Set up to urgently reduce pesticide-related harms in the UK, we at The Pesticide Collaboration are taking a closer look at pesticide campaigns over the last sixty years.

For almost as long as pesticides have been used, there have been campaigns warning about their potential harms. This series of blogs looks at a range of different campaigns, stretching from Rachel Carson in 1962 up to the present day. Part information, part inspiration, we’ll be looking at the diversity of campaigns in terms of geography and campaign focus. From local to global, we want to see what lessons might be learnt for today’s movement pushing for an end to pesticide harms.

You can find the first in the series, looking at the work of Rachel Carson, here.

In this blog, we’re looking at what a group of apple farmers & campaigners achieved in Italy.

Let’s take a step back in time, to the late 2000’s. Mals is the largest of 11 villages that together form the Municipality of Mals in the South Tyrol in Italy. Traditionally, it was an area of small family farms but over the last 20 years has developed into one of the largest commercial apple growing regions of Europe. As a result, there has been a huge increase in industrial agriculture, accompanied by a massive rise in pesticide use on the apple crops. The apple growers in the region can apply up to 30 different pesticides 12-14 times per year. The subsequent spray drift is hugely exacerbated by the geography of the region and can shroud the valleys in toxic spray for days at a time.

There are a number of organic farmers spread throughout the region and the spray drift was directly impacting their produce. Over-spraying resulting in such high concentrations of pesticide residues on their produce that they could no longer be certified as organic – this was the first alarm bell that was sounded in the Mals fight against the pesticide industry.

The final straw for one farmer came in 2010 when he found that his organic hay was highly contaminated with pesticide residues. He visited the newly elected Mayor of Mals to express his concern and try to find a solution. This kicked off a public discussion in the town, between residents, organic farmers and the apple industry. This culminated in the creation of the ‘Pesticide-Free Mals’ campaign, to represent the interests of the public and the local farmers against the corporate apple industry.

The push for “Pesticide-Free Mals”

The industry claimed that they could introduce buffer strips beside properties adjacent to sprayed areas and manage the problem this way. However, following extensive testing undertaken by a local environmental organisation it was clearly shown that pesticide contamination was unacceptably high and that cocktails of chemicals were present throughout the area, often at levels above the legal limit. The group also tested schools, playgrounds and other public areas and consistently found cocktails of pesticide residues. It was clear to the people of Mals that a pesticide free coexistence with the apple industry was not possible.

Aware of the scale of the problem and the power of the apple growers, the citizens of Mals got together to form the Advocacy Committee for a Pesticide-Free Mals. They approached the Mayor of Mals asking him to pass legislation that would:

  • protect the health and diversity of people and the economy;
  • promote organic and biodynamic agriculture;
  • prohibit toxic chemical pesticides within municipal boundaries.

To support their calls, the group (comprised of farmers, chemists, environmentalists, homeowners and many others) sought expert opinion and scientific research, organised public meetings, wrote letters to local and national politicians and placed articles in local media. They also used their connections with other organisations, such as PAN Europe, to help spread their message and news of the actions they were taking. In 2014, this led directly to the Mayor instigating a legally binding referendum for the local citizens to vote on the measures outlined above.

There was a lot of hard campaigning in the run up to the referendum from both sides. Those pushing for the referendum to be passed, covered the township with bright painted sunflowers, with “Ja!” (“Yes!”) printed in the centre. Doorways, fountains & manhole covers were daubed with the symbol. National police ordered they be removed, but the sunflowers mysteriously reappeared overnight, throughout the two week vote. Ultimately, those in favour of ending the use of pesticides won the day with  75% voting “Ja!”

It took a further 19 months for a plan to be developed but finally, in 2016, the legislation was introduced. As a result, Mals’ schools and other public institutions now serve organic food. Furthermore, organic farms and those transitioning to organic practices are financially supported. This measure was intended to benefit all Mals farmers, including any who initially opposed the initiative, and to encourage the development of new sustainable businesses.

What can we learn?

The Mals campaign was in many ways ground-breaking. The variety of people involved reflected a wide range of views and opinions, which was a huge strength and added real weight to their arguments. Perhaps the most notable thing was the use of a legally binding referendum – giving voice to the people rather than a top down political decision – once again demonstrating the legitimacy of the decision. And of course, the campaign was backed up by good scientific data.

The Pesticide-Free Mals farmers and campaigners faced a lot of very strong and very vocal opposition from the apple industry and associated politicians, not just in the region but from other parts of Italy, due to concerns that this would set a dangerous precedent for other areas to follow. It has! The Veneto region, the centre of production for Prosecco, has started a similar campaign in answer to serious concerns about the overuse of pesticides in the orchards there.

Most of all it shows what a committed group of concerned citizens can achieve together.

The next blog in the series will take us to Toronto, Canada. And if you want to geek out more on the story and people of Mals, check out this fantastic story site from The Lexicon, Toppling Goliath.

Photo credit: Richard Lehnert