Why preserving artisan food and farming is central to sustainability

22 October 2021, 07:21 AM
  • Protecting biodiversity by shining a light on near-extinct plant and animal species is not only good for sustainability, but it also promotes heritage and culinary identity, says Philippe Gombert, president and CEO of Relais & Châteaux
Why preserving artisan food and farming is central to sustainability

When we presented the Relais & Châteaux Vision and 20 Commitments to UNESCO in 2014, we proclaimed our mission: to preserve the diversity of cuisines and hospitality in this world, to share our passion for all that is good and beautiful, and to work together to create a more humane world. Among these 20 commitments are the defence of biodiversity, the combat to protect food crops, and the celebration of small-scale farming and processes. As a not-for-profit association, this vision could be considered our DNA. 

“Biodiversity is our insurance policy against climate change, a treasure that supports us in facing these new situations,” states Katina Connaughton of the SingleThread Farm, Restaurant, and Inn in California. To me that perfectly sums it up. The broader the spectrum of animal breeds and plant species, the better our chances of building an agricultural system that will resist climate change. 

The Devon Red Ruby cow (nominated to the Ark of Taste, which travels the world collecting at risk small-scale, family-based food production systems, by chef Michael Caines of Lympstone Manor in the United Kingdom) is an excellent example of resilience. Adapted to smallholder farming, it feeds almost exclusively by grazing, and indeed its small size prevents it from stripping the pasture. It also appears to be unperturbed by heat. Its many advantages compensate for its relatively slow growth compared to more widespread breeds. 

Another example of this forward-looking agriculture is kumatiya. A small but resourceful tree from Rajasthan, it captures nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil, contributing to its fertility and regeneration. It is championed by Jaisal Singh, vice president of Relais & Châteaux and founder of the SUJÁN group, which runs three tented camps in India dedicated to conservation tourism. 

Of course, the idea is not to determine a list of animal breeds and plant varieties that should be cultivated everywhere like a panacea. Each ecosystem has different characteristics that are constantly evolving. What needs protection is the integrity of biodiversity: the infinite array of possibilities that make it so rich. 

Biodiversity has an obvious value in terms of environmental heritage and culinary identity. The Valdarno black chicken is the symbol of local flavour for chef Gaetano Trovato of Arnolfo Ristorante in Italy. Such commitment saves near-extinct foods and also combats rural depopulation. This is illustrated in the pride shown by Laura Peri, the chicken breeder who supplies the chef. 

This year’s Food for Change campaign to save edible biodiversity through the Ark of Taste also showcases these products to a wider public, helping raise awareness among consumers on each one’s specific challenges, seasonality, pace of development, and so on. Chef Julien Dumas of the Saint James Paris asserts that part of his vision of the restaurant is “to highlight the ingredients that people don’t necessarily consume on a regular basis.” 

Another of our commitments is to create relationships with people involved in the same efforts. It was natural to choose Slow Food in order to share this vision of gastronomy as a cultural element, a connection to a terroir: kitchens point to the fields, where artisans and farmers deserve recognition – especially after this past year.

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