Regional Outlooks on Sustainability & Italian Food Systems

As the U.S. sat down for Thanksgiving, a crowd was gathering at the Accent Florence Study Center for a panel discussion on a culinary tradition reaching much further back in history: the production and consumption of ancient grains. The panel explored the recent revival of ancient grains from historical, nutritional, and economic perspectives, with a close examination of two regional cases: Tuscany and Sicily.

The panel included professors Guido Gualandi of Florence and Paolo Guarnaccia of Syracuse, Sicily. Both have taught or lectured for the University of California’s Mediterranean Politics, Food & Culture program, an interdisciplinary multi-site semester that explores the social and political complexities of the Mediterranean through the lens of food and nutrition. The program includes five weeks each in Florence, Syracuse, and Barcelona.

Gualandi’s Tuscan case centered on the hill town of Montespertoli, once dominated by the production of wheat through mezzadria sharecropping. Gualandi, an archeologist and winemaker, is president of the local Ancient Grains Association, a network of producers, consumers and small businesses promoting sustainable production of ancient grains. He described the area’s history, including a drastic decrease in the number of agricultural jobs and the closure of twelve of the town’s thirteen mills. He then introduced the Association’s efforts to create a trademark for members’ sustainably grown grains and to lobby local authorities to sanction fraudulent producers and introduce ancient grains and other local products into school cafeterias.

Guarnaccia, a professor at the University of Catania, then intervened to discuss the Sicilian case, which he has been studying since the early 1990s. He stressed the importance of redesigning agricultural systems, discussing some of the negative impacts of current systems, from increased carbon emissions to a lack of biodiversity. In Sicily, 85% of food is imported, traveling an average of 3,500 kilometers to reach the island. Guarnaccia contrasted this with the region’s unemployment rate, one of the ten highest youth unemployment rates in all of Europe. Considering the positive qualities of ancient grain – a low gluten index, resilience, and adaptability to climate change – Guarnaccia made a case to address Sicily’s economic and social challenges through agricultural production.

Other panelists included Nadia Mulinacci from the University of Florence Interdepartmental Center for Food Research (CeRA) who spoke on the chemical and nutritional properties of ancient grains, and Ginevra Virginia Lombardi, professor of Economics and Farmland Appraisal, who addressed food security and the sustainability of food systems. The panel was moderated by Sergio Rufini, who has taught numerous courses on food and cultural heritage at Accent Florence and Rome.

The panel sparked engaging discussion among the students and members of the local academic community in attendance and was followed by a reception featuring local breads made with ancient grains, accompanied by olive oil, cheese, and cured meats. It was a fantastic evening that highlighted the close connections between Accent and the University of Florence, as well as the value of comparative study across Italy’s diverse and culturally rich regions.

Accent Study Centers each serve as a dynamic hub of academic activity in their respective city, regularly hosting seminars and panel discussions attended by Accent and local university faculty, local students, and other members of the community. These events, in addition to book launches for Accent faculty, topical lectures, and debates, represent a unique opportunity for U.S. students to integrate into the local academic community. To learn more about customized semester programs with Accent, explore some examples here.