By Michael Mortimer 

In Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century classic The Decameron, young Florentine nobles flee the city and the ravages of the Black Death for what they hope is the relative safety of a countryside villa. Their refuge villa could have easily been part of a podere homestead. The poderi were farmsteads owned by the Florentine wealthy—both merchants and nobles—that were then leased to sharecropping farmers under a system known as mezzadria. Farmers then lived on the land and in the houses, and in exchange owed one half of their agricultural production to their urban landlords. 

A synergy between city and country 
This system, this means of co-existence between the urban center and its hinterlands, benefitted both landscapes. Though money did not change hands, the landlords derived foodstuffs and commercial goods, while the tenants benefitted from a home, a livelihood, and the assurance of a built-in market for their goods. It was an excellent example of a close relationship between a city and its hinterlands, where the needs of the city benefitted the countryside, and vice versa. Much urban wealth derived from the goods produced by the labor of its nearby countryside. And stable land tenure in the countryside was assured for generations of farmers. Both classes of Tuscans had incentives to keep the agricultural landscape intact and productive.

Tuscany, Italy; Photo: Michael Mortimer
Tuscany, Italy; Photo: Michael Mortimer

The zero-kilometer approach 
For nearly 600 years this system persisted across the hilly Tuscan landscape. It reflected the maxim that cities need food and that hinterlands produce that food.  Florence in the 15th century was, if not the largest, then certainly one of the largest cities in Europe. It was a great metropolis of its day, and its needs for sustenance must have likewise been great. The mezzadria land tenure arrangement provided a very early example of what we might label today as a short supply chain, or zero-kilometer (kilometro zero) approach to food security, one often memed as “farm to fork.” Clearly the idea of the short supply chain is not a new one, but there were and are criticisms of these local food movements. 

The mezzadria system did exist in a time of profound wealth inequalities and farmers may have had little bargaining power, posits R. J. Emight in “Means and Measures: Property Rights, Political Economy, and Productivity in Fifteenth-Century Tuscany.” Too often, though, criticisms of environmental alternatives take the form of all or nothing. If the alternative approach or system cannot replace all our needs then it’s inadequate and rejectable; so the story goes. Think local food, recycling, renewable energy. Of course these cannot meet all our current food, fiber, and energy needs. Is that a reason not to pursue them? Regardless, more perceivable climate change impacts and the COVID-19 pandemic have laid bare carbon footprints and fragile supply lines for all to witness.

Cities’ demand is central to sustainability 
The emergence of the zero-kilometer supply chain has prominently emerged among various food ecosystems, particularly in Europe. The goal being to grow food products as near to the point of consumption as is feasible, aspirationally within 100 kilometers (~62 miles). By reducing the “food miles,” the risks from potential disruptions are thereby minimized. The carbon footprint from transportation may be reduced as well, depending on a variety of factors. This approach invariably involves cities. They are paradoxically the most intense consumers of foodstuffs while being the least able to independently feed themselves. Naturally, this phenomenon isn’t limited to food.  

Cities likewise must rely on external sources of energy and water as well. The zero-kilometer approach has multiple benefits that mimic but also go beyond the Tuscan poderi. The foodstuffs reaching cities from nearby producers are necessarily fresher and more seasonally suited; the urban/rural symbioses is preserved and enhanced; carbon emissions may be reduced as transport and refrigeration costs are lessened; and in many ways the most important factor—the risks from long, creaky supply chains—is mitigated by shorter, more redundant, and more resilient supply chains. Finally, and not to be underestimated, is a growing consumer preference for locally-sourced foods in the desire to be closer to the origins of their meals, to support local farmers, and the desire to avoid low-quality industrialized food systems. Anyone that’s ever eaten a locally grown tomato versus a corporate grocery store tomato will immediately get what I mean.

MNR students on a tour of the Castello di Verrazzano winery in Chianti, Italy; Photo: Michael Mortimer
MNR students on a tour of the Castello di Verrazzano winery in Chianti, Italy; Photo: Michael Mortimer

We can witness a variation on this idea in a specific example from Tuscany. On the Master of Natural Resources Global Study to Italy this spring, the group visited the winery of Castello di Verrazzano in Chianti (yes, the same name as the bridge connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn that was named for the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, born at the castello). The winery’s owner has spearheaded the resurrection of a 1,000-year-old practice of using its own chestnut forests as a source of wine casks instead of exclusively relying on oak casks from France, or worse, from the U.S.  

Wineries are, in many ways, at the agricultural epicenter of climate impacts to food systems. Verrazzano faces increased heat impacts, more intense rain events, more damaging hailstorms, more intense cold snaps, and more frequent high winds. None of which, as you can imagine, are good for the cultivation of delicate grapes. Climate change is the biggest concern to this winery. An overly long, carbon intensive, and fragile supply chain for wine casks would only add insult to injury. Alternatively, Castello di Verrazzano has perfected using chestnut trees from its onsite forest to produce a wine of exceptional quality in the spirit of a short supply chain.

Do we really need pineapples in December? 
Ensuring urban food security will increasingly demand scrutiny of our agricultural supply chains and the carbon footprints behind our food systems. Surely that will involve looking forward to new technologies, production techniques, personal ethics, and new institutions.  But sometimes… sometimes… we should be prepared to look backwards to a time when short supply chains were a sustainable norm. The past has lessons to share, if you make the effort to seek them out.

Michael Mortimer photo by Heath Rasmussen

Dr. Michael Mortimer is the Associate Dean, Washington, D.C. Area, and Founding Director of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Montana and his law degree from the Pennsylvania State University. He teaches courses in Natural Resource Law and Policy, Environmental Conflict Management, and Global Issues in Environmental Sustainability. His research is published in Society and Natural Resources, Journal of Forestry, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Environmental Management, Journal of Forest Policy and Economics, and other leading natural-resources journals. He is an avid photographer and traveler, having journeyed to more than fifty countries, camera in hand.