.
As apple orchards from neighboring towns slowly creep toward their village, the Marth family’s entire way of life is now under threat.
Ancient grains like spelt have been grown in Italy’s Südtirol region for thousands of years. In fact, seeds of spelt, Einkorn, emmer, barley, and millet were found among the remains of Ötzi, Tyrol’s famous “iceman.” Eduard grows and saves the seeds from these valuable heirloom grains to safeguard their genetics and preserve this region’s rich agricultural traditions, which is all the more reason that apple growers in the South Tirol must be held responsible for keeping their pesticides off neighboring grain fields, which include spelt, Einkorn, emmer and barley.
THE SOURDOUGH STARTER IN THE Schuster bakery is as old as Franz Schuster. For three generations, the family has produced artisan products from heritage grains that include rye, spelt, wheat, fennel, fenugreek, and buckwheat to the delight of both tourists and locals. Trading those crops for apples and tainted grains makes little sense for the family, so they continued to source local and organic products as much as possible. “It’s always beautiful when I can see where a product comes from,” Franz notes, “and when I know the farmer personally and see how the grain was produced.”
EVELYNE PIERGENTILI found herself reconsidering her family’s eating habits when she and her son both developed serious food allergies. With the help of her mother, who grew up on a subsistence farm in Mals where her family produced almost everything they ate, Evelyne was able to look over the edge of her plate and see the disappearing connections between food traditions and nutritional health.
“I’ve learned so much unconsciously from my mother because she always had a garden and made so much of her own food,” Edith observes, “but I never really understood how important it was. My son and I are now trying to find our way back to these old roots, which is important because children are losing self-confidence in part because they have too little faith in nature. They need to reconnect with nature and learn from their communities about the disappearance of food and farming wisdom.”
Discovering her culture’s traditional foodways didn’t anchor Evelyne to her kitchen—on the contrary, finding traditional foods made from local, organic products put her into close contact with people she might never have known. Her spelt bread comes directly from women at her town’s Wednesday farmers market. As for animal products, she only buys from farmers she knows guarantee the humane treatment of their animals. Her eggs come from a nearby woman, and like her mother, Evelyne’s yard now includes a vegetable garden for her family.
Her personal journey to seek out healthy, ecologically-responsible food eventually led to Evelyne’s involvement in a local movement of concerned Mals residents, people who recognized the threat pesticides posed for their own food system.
MALS, ITALY — A HANDFUL OF concerned citizens with no previous community organizing experience, led by veterinarians, high school teachers, pediatricians, pharmacists and hair dressers, took their pesticide-free message directly to their friends and neighbors, leading to an unprecedented public referendum that caught the world’s attention.
By utilizing their diverse talents and embracing the principle of strategic collective action, the citizens of one small town became an international model for how direct democracies can use tools like the precautionary principle to help people topple the Goliaths in their own communities.
As news of a local organic dairy farmer’s devastating encounter with pesticides spread beyond Mals, organic farming associations and environmental groups came to Mals to to find solutions that would protect the citizens and eco-entrepreneurs of Mals from further pesticide drift. In hopes of making change in their own community, they met with representatives from the region’s powerful farming lobby, as well as government officials to find solutions that would protect the citizens and eco-entrepreneurs of Mals from further pesticide drift.
Some citizens even contemplated the unthinkable: the possibility of an outright ban on pesticide use. Given the prominence and power of local agricultural interests, the proposal seemed highly unlikely. The outlook on a ban changed when a local environmental group hired a public opinion firm to survey residents and determine their opinions on the potential influx of fruit monocultures and synthetic pesticides.
Energized by this response, organizations dedicated to environmental sustainability and alternative approaches to agriculture formed the “Mals Advocacy Committee.” The group sponsored nearly two-dozen public forums. Pesticide and human health experts shared their knowledge in lively public discussions and framed potential strategies for mitigating the impacts of pesticides — or even eliminating them altogether.
One advocacy group, Adam & Epfl (a play on words translated as “Adam and the Apple”), included a local cultural provocateur named Konrad Messner, a propagator of events that celebrate cultural diversity and sustainable economic development. Konrad was an early outspoken advocate for a pesticide-free future in Mals, but instead of relying on political associations, he used cultural gatherings at his medieval-era guesthouse and other venues to help lead his community away from industrial production. The events highlighted the importance of arts and artisanship to thriving communities. He even helped coordinate an overnight placement of brightly painted serpents throughout Mals as a reminder to resist the temptation of the apple. Like Eden, Messner and his colleagues saw Mals as a paradise, one that was threatened by the economic benefits of apple farming.
Konrad Messner says that for towns like Mals to forge pesticide-free futures, they should embrace a formula for success that focuses on a few key principles. “I’m interested in concrete deeds and not just the discussion about the task at hand,” he observes. “It’s more important for one person to build a garden than for 200 people to discuss the garden. When you build a house, you need a clear plan, schedule, and an assignment of responsibilities (especially those that further one’s self-development). When people move beyond their own fears, wishes, and self-interests, they begin working on a different level. Each person is part of the plan. Every day is a positive experience. It’s a dynamic process that is constructive and not conflictual. Compromise allows both sides to profit. When you don’t recognize the reality of possibilities, the outcome is predetermined.”
A central principle in Konrad’s work is the “collective action onion method,” or Zwiebelprinzipregionalbewegung. To understand how the town of Mals become pesticide-free, it may help to peel back the story, similar to an onion’s layers:
“While it doesn’t provide the definitions or contents of the movement,” Konrad notes, “It allows us to go deeper, deeper, deeper into the subject. From there, concrete objectives (clearly established at the outset) and guidelines for collective action can be defined.”
PRESCRIBING A THEORY OF SOCIAL CHANGE is the first step, but only certain people truly understand the underlying chemistry of a specific community. Dr. Johannes Fragner-Unterpertinger is a pharmacist, and his family’s apothecary has been the center of Mals’s village life for centuries. When the Mals Advocacy Committee chose him to be their spokesperson, he conducted independent research, which led him to become Dergiftkennerundvermeider or “the poison knower and avoider.” When he was a medical student, Johannes took classes in “pharmaceutical chemistry and toxicology.” Years later, as a pharmacist, he observed these same dangers in his community. He began telling his customers about the dangers of pesticides sprayed in local fields, then gathered the town’s physicians, dentists, biologists, foresters, and veterinarians to discuss the serious health risks pesticides posed for their community.
“None of these pesticides are harmless,” says Johannes. “They attack the thyroid glands and can damage the male and female reproductive systems. Providing this information over the last years has borne its fruit. The community now understands how dangerous pesticides are. If you have a bit of a conscience, you cannot stay silent as a doctor.”
A central tenet of the Mals Advocacy Committee’s thinking was Vorsorgeprinzip, or the “precautionary approach,” inspired by the Rio Declaration made at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development” (UNCED). It explained that …”When there are threats of serious irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” In short, there was no time to waste. Pesticide use in Mals had to stop.
These conclusions led Dr. Fragner-Unterpertinger to collaborate with Dr. Elisabeth Viertler, a local pediatrician, to write a Manifesto of Doctors and Pharmacists. In all, 51 medical doctors, pharmacists, dentists, veterinarians, and biologists from the Upper Vinschgau signed the “Manifesto to Protect the Health and Sustainable Future of Soil, Water, and Air.”
The virtual unanimity of local scientific and health professionals sent shock waves throughout the region and helped galvanize public interest. While the community’s response to the manifesto was overwhelmingly supportive, some people were not so pleased; Johannes soon found himself facing anonymous death threats that required police protection. Despite these challenges, could the Malsers find a way to turn political action into policy?
Dr. Elisabeth Viertler, pediatrician and co-author of the Mals Manifesto, grew up in a small farming community surrounded by apple orchards, so when she moved to Mals and opened her pediatric clinic, she was all too familiar with the threats facing this community. As she studied more about pesticide drift and the impact of its environmental toxins on children, Viertler became deeply concerned. First, she co-authored the manifesto for a pesticide-free Mals with Dr. Johannes Fragner-Unterpertinger. She also joined Hollawint, a group of local women advocating for a pesticide-free Mals.
“Many of the pesticides we carry in our bodies can cause cancer, disrupt our hormone systems, decrease fertility, cause birth defects, or weaken our immune systems,” notes the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). “These are just some of the known detrimental effects of particular pesticides at very low levels of exposure. Almost nothing is known about the long-term impacts of multiple chemicals in the body over long periods.”
Noted American biologist and author Sandra Steingraber explains that “One of the most powerful concepts now circulating in the human rights and also the environmental community is this idea of toxic trespass, meaning there are chemicals suspected or known to be linked to cancer or reproductive problems; neurological poisons that are entering our bodies because we’re breathing or we’re drinking or we’re eating food and we haven’t consented to their presence being there. So it’s a form of trespass of toxic chemicals.
“This places the issue of environmental contamination firmly within the context of human rights,” continues Steingraber, “and children are far more vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals than we adults are, not only because their bodies are just getting assembled but because also in some cases they’re missing certain kinds of coats of armor that we adults have to protect ourselves from low levels of toxic chemicals.”
Genotoxicity is also a concern. Pesticides not only contain “active ingredients” created to kill pests and diseases in crops, but also “inert ingredients” that help the active ingredients penetrate living tissues and cells. Genetic material within the cells of any living organism – including children – can be altered by these unwanted chemical intrusions, ultimately impacting not only children, but also their offspring.
“All of us have a blood brain barrier that works pretty well, actually, at keeping things like pesticides that might be cycling around in our bloodstream from entering the gray matter of our brain where they could really do damage,”Sandra Steingraber points out. “But you don’t get a blood brain barrier until you’re six-months old, so for embryos, fetuses, and newborns tiny, tiny, vanishingly small exposures at that vulnerable point in time may be worth more than much bigger exposures to, let’s say, pesticides in your drinking water later on in life. And that fact alone I think mounts an important challenge to the current way we regulate toxic chemicals in this US.
“Because we’ve historically taken a look at how these chemicals affect the adult and then we extrapolate down to children, but the new science is showing us that children have special vulnerabilities that we haven’t taken into account, and if we all deserve equal protection under the law then how do you explain that our laws may be sufficiently protective for a thirty- five-year old but not for a two-month old?”
Pesticides also pose obvious risks for local livestock. When Dr. Peter Gasser, a veterinarian and lifelong Malser, first observed the fast-paced progression of fruit orchards marching up the valley toward Mals, he immediately understood that the area’s 5000-year old tradition of livestock agriculture was in jeopardy. Having also worked on environmental issues in the Vinschgau Valley region for several decades through the Umweltschutzgruppe Vinschgau (the “Environmental Protection Group-Vinschgau”), Dr. Gasser had both perspective and strategy that would prove critical for the burgeoning pesticide-free initiative.
“I am convinced that the danger for livestock is in the creeping entry of pesticides into their feed,” Peter notes. “Eventually the pesticides in their milk will be detectable and that will, of course, be the worst case scenario not just for the dairy industry, but also for people who consider milk to be the healthy nutritious food we hold dear and also pay dearly for.”
He feels that the Mals Manifesto’s clear and conversational style catalyzed public opinion by sharing what experts already knew about the harmful effects of pesticides. “The manifesto was a very important step for the referendum,” he further explains. “Through it one could see for the first time that we weren’t just a bunch of green crazies, but rather, the core of a society which had grave concern for pesticide use.”
Peter’s wife, Margit Gasser, also took her place in the expanding movement. An informal alliance of concerned women, weary of the absence of female perspectives in the debate and eager for a positive political response, quickly became the “pesticide-free Mals” initiative’s social media and communications hub. Dubbed Hollawint, a dialect phrase meaning “Stop right there!,” the eclectic group of women developed a knack for catching the attention of media and politicians who would rather turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable calls for a pesticide-free town in an apple-dominated province. These Gestürztergoliathneuling (novices toppling Goliath) helped transform the anti-pesticide campaign into a clarion call for a positive future, one that embraced health and sustainability.
The group included, from left:
Pia Oswald:a self-proclaimed Selbstvorsorgerer (“self-sufficient homesteader”) and beekeeper, who also manages an after-school program for children. She was central to the campaign as she proposed and continually insisted that language and intent always be cast in the positive—turning a “ban on pesticides” into calls for a “pesticide-free future.”
Dr. Elisabeth Viertler: a quiet pediatrician with little interest in the public spotlight, but her expertise in children’s health and her recognition of the links between human and environmental health transformed her role in the town. She brought both knowledge and scientific clout to the growing circle of women comprising Hollawint.
Beatrice Raas: teamed up with fellow activist Martina after a quiet conversation in her hair salon. Within days, Beatrice kicked off a door-to-door campaign to get Mals citizens to send letters to the editor asking the mayor to protect their health from the dangers of pesticide drift. Never before an activist of any sort, Beatrice’s initial collaborations with Martina set the stage for Hollawint, a powerful collection of primarily women’s voices calling for a halt to the growing threat of “apple plantations.” Beatrice’s activism quickly transcended pesticides, and she transformed her hair salon into the region’s first organic hairdressing business.
Martina Hellrigl, an architect by training, moved back to Mals from Switzerland once she had children. Astonished by the lack of public discussion about the influx of orchards in adjoining towns and in Mals, Martina turned a hairdresser’s appointment into a pivotal political moment. When her hairdresser seconded her concerns, Martina and her new collaborators began letter writing initiatives, educational forums, social media alerts, and guerilla art campaigns—efforts that led to the formation of the informal advocacy group, Hollawint, a dialect term meaning “Stop right there!”
Margit Gasser grew up farther down the valley, where apples had already overtaken her home village. Consequently, when she married and moved to Mals, she realized what a paradise her new home was…until apple orchards began to encroach on the northern town, abetted by high profits and rising temperatures stemming from climate change. Hollawint provided Margita with the means to stand her ground in her adopted community.
Not pictured: Evelyne Piergentili, a single mother searching for answers and rationality in the food system, as well as a network interested in enhancing healthy options for children in the schools. As an executive assistant, her proficiency in organization and communication helped Hollawint gain rapid recognition in the region.
When Martina first heard about pesticide drift in her community, she brought it up during an appointment at Beatrice’s hair salon. They both realized that the media and the politicians weren’t paying attention to the issue, so Martina wrote an open letter voicing her concern about pesticides and Beatrice circulated it. By the time the letter appeared in the local paper, 80 people had signed on. Emboldened by this response, the women began a series of mobilizing efforts (including baking a cake) to unite villagers for a pesticide-free future.
As Malsers prepared to vote in their community’s first public referendum on pesticides, the women made banners from their own bed linens that proclaimed “JA” or “YES” to a pesticide-free future, then hung them from windows throughout their village. Even after the referendum, the women continue to find new ways to protect their community.
ULRICH VEITH HAD NEVER RUN for public office – or even joined a political party – before launching his campaign to become mayor of Mals. His platform as candidate was to serve the will of the people. After he was elected, the community began to express concerns about the impending influx of monocultures and the dangers of pesticide drift—and then Günther Wallnöfer came to him with the news of his pesticide-tainted hay crop. The mayor decided to put the conversation to a vote.
An inexperienced yet inventive politician, Ulrich first worked quietly with his colleagues to change the town’s municipal codes in order to make all voter referendums binding. Once the change was approved, he worked with community leaders to hold months of presentations and discussions. After scientists, toxicology experts, and legal minds all helped inform the community, Ulrich outlined plans for a fair and transparent referendum, one that, if voted in, would establish a pesticide-free future for Mals.
“People have always recognized that pesticides are bad for humans,” Ulrich notes. “They always lead to harm. When a small town commits to building a path that eliminates pesticides, it shows what one can accomplish. It’s a hard path, but it pays off.”
After several attempts by provincial authorities and lobbyists to prevent it, the municipality of Mals finally put forward a referendum in 2014 partly inspired by the Precautionary Principle.
The referendum asked voters for a simple “Yes” or “No” to the following question: “Are you in favor of the implementation of the following amendment to the articles of the Township of Mals? The precautionary principle, with the objective to protect public health, lays down that all precautions that help prevent hazard to the health of man and animal have to be taken. The township of Mals is specifically aiming to protect the health of its citizens and guests, to maintain the sustainability of nature and waters, and enabling different forms of economy to coexist in its territory in a fair and respectful way. Conforming with these goals, Mals promotes the use of biodegradable plant protection products within its municipal boundaries. A regulation will be issued that describes the details of this provision. Independently from this provision, the use of toxic and highly toxic; as well as chemical-synthetic substances and herbicide that are harmful to the health and the environment is prohibited within its municipal boundaries. The municipal authority is responsible for monitoring the implementation and the compliance of the referendum outcome.”
Polling was open for two weeks to ensure strong community participation. When the votes were tallied, the outcome was something few outsiders could have foreseen. The people of Mals overwhelmingly supported the referendum, with 75% voting in favor of a pesticide-free future.
ALEXANDER AGETHLE IS A SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR and co-owner of Hofkäserei Englhorn, an organic cheese company. “Here in Mals,” he notes, “we have lots of social entrepreneurs – people who make cheese, shoes, clothes, even houses with local wood. It’s a critical step to use only inputs that help support — instead of degrade — the proper development of this landscape.” Social entrepreneurship is also the cornerstone of building a recirculating economy, which Alexander supports through the distribution of “Gutscheine” or Englhorn bills, a community-based currency used to help finance his cheesemaking operation.
Each January, Mals-based “investors” who support high quality local food production are issued this Gutscheine with a news update from Alexander’s dairy. They can exchange their currency for cheese directly at the farm and at two organic food stores in nearby Meran and Bozen.
Englhorn investors can also use their currency at Hotel Greif in Mals, which then uses the bills to buy cheese for their hotel. “We promote not only sustainable agricultural production, but also entrepreneurship,” Alexander observes. “We also help young business people in the realization of their ideas, create diversity in agricultural, artisanal and touristic production – and through that create a self-sustaining region, not just one that produces apples or milk for some global market.”
Mals set its sights on achieving a goal no other community in the world had yet attained, and they were victorious at the ballot box, but could a successful referendum withstand court appeals and be transformed into law?
For the next 19 months, the Mals town council cautiously developed a set of ordinances that could fulfill the public mandate without violating any legal parameters of the province, Italy, or the European Union. Throughout their deliberations, the town council focused on establishing regulations that could be implemented immediately. By creating ordinances that dealt with present problems rather than far-reaching issues, the town avoided legal challenges that could catch them up in litigation for months or years on end while more apple orchards appeared and more pesticides were sprayed.
In March of 2016, Mals finally achieved an international milestone when Mayor Veith presented the town council’s regulations to advance Mals’ pesticide-free ambitions, which he summarized in three categories:
Despite continued pressures and attacks from lobbyists and government officials, the town council of Mals charted a new path, one that both protected their deep agricultural heritage while safeguarding their children’s future.
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