How One Small Tow Banned Pesticides

​Philip Ackerman-Leist's "A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement" (2017) takes a deep dive into one northern Italian town wherein farmers became activists and voted to ban pesticides. The book is a bit heavy on the storytelling, but it does not claim to be academic work.

What was the issue? "In general, almost everyone agreed, at least in public discourse, that farmers could manage their land in whatever ways they say fit - as long as other neighboring farmers weren't negatively impacted. However, as discussions progressed, it became harder and harder for some participants to see how side-by-side coexistence could ever really work in a town with such frequent winds and small parcel sizes. And many Malsers began to wonder whether compromise was, in the long run, the same as surrender." (p. 84)

The complexities of politics and law are such that while the town did vote to ban pesticides, this was not the end result: "Ulrich stood in front of the seated audience and methodologically explained the necessity of compromise... However, Ulrich continued, there was a virtual ban provided by the strict nature of the stringent new buffer requirements. Although the new buffers were still insufficient for doing the impossible - containing drift - they made pesticide spraying impractical in a town with such small and fragmented agricultural fields." (p. 180)

The world did seem to take notice, however. "The EU created a 'Pesticide-Free Villages' initiative, modeled in large part on the Mals campaign. When pesticide policy is discussed in the European Union, Japan, Australia, and now the United States, Mals isn't just a model - it's a story, an evolving story of a small community that took on forces far bigger, won, and is still winning." (p. 185). 

I enjoyed the side story of how everyday people became activists. This part of understanding social movements and collective action is usually missing. For example, in the early days, one farmer came to realize "'There are two possibilities' he continued. 'Either we just watch how the land is sold, how the land is destroyed, and how the poison is sprayed everywhere... or we somehow set ourselves in motion to do something'" (p. 77). The result of small conversations and building experiences was that "Ordinary citizens, not practiced in politics or particularly polished in activism, they were nonetheless Querdenkers, a term that translates into 'diagonal thinkers' or 'cross thinkers' - people who think in a different direction, outside of the box. Where they come together is where an uprising start" (p. 78). In the end, the town approved to run a referendum vote on the question of banning pesticides, which won overwhelmingly (75.68% voted for a pesticide free community).

The ballot read (p. 176):

  • Are you in favor of implementing the following amendment to the articles of the Township of Mals?
  • The precautionary principle, in order to protect public health, states all measures should be taken that will help prevent harm to the health of humans and animals. The township of Mals has a particular objective of protecting the health of its citizens and guests, maintaining the sustainability of nature and waters, and making it possible for different economic models to coexist within the municipality in a fair and respectful way.
  • In conformance with these goals, Mals promotes the use of organic, biodegradable crop protection within its municipal boundaries. An ordinance will be issued that describes the details of this provision.
  • Independently from this provision, the use of highly toxic, harmful, and polluting chemical-synthetic pesticides is prohibited within its municipal boundaries. The municipal authority is responsible for monitoring the implementation and the compliance of the referendum outcome.
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