Agriculture is not a museum

Our products of the land can help in our economy’s recovery, thanks to the work which never finishes

It’s not design chic, but products of the land are another thing that Italians are particularly good at. Not fashion or racing cars but agricultural products. And even if decades of advertising and so many products and television programmes have conditioned us into thinking that the countryside is a sort of museum where time stopped around the time of our grandparents’ youth, things do change. Rather, they have always changed. Just as with fashion and racing cars, our agriculture has always been a beautiful mix of tradition and innovation, but especially imports and the incorporation of cultures from all parts of the world.
If we were to rely only on local products, those originating from our peninsular, we could count only artichokes, fennel, salad leaves, perhaps apples and few others. All the rest came from elsewhere, part of a rather tempestuous history, from the huge variety of natural environments including the Alps and the heart of the Mediterranean.
Neolithic people who, some thousand years before Christ, arrived on the coast of Puglia and brought their agriculture with them wheat, pulses and lentils which they domesticated in the near and Middle East. The Greeks brought their grapes, originating from the Caucasus, and olives and pears, originating from central Asia. The peach, originating from China via Persia, arrived in Roman times. The mediaeval period was the time of influence of the Arabs, who brought to Sicily the first citrus fruits and rice originating from eastern Asia, aubergines originating from India, and watermelons from tropical Africa. In the 1500s, from the Americas came maize, potatoes, tomatoes (domesticated to our climate in our Southern region), peppers and pumpkins. At the end of the 1700s, came the strawberry, a hybrid created in 1765 in the Versailles botanic orchard from two wild species, one from Virginia and the other from Chile. Much more recently, in the 1970s, came the kiwifruit, originally from China, of which we are now among the leading producers worldwide. Up to today, and the first cultivators of mango in Sicily.
All of these plants, via an infinite amount of hybridisation and selection, are now adapted to our climate, our soils, our parasites, our cultivation techniques and our tastes. Many of these were created by generations of unknown farmers, but even greater is our debt to agronomists, who since the early years of the 1900s, have brought us forward thanks to the option, which never existed before, of crossing varieties from various origins. It is theirs, as before with those who work the land, whose work never finishes. The creation of new varieties is in fact a continual process, because tastes change, cultures move from one region to another, parasites mutate or better, less costly ways of production are discovered.
It is for this reason that our agriculture is not a museum, and never has been. We must never forget this lesson of the past if today we wish to offer this extraordinary heritage of diversity and culture to the rest of the world. And especially the memories of past agriculture, which view each new innovation with suspicion, should not be forgotten. When well presented – and Expo 2015 is an extraordinary opportunity to do so – the products of our land can help in our economy’s recovery. But no forward advance has ever been made, in any field, without one eye looking back.

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