Translating Sustainability


When I first started my Sustainability program at the Siena School, I was told that, when talking to Italians, saying that I just studied ‘sustainability’ would not be sufficient. Sostenibilita in Italian is much less a coherent concept than it is in English, which is saying something. Usually I introduce it as agricultura sostenibile, but even that still gets some confused looks (not as confused, however, as when I say I major in Black Studies).

That said, what we might call ‘sustainability’ in English is alive and thriving in Italy. As just one, and perhaps the best example, the Slow Food movement was started here in the late 1980s as a rebellion against the homogenization of food networks and the destruction of local food cultures and agro-biodiversity. Yet in my classes, taught by native Italians, it often becomes clear that we’re coming from completely different cultural backgrounds that inform how we think about sustainability, to the point that sometimes we have to pause to explain why certain concepts are so hard to fathom for Americans.

The reasons behind this can, of course, be explained by our countries’ respective histories and current social and economic environments.


Cinta sinese pigs at Tenuta di Spannochia. Their name roughly means “Sienese belt,” referring to the pink collar around their shoulders.

Small-scale farmers in the U.S. might say they practice sustainable agriculture, “or what we used to just call ‘agriculture’ until about 70 years ago.” True as this sentiment may be, the Americans of yesteryear were far more removed from agriculture than their Italian counterparts, or at least were removed in the more distant past. Though American and Italian sharecropping both peaked before WWI, the Italian mezzadria system and its other regional equivalents affected a much larger proportion of the national population. (It also wasn’t racialized, but more on that later). It wasn’t until the 1950s that land reform made peasant landownership possible, but by this time it was difficult for a small farm to provide a competitive standard of living with rural or urban wage labor, especially because they suddenly had to compete in an international economy. In a single generation, a centuries-old agricultural tradition was obliterated, however exploitative it may have been. To this day, many young Italians have a grandparent who can relay tales of widespread food insecurity yet superior food quality from the days of their youth.

The history of American agriculture features some striking parallels, but with major differences that place the two countries’ understandings of agriculture in completely different cultural and political contexts. Founded on large land claims and the plantation system, American agriculture was fueled by slavery and westward expansion for centuries. After abolition, a system of sharecropping intended to hold black farmers perpetually in debt emerged, looking very similar to the Italian mezzadria system. In both countries, the indebted spent the first half of the twentieth century fleeing to the cities and, to varying degrees in each country, their respective Norths. Those American sharecroppers who stayed behind faced challenges in the face of increasingly consolidated and corporate owned farms and a Department of Agriculture with racist loan policies. Over the last 30 years, a movement for sustainable has slowly taken shape, but unlike in Italy, it is not connected to memories of a recent past defined by self-sufficiency and traditional knowledge. Rather, it is led mostly* by northern middle-class whites who seek to reconnect to a romanticized past that their African-American neighbors escaped not too long ago.


Maremmana cattle at Tenuta di Paganico. Another heritage breed, these cattle are named for the region, a former swamp drained during the Fascist era whose name roughly means “sea-like area”.

One of the most poignant instances of this difficulty of translation was when, in my Food Anthropology class, we were discussing the connections between food cultures and food productions. My professor asked me and my sole classmate, a Western Mass native, if there were any self-conscious efforts at cultural preservation around food as there are here in Italy. We struggled to answer–after all, ‘American cuisine’ is a phrase that doesn’t mean much beyond hamburgers and apple pie. We relayed that this carrying-on of traditions, self-consciously or instinctively, is more commonly found in immigrant communities, who cook a traditional cuisine to create a sense of familiarity, of heritage, or just out of convenience and knowledge. Our professor then asked if there was any attempt to link the production of traditional food products to traditional cuisines. We answered, perhaps a bit generally, in the negative, and explained that the ‘return’ to a romantic agricultural lifestyle tended to be led by white middle class Americans, and that many immigrants and people of color tend to avoid agriculture due to a historical memory of slavery or in striving for better, white collar opportunities.* It was just as surprising to our professor that small farmers in the U.S. grow foods they felt no particular cultural connection to as it was impressive to us when the farmers we have met here claim an agricultural heritage that goes back generations.

In both countries, the twentieth century saw a massive rural-to-urban exodus. The question I have wanted to ask in America, and one of the questions we ask here in my Food Anthropology class, is who are the people who stayed behind, and why? What is important to people about agriculture? I ask myself, who are the people who challenge the simplistic picture of the U.S. sustainable agriculture movement that I have described above? In Italy, land reform introduced a market economy to previously self-sufficient units, and competition with international, industrialized producers made the countryside’s signature small-scale agriculture no longer viable. Land reform was a ‘liberation’ without autonomy and self-determination, and many of today’s Italian farmers seek to reclaim this lost lifestyle on their own terms. What do autonomy, self-determination, sustainability, loss, struggle, and resistance mean to a U.S. farmer? To a black farmer in the rural South? These are the questions I pose to those who ask what my being in Italy has to do with my Black Studies major, and the questions I hope to pursue when I return to the states.


Note the cinta senese pig (center left) in the “Allegory of Good Government,” a mural in Siena’s town hall dating back to 1338.

*The last thing I want to do is erase the growing efforts of people of color and immigrants to (re)claim a space in agriculture on their own terms. Groups like SAAFON (Southern African-American Farmers’ Organic Network), Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, MA, the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, or numerous independent farms and farmers’ markets are doing great work to put color back into agriculture and to create spaces for self-determination through food sovereignty. This movement is especially strong, but with a different history, in Hawaii.

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