We’re All a Bit Foreign

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The final day of Cheese tackled the key issue of Migrants in the Italian Dairy Industry and provided an opportunity to hear the stories of those who work in the industry. The audience heard how, without the help of those from abroad, many of Italy’s most famous products wouldn’t perhaps have as much prestige as they do today.

In considering why foreigners might come to Italy, first of all, as Simona Singh, cultural mediator for a Sikh community in Cuneo (northern Italy) explained, many come in search of security. Over 1,000 of Indians live in the province Cuneo, and the majority works in the dairy industry. When asked how non-beef-eating Indians survive in such a beef-centric industry and area, she argued that their religion and culture actually helps, as many consider the cow a sacred animal and so their respect for the animal lends itself to producing high quality milk. She explained how job and financial security are vital for immigrants, and in the case of the Indian community in Cuneo, the dairy industry provides just this.

Giudo Tallone from the Moretta Institute, a cheesemaking school in Piedmont, explained how many come to his school to learn techniques and skills that they can replicate either in Italy, or in their home countries. Seeing how farms work, and in this case how milk is processed, is invaluable for many who work jobs that are vital to the Italian economy.

Leah Lekanayia, a nomadic Masai herder from Kenya came to Italy to study at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Pollenzo) for the purpose of learning skills and gaining knowledge to then be transferred to her home region. She detailed problems of land grabbing and sedentarization in her home country, some cases of which have involved the exploitation of local tribes and villages owing to their lack of education and awareness. Realizing the need for an appreciation of products and producers, on her return to Kenya she aims to assist other nomads in making the most of their environments and transhumance.

As much as migrant workers rely on the food industry, these industries are just as reliant on the workers themselves. Cinzia Scaffidi, vice president of Slow Food Italy, described the immigrants working the Italian diary industry as “jewels in our crown.” She admitted that attitudes towards immigrants are not always favorable, but insisted that they are now part of the tradition of Parmesan cheese, for example, as well as another food synonymous with Italy – the tomato – as a result of their vital contributions.

Singh echoed this sentiment as she highlighted that the milk many Italians drink for breakfast is most likely processed by Indians. She also suggested that most Italians are unaware of this and that shortening the chain between producers and consumers can only raise awareness and appreciation for their role in the industry. It was also suggested that immigrants who perform such an important role should not only be further appreciated, but that this appreciation should extend to a furthering of legal rights. Singh mentioned how Indians in her community are often too preoccupied with work permit renewals to even begin thinking about progressing in their careers, as family security and welfare often takes precedence. Similarly, Scaffidi recounted the problems faced by Macedonian herders in Abruzzo: She explained how over 90% of the shepherds in the region are in fact Macedonian, but legislation does not allow them to become breeders, and as a result they are not able to progress or expand their activities. Bearing in mind that attracting people to not only the industry but to the lifestyle – which can be incredibly demanding – is difficult, there is a real risk that generations’ of knowledge could be lost.

As some countries are now experiencing unprecedented levels of immigration, coupled with economic meltdown and the threat of a loss of knowledge in sectors such as the dairy industry, it is as important as ever that those from abroad are not only welcomed, but are encouraged to seek work, learn and progress. After all as Scaffidi admitted, “we’re all a bit foreign.”

Jonathan Moody
j.moody@slowfood.it