For environmental reasons, Chiara Appendino is wading into territory that most politicians don't dare go. It's a daring and controversial step for a country deeply attached to its meat.
When I was 16, I moved to Italy, for a year. I lived in a small town on the island of Sardinia, the outskirts of which were populated by small, rustic farms and countless sheep. Contrary to what people may think, Sardinians are not fishermen who subsist on sardines; they are agriculturists who take tremendous pride in their sheep, lamb, and pork.
I ate a lot of meat that year. The first memorable meal, eaten in an exhausted state of culture shock and homesickness, was pork tenderloin braised in milk. I was introduced to Sardinian porcheddu, whole piglet roasted over a fire, with crispy skin and melting layers of fat. We ate breaded beef or veal cutlets frequently for lunch after school. Pasta was topped with stewed meat sauces or fresh ham, cream, and sheep’s cheese. Dinner parties always started with plates of cured meats, like prosciutto and bresaola. It was delicious. I also gained 30 pounds.
Food is king in Italy, to which anyone who has visited can attest. It’s difficult to imagine Italy without meat, as it features so prominently in every meal, particularly the traditional dishes of which every region is fiercely proud.
It is into this firmly entrenched culinary tradition that Chiara Appendino has stepped. She is the controversial new mayor of Turin, a large city of over 870,000 people in the industrial northwest region of Piedmont that is famous for its food, primarily cured meats, and for being the birthplace of the Slow Food movement.
Appendino has announced her intention to promote vegetarianism and veganism in Turin. In a document outlining her plan for the city in 2016-2021, Appendino states that her government will prioritize
“The promotion of vegetarian and vegan diets throughout the municipality as an fundamental act that will protect the environment, health, and animals through awareness-building actions on the ground.”
The statement is consistent with Appendino’s strong stance on animal rights. Her Manifesto promises to “promote a culture of respect that recognizes all animals as having rights” and to make curricular changes in schools that include educating kids about “protection and respect for animals and proper nutrition in collaboration with animal welfare organizations and nutritionists.”
Reactions are mixed. One person joked on Twitter that whoever disobeys the new program will go to bed hungry. A pro-vegetarian supporter complains that when Michelle Obama promotes clean, healthy eating, she is praised for being an innovative progressive, while Appendino is made out to be a monster.
When I asked some Italian friends for their opinions on Appendino, I met strong opposition. Marta, a philosophy graduate and artist, told me, “Everyone is free to choose their own dietary habits, but I believe that the best diet is a balanced one. Excess is never a good thing.”
Giulia, who works in business in Milan, offered a different view:
"I think Appendino's program shows respect for the democratic choices of the citizens of Turin. It is not an imposition on those who have not embraced this lifestyle choice, but more than anything represents openness and awareness toward different choices that are more ethical and sustainable. It is a revolutionary act in a political contest where usually the interests of large companies and corporations are prioritized over those of ordinary citizens. The promotion of vegetarianism/veganism is consistent with demands that are growing within the country."
I, too, think Appendino is courageous to put forth such a radical suggestion in meat-loving Italy. It’s a necessary one. The more we learn about the environmental repercussions of animal agriculture, the more pressing the need to cut back on meat and dairy consumption. And yet, as seen by the sheer volume of vitriol poured onto the Cowspiracy documentary, dietary preferences are the one thing people do not want to debate. It’s uncomfortable territory for most. As George Monbiot points out,
"Livestock keeping is so embedded in our cultural and religious identity that to challenge it is, it seems, to attack the foundations of society. We like to see ourselves as free thinkers, but we all have our sacred cows."
Appendino’s statement threatens Italian culinary culture, but is that such a bad thing? New traditions can be created over time – and have to be, in the name of progress. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, addresses the uncomfortable subject of meat as tradition in a 2009 op-ed for the New York Times:
“Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting — even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember my values, I need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.”
Regardless of what older generations (and meat-cooking nonni) may think, many Millennials are eating more consciously. A 2014 study by Mintel has found that vegetarianism has risen to an all-time high in the United Kingdom – 12 percent of the overall population and 20 percent of 16-24 year olds.
Appendino, who has also promised to develop urban agriculture production and promote zero-waste trade in Turin’s stores, has her work cut out for her. It will be fascinating to see where she gets with this promise over the next five years.