How a Tiny Village Became the First Place in the World to Ban All Synthetic Pesticides

For hundreds of years, the people of Mals—a tiny village in the South Tirol province of northern Italy—had cherished their traditional foodways and kept their local agriculture organic. Yet the town is located high up in the Alps, and the conventional apple producers, heavily dependent on pesticides, were steadily overtaking the valley below. Aided by climate change, Big Apple (i.e., large corporate, industrialized apple growers) crept further up the region’s increasingly warmer valleys and mountainsides, its toxic sprays drifting with the valley’s ever-present winds and falling on the farms and fields of Mals—endangering their health, biodiversity, organic certifications, and their thriving tourism economy. 

The advancing threats gradually motivated a diverse cast of characters to take action in a display of direct democracy that has inspired a movement now coursing its way through Europe, the United States, and beyond. The citizens of Mals and their forward-thinking mayor joined forces to become the first place in the world to ban all synthetic pesticides by a referendum vote—setting an international precedent and a model for other cities and towns to follow.

The following excerpt is adapted from Philip Ackerman-Leist’s book A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

When Ulrich became mayor in 2009, Mals was on a path toward becoming an enviable model of a truly sustainable community. The villages were advancing their capacity to capture energy from the area’s fast-moving waters and turn it into electrical power that not only met their needs but also generated an excess that could be sold at a profit. The USGV environmental protection group and others had worked for years to bring back the train that took tourists, schoolchildren, and commuters back and forth between the Upper Vinschgau and the jobs and cities down in the valley. Not only did they find a way to get the rail lines functioning again, after decades of sitting idle, but they also brought in a sleek and colorful new train, designed by the Swiss, that became an attraction in and of itself. Quiet and comfortable, it featured large windows that unveiled the landscape along its serpentine path up the valley, along with bike racks, recycling bins, and compost containers. Designed to run on electricity, generated in part by the valley’s hydropower systems, it ran on diesel until the necessary infrastructure was in place to convert it to electric power.

Bike paths and hiking trails were upgraded throughout the town, and Ulrich oversaw the conversion of the main thoroughfare in Mals into a pedestrian zone, creating an ambience that invited conversation and free-wheeling children. He also worked with town officials and community members to increase bus services and even a car-share program for residents unable to or uninterested in owning their own cars.

In addition, the agritourism opportunities continued to grow. Food and fitness—tourists could pursue both in Mals in a way that didn’t seem possible elsewhere, simply because the landscape was so unspoiled and the region’s high-quality foods were so valued and celebrated.

Local businesses were creating new niches by teasing out the tensions between tradition and innovation. Food and ecotourism were fueling the Mals renaissance. Not that it was a simple equation. To the contrary, it involved building a constellation of eco-oriented goods and services, with businesses collaborating as much as competing. There was more collective success in growing a diverse and thriving economy than in building ever-bigger businesses that simply consumed one another until only a hollow shell of infrastructure remained. Mals was a network of family-scale businesses, but it took collaboration and focused leadership to maintain not only that scale but also that ethos.

These local relationships are nothing new in Mals, but restaurant and hotel owners are refashioning these networks. In the village of Schleis, Hans Agethle manages his family’s hotel and restaurant, Gasthof zum Goldenen Adler. When locals hear that you’re staying at the Goldenen Adler, they almost always exclaim, “Oh, du bist bei Hansele! Es gibt kein besser Essen in Südtirol!” Oh, you’re staying with Hans! There’s no better food in South Tirol! I know simply because I’ve been staying with Hans and his family for more than twenty-five years, and that’s the standard response— and it’s true. I’m now a Stammgast, literally a “rooted guest,” which means more than simply being a regular.

The Stammgast tradition in Europe is a strong one. When you find your perfect vacation spot, with the ideal hosts and outstanding food, you keep coming back, and the relationships with the hotel staff are as important as the food or the surrounding recreational opportunities. So it means something when tourists are giving up their usual vacation spots in other parts of the South Tirol and coming instead to the Upper Vinschgau because of the overwhelming transition to apple plantations. Tourists complain of the trellising and hail nets that block the views, but they become really angry when they are savoring hiking and biking trails, only to find themselves surrounded by the smell of pesticides or, worse yet, caught in a drifting cloud of spray from a nearby tractor.

For now, at least, Schleis offers a reprieve from that kind of spraycation, and the Agethle family continues to manage their idyllic rural hotel as they have since 1857. With only twelve rooms in a small village, they have to differentiate what they offer. In Hans’s case, the exceptional hospitality and the high quality of the food are the key to the future. There is pressure for hotels in the South Tirol to increase their number of stars— some in the region would like it to be known for the number of four- and five-star hotels it has. In fact, some loans for hotel renovations require that a hotel scale up in its ratings. Scaling up in star status can ruin the essence of what many family hotels have to offer—and the escalating prices quickly shift the clientele . . . and their expectations.

The Agethles’ hotel and restaurant have never had to manufacture authenticity when it comes to local or sustainably produced food: They have long maintained a farm, and any hours Hans can spend on the farm are therapy, although it’s increasingly hard for him to find the time to be in the fields instead of managing the daily operations of the hotel. However, he is keenly attuned to the fact that what happens on the farm either expands or diminishes the offerings that come out of the kitchen. The Agethles have long prided themselves on their fusion of farm and plate, and what they haven’t been able to raise themselves, they’ve been able to procure from their neighbors and their purveyors.

Breakfast always features an extraordinary array of local honeys, cheeses, marmalades, dairy products, and breads. Cheeses and cultured butter make their way down from the high pastures onto the plates, and homemade cured meats appear on special occasions. It’s all a reminder that plate and palate are intricately linked to the farmer’s palette. Artistry in the kitchen is dependent upon the art of farming.

One of the postcard campaigns just before the ballot initiative said it best: “Monoculture is un-culture. Culture requires a landscape with a future . . . Life is valuable.”

The ballot read:

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.

The polling period stretched out as long as the summer days, but even those were drawing to a close. Ulrich tried to minimize the stress with occasional mountain bike rides and hikes with his young family. The elevations provided needed perspective, and when he looked down over the Upper Vinschgau any doubts would dissipate into the thin mountain air.

Days in the office were harried, with calls coming in from Malsers, attorneys, politicians, and the media. Lunch tended to be a time when he could expect some levity, at least when he had the chance to walk up the street, just past Johannes’s apothecary, and grab a bite of bio and regional—organic and local—street food at the Stroossnkuch. Advertised as “Refined Sausage Culture,” the high-end hot dog stand featured products from as many local producers as possible. There still weren’t enough of those producers and distributors, but it took creative enterprises like the Stroossnkuch to catalyze the needed push and pull in the regional economy.

Franz Hofer and Günther Pitscheider thought that Mals needed a different kind of Würstelstand, one that reflected the new food order that seemed to be building in Mals. There were great restaurants in the town— including Pizzeria Remo, which won the coveted “Pizza World Championship”—but Günther and Franz thought that the Stroossnkuch could fill another niche. Dedicated to high-quality food at a reasonable price, the Stroossnkuch is simply a retrofitted trailer in a parking lot with a few tables and stools inside and a canopy terrace with picnic tables outside. However, the two business partners are also avid proponents of Wurstkultur, bringing together sausage and the arts, especially music, one of Günther’s many professions.

Ulrich had helped “make room” in town for this new venture—given its out-of-the-ordinary zoning status—and it had become a gathering spot for many of the pesticide-free advocates, formally appointed or not. It was as good a place as any to wait out the news.

The polls closed at noon on September 5, 2014. At 7 pm the results were announced, to the astonishment of almost everyone: 69.22 percent of the electorate had turned out for the vote, and a resounding 75.68 percent voted Ja! (“yes”) for a pesticide-free community, with 24.32 percent voting against the initiative. That three-quarter majority was no fluke. It precisely mirrored the polling done by USGV the year prior.

Mals had made its decision. It seemed like a choice worthy of a democracy.

The supporters of the ballot initiative rejoiced, but they were also careful not to flaunt the victory, realizing that not everyone was happy with the outcome and that, in the end, they all had to live and work together. It was, after all, a small town, like any other . . . except that it had chosen to be different.

The word went out far and wide, with the stunning victory being reported from the major newspapers throughout Europe to the 2014 Annual Congress of the Societas Europaea Lepidopterologica (the European Society for Butterflies and Moths). A jubilant yell went out from the podium: “The Miracle of Malles!” The ordinarily reserved gathering of scientists burst into applause, ecstatic to have one victory in a world where butterfly and moth populations were suffering the ill effects of pesticides, monocultures, and habitat loss.

Several weeks later Mals would win the prestigious European Village Renewal Award in a ceremony in Switzerland, and receive a letter of support from environmental activist Vandana Shiva, yet another winner of the Right Livelihood Award—the “Alternative” Nobel Prize—and probably the world’s most recognized leader in the fight against pesticides and genetically engineered crops.

The international acclaim couldn’t have been more deserved. It also made it much harder for Big Apple and the politicians to dismiss the Malsers as “green crazies.” Mals had set a precedent that went well beyond the South Tirol. The good news and the bad news was that Mals was now even more of a threat. Things would not get easier.

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