WP2: CSA in Italy

Final Report: Brunella Pinto & Andrea Pasqualotto, Community Supported Agriculture in Italy, November 2010.

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Executive Summary of Report

This study focuses on Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Italy.  As generally understood, a CSA is a partnership between one or more farmers and a community of subscriber-consumers. This arrangement helps to guarantee the operating budget of a particular agricultural activity, via a subscription to one or more “units” of the harvest season. Subscribers sign an agreement to support financially (and/or in other ways) the agricultural activity during the growing season.  They share risks and benefits inherent in farming itself.
A specific CSA initiative in Rome, the Orti Solidali, exemplifies degrowth processes and new sustainable agro-environmental approaches to urban areas.  It defines a synergy between community basic needs, environmental protection and alternative economic practice.  For studying the case, the researchers have been participant-observers, involved in some responsibilities for tasks of the Orti Solidali.

The Orti Solidali CSA develops agricoltura sinergica (synergistic agriculture), an agricultural production technique that is highly sustainable. Synergistic agriculture provides methods for enhancing soil fertility, minimising material inputs, improving the natural and cultivated biodiversity level and substituting knowledge of natural resources for external inputs. This cultivation method addresses the environmental problems of the agricultural sector.  This method also provides a potential basis for new knowledge sharing among participants – paid workers and subscribers who pay for food boxes.

The research was conducted on several levels of the Orti Solidali in parallel, to study its:
1.Knowledge flows and partnerships
2.Sustainability: environmental, economic and social
3.Comparison with other agro-food initiatives

Knowledge flows and partnerships

In spring 2009 the CSA held several workshops for subscribers who wanted to be volunteers, so that they could gain the necessary knowledge to work in the gardens.  The course was dedicated to synergistic agriculture on a theoretical level, to transfer knowledge to the volunteers on a gift and exchange basis.  This aimed both to prevent possible damage that they could cause to the gardens if unaware about synergistic techniques and to make them more conscious about the project’s values of environmental stewardship.

Poor weather delayed the full start of the gardens, consequently losing participation of a civil society organization (CSO) that had originally made a commitment to provide voluntary labor.  Nevertheless in summer/autumn 2009 the initiative yielded the expected agronomic harvest.  It also exceeded expectations regarding the commitment of subscribers, who supported the initiative despite the delays and the problems. Furthermore, the workers, refugees from the social cooperative Il Tetto, were motivated to work consistently.

After summer 2009, the gardens encountered several logistical problems – no water available for months, no glass houses available, etc. – mainly due to the host landlord, Agricoltura Nuova, who changed its mind regarding the zone classification of the land. This change blocked the agricultural production and delayed the start of the box deliveries. Meanwhile the project tried some ‘experimental’ deliveries, but subscribers were still waiting for the service to be fully operational. As a result of these difficulties, the initiative found it necessary to move to a new site and build the gardens anew.

Consequently, CSOs did not fully participate as originally expected.  Knowledge exchange and mutual social learning occurred only among a few participants – mostly during the initial planning and building of the gardens.  The CSA network did not show much knowledge flow between actors, except for communication between the organizers and the subscribers. By contrast, we saw knowledge flows between the researchers and the CSA network, for example while submitting questionnaires and during garden working days. Another opportunity for developing partnerships and spreading knowledge has been our national workshop (see later section).

Sustainability evaluation

The study developed methods to evaluate the social, environmental and economic sustainability of the CSA, as follows.

Economic sustainability: We focused on self-sustainability – the ability of a CSA to sustain itself economically from its own resources and services offered primarily to participants.  Costs should be wholly covered by the incoming subscriptions and by other forms of direct or indirect sponsorship.
The data collected are based on the financial accounts supplied by the Orti coordinator.  We had a dialogue with FRCIVAM, our CREPE partners from WP4, to discuss the most useful approach to the economic evaluation of short-chain initiatives.  More help came from the discussion during the workshop that we organized on the CSA model (November 2009) and in particular from the dialogue with Maria Fonte, an academic expert on the relationships among agriculture, economy and society.  At this stage of the investigation, we focused on capacity of the CSA to survive autonomously and to direct its income towards the workers’ wages.

Social sustainability: We decided to evaluate the social skills of proposing solutions to some social problems generated by the conventional agricultural system, particularly the relation between producers and consumers. Due to the difficulty of identifying indicators for social sustainability, we decided to evaluate this component through questionnaires to the subscribers, where we formulated questions about their satisfaction and level of involvement in the CSA initiative. Questionnaires were circulated to subscribers right after the November 2009 workshop, drawing as well on main topics that emerged during the discussions. When analyzing the outcomes, we used a selected bibliography on international Local Food Networks and CSAs in order to compare our initiative with other experiences.

Questionnaire responses came from approx. half the subscribers. They expressed a wide range of economic, social, environmental and personal reasons for participation as subscribers.  The most important motive was ‘ethical’.  We interpret this term to mean a commitment to an alternative production-consumption model carrying many features that consumers have chosen for ethical reasons.  In relation to the CSA’s social sustainability, we collected interesting points as well from the discussion at the end of each thematic section of the workshop we organized, thanks to the contributions from academic guests and the CSA subscribers.

Environmental sustainability:
We analysed the environmental sustainability of the initiative in qualitative and quantitative terms. First, we selected few aspects that are more relevant for our case study: energy use efficiency, protection of natural and cultivated biodiversity, management of soil fertility and water resources, climate change.

In qualitative terms, we described the relations among a CSA initiative and the environmental aspects, by looking at industrial agriculture as the reference point or baseline. We analysed how a CSA can give solutions for the most difficult situations.

Afterwards we selected few indicators for each aspect in order to quantify the Orti’s environmental performance. We then defined a useful framework that could be applied in the future to calculate the environmental performance of an alternative agriculture initiative.

Urban agriculture in Italy: a comparative workshop

A public workshop on CSA and alternative food networks in urban areas was held in November 2009. Participants attended it from both CSOs currently working on the project, by CSOs from other Italian regions engaged in similar projects, and by several academics.

The workshop investigated the multifunctional sustainability of alternative food networks involving different stakeholders, and focusing on the features of the CSA model.  The three main topics discussed have been: agricultural methods, community building, and urban planning.

Agricultural methods: This discussion developed around the synergistic method, and the implementation of Local Food Networks in urban areas.  Participants agreed that this would depend on a change from the agro-industrial vision towards the rural-ecological vision.  It needs a change from agricultural productivity to quality, from large-scale retail trade to local distribution, from high input of fossil energy towards low external inputs. Together these changes can reduce environmental impacts during production, distribution and consumption of food.

Community building: Participants felt that an urban food system must build a path through which consumers improve their awareness of agro-environmental and food safety issues. They can become consume-actors, thus constituting a food community.  This can be the basis for creating a CSA initiative. Several food communities could develop a food network on regional or national or even global scale.

Urban planning: Participants discussed and criticized zoning rules (the functional separation of the different parts of the cities), the centralized planning of space and the disappearance of local connections.  Given that most big cities have no space designed for agriculture, the workshop discussed strategies to create spaces for urban agriculture.  For example, they can take back ‘the empties’ – areas that are left empty or abandoned by urban planning.  They can rethink the old concept of commons – lands, forests and streams that could be freely used by the peasants in medieval Europe.  The original concept could be adapted to today’s urban spaces.  For example, food and environment can be seen as commons that should be preserved, as well as collective alternative uses for urban commons.

Orti Solidali as a degrowth niche

The case study of the Orti Solidali gives tools to analyse in practical terms the alternatives being widely discussed around degrowth theories.  With its critique of the current unsustainable economic system, Degrowth advocates a reduction of economic growth and a transition to a new economic system based on environmental protection and social equity.  The Orti Solidali translates this call into a food production initiative that uses an environmentally sustainable agronomic method, and that creates goods while providing living wages and fair working conditions to the producers.

Moreover, the Orti Solidali has developed alternative organizational models and social relationships for the actors involved. It addresses calls for relocalisation of food, redistribution of wealth, reduction of environmental pollution, restructuring of production-consumption patterns, that is to say, many of the “R” imperatives suggested by the degrowth movement. These priorities, which the Orti turns into practice, highlight ethical concerns that have a big relevance for most of the actors, especially for consumers.   Subscribers’ ethical beliefs on environment protection and social equity had a central importance for their commitment to the initiative, despite all its problems.

For innovation theory, a niche emerges from a novelty when a network of social actors constitutes a set of ethical values, cognitive frames, relational codes that shape a protective environment. This gives the niche a relative stability, dependent on the commitment and the dedication of the participants, until establishing itself. Otherwise it collapses and disappears from the range of possible alternatives.

Alternative agro-food networks (AAFNs) act as such niches.  They play a transformative role in reorganizing priorities, especially co-building knowledge around an alternative food provision. In the Orti Solidali, often we made a virtue of necessity in dealing with problems.  Both the organizers and subscribers had a strong commitment, which helped to create a niche protected from the market, so that the novel community could establish itself and find solutions to problems.