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Nov 15, 2021

Can beans change the world?

To be honest, I had not thought about beans quite like this, until I found myself deep in meetings with municipal leaders at the last World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi. This was on the eve of the pandemic in early 2020. There I was — with thousands of (unmasked) people to explore how to leverage towns as entry points to change collective behavior via new policies and practices.

I am greatly encouraged by what is cooking. Moreover, while these ideas simmer, what about replicating them elsewhere? 


Let It Bean! In 2020-21, Italian farmers and chefs braved semi-lockdowns to prepare delicious plant-based meals featuring local beans with (6) Italian mayors. The purpose? To secure commitments from municipalities to take tangible steps that take local beans seriously. Even better, meetings were recorded and broadcast widely. 


What does taking beans seriously mean? It begins with listening to nearby farmers, who seek better policies (for land and water), and access to local markets (where their beans can nourish families, children, and workers). One market — albeit, fraught with complications — can literally change a region’s economy: public procurement.  


Procuring pulses. For anyone who has spent time in the public procurement trenches knows success is elusive. Once you nudge closer to edging into the fortress of contracts, rules are changed. Procurement practices may care little for broader social, economic and ecological goals, but they could. Campaigns like Let It Bean have the potential to bring more sunlight onto public procurement priorities by building constituencies that care about the big picture. Shouldn’t procurement practices achieve more outcomes than simply rewarding the lowest quality and prices for the agency footing the bills? Instead, what if procurement for local school, hospital, and office canteens do more: a) address municipal pride of place, an important flag for mayors to fly; b) reward impact upon the ecology of local economies; c) consider health and climate impacts on food choices; and d) recognize that change like this involves risks? 


In this delicious nexus where pride of place, biodiversity, and regenerative agriculture meet, Meatless Monday is the active call-to-action to celebrate beans not just as healthy fuel for people, but as symbols of transition to a world of agriculture in which farmers (who already raise, largely GMO soybeans and corn for animals) explore profitable alternatives by diversifying farming operations for municipal markets. These markets have the financial power to reward shifts in the field. No one expects transitions to be easy. A recent Civil Eats piece about beans (link below) sheds light on just how unprepared we are for changes that are coming, whether we like it or not. However, let’s take a cue from the Italian mayors of San Giorgio Canavese, Civita di Casia, Acerra, Polizzi Generosa, Acquiaviva delle Fonti, and Capannori. In these places, municipal leaders already recognize and celebrate their local beans. They need not be alone. Other municipalities possess beans that are cherished. Just think of the passion that butter beans can muster in Jackson, MS. Scan the map, and beans will come to mind. 


Tuscany’s Capannori sets the stage. In early December (4-5), the mayors of these towns are descending on Capannori for the annual Slow Beans gathering to determine how to activate the Let It Bean agenda with partners, like Friends of the Earth and the Italian equivalent to the National Conference of Mayors (ANCI); and to welcome legume and legislative leaders from elsewhere in Italy, Poland, Germany, and beyond. 


What does this mean beyond Italy? Beans are universal. To grow beans is to decide to store carbon in the soil, and to elevate food that has otherwise been slagged off as poor people’s food and relegated to farm animals. If instead, we grow beans for people, it is an opportunity to grow beans that mean something to people, to traditional recipes, and to the joy of reconnecting to the land. Here in the US, with the election of plant-forward New York City Mayor Eric Adams, there is an opportunity to assemble the forces of supply and demand at the municipal level. It won’t be easy, but in one swoop, a megacity could mitigate the risks for family farms who otherwise face dark days ahead providing inputs to the struggling dairy industry. This shift can also trigger important investments in dairy farmers to move towards more entrepreneurial value-added strategies. After all, the forces of consolidation, climate and consumer patterns conspire against them. It need not be this way.


Maybe beans can change the world!


Curious about beans? These are useful resources:

Webpage: 

Visit the Bean Resource Center 

Videos: 

Watch Let It Bean concept 

Watch Let It Bean in Capannori

Blogpost: 

Read Lisa Held’s essay, “Beans May Be the ‘Food of the Future,’ but US Farmers Aren’t Planting Enough” for Civil Eats 

Books: 

Read Joe Yonan’s Cool Beans 

Read Liz Carlisle’s Lentil Underground

 

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Kuni: A Japanese Vision for Reviving Rural Lands

Kuni: A Japanese Vision for Reviving Rural Lands

To be published in Autumn 2022 by North Atlantic Publishers!
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Kuni teaches us that we can all be what German sociologist Ulrich Beck describes as “place polygamists.” Live in the city, but dream rural. Live in a rice-growing village, but play also play host to an influx of repeat visitors. Rural innovator Tsuyoshi Sekihara has crafted a new social experiment in the far, rural reaches of Niigata Prefecture in Japan. He calls his ideas, Kuni. I am working with Sekihara to help tell his story, and translate his ideas about scale and survival in rural communities to new audiences outside of Japan. 

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