Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dico?!, Seeds and More: Being the 133rd issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, and I'm again sorry to be late with this: First there was Vinitaly, and then there was our furnace/hot water heater, which decided to die just before Easter. The calls to the plumber were especially frantic, but we have hot water again. To begin with the sites, the latest on Italian cuisine are a bunch of recipes, and a couple collections of favorite things. See The latest on the Italian Wine Revue is more substantial: Just before Vinitaly I visited Montecucco, a fairly new appellation in the Tuscan Maremma, found some nice wines; you'll find the writeup on site, together with notes from the Nobile di Montepulciano presentation (2004 is a distinct step up for them) and a couple of winery tastings from Vintialy.

If you follow European politics you may know that when Zapatero's Socialist government took office Spain, one of the first things they did was to pass a law recognizing gay marriage and giving cohabiters rights. A Spanish friend I ran into at Vintialy told me there was a flurry of commentary, after which things, he says, have pretty much settled down.

When Prodi and the Center-Left coalition took office in Italy, people wondered if they would do something similar. It took a while, but this year Rosi Bindi, Minister for Family Affairs (Politiche della Famiglia), introduced legislature to recognize and give rights to coppie di fatto, or unmarried couples -- gays and lesbians, but also heterosexual couples who don't want to or cannot marry for one reason or another. There are about 650 thousand coppie di fatto in Italy, in other words 4% of all Italian households, and the number is increasing steadily. So the proposed legislature will affect quite a few people. And what rights are we talking about?

  • To assist a loved one, either at home on in a hospital
  • To make it possible for the foreign half of a couple to get a residence permit quickly (After I married Elisabetta, establishing Italian residency and getting permission to work took a morning. It would have taken months had I not been married.)
  • To allow unmarried couples to sign up for public housing
  • To allow the transfer of the rental lease if the person in whose name it is has to move for professional reasons or dies after the couple has been cohabiting for more than three years
  • To allow inheritance if the couple has been living together for at least 9 years. (In Italy, the surviving spouse is automatically awarded 50% of the estate, with the remainder going to children or relatives. Cohabitants do not count, while children born out of wedlock count less than those born within -- they will inherit from parents, but need not be included in the division of a more distant relative's estate.)

None of this seems particularly radical to me. Quite the contrary; it makes sense, and will make people's lives much easier. Allowing couples to sign up for public housing, obviously, but also (and perhaps more) allowing hospital access; as things stand now a cohabitant has no standing in the eyes of the law and can be kept out by the family, including the soon-to-be-ex spouse if a divorce is under way. This might not seem significant to you if you live elsewhere, but in Italy a divorce is granted only after 3 years of legal separation (used to be 5), and vindictive soon-to-be exes can and do exercise their rights.

I also think the lease transfer and inheritance are good ideas; a number of years ago Adriana, who lived next door to Elisabetta's parents, met Luciano, the poultryman who worked down the street from where I lived while tending her husband's grave -- he was at the cemetery too, looking after his wife's. Something clicked, and after a time she moved in with him, but they never married because their adult kids were very much against the idea (the inheritance law, remember?). They were together for more than 10 years, and then one day Luciano dropped dead. It took his kids less than a week to throw her out.

I wonder what he thought of that? While one could argue he should have married her if he wanted her to be able to stay in their house, we all know how tangled family relationships can be, and how reluctant people can be to do things that will sunder bridges and otherwise divide. Remember also the inheritance laws; there have been cases of former spouses putting new families, including the children of their exes, on the street.

The reaction to Rosi Bindi's proposals? The Church has manned the battlements, saying the only valid family is that comprising a man and a woman joined in Holy Matrimony, and firing declarations in all directions; one Bishop used the words cohabitation, homosexuality and pedophilia in the same breath, and though he later said he didn't mean that the one implied the other, his remarks do give an idea of the frenzied tone the debate has taken.

The political response has been quite interesting, and is what's termed trasversale -- in other words, not by party line, but rather with some of the governing coalition's politicians being against the legislation and some of the opposition supporting it. Less of the opposition, but some are in favor.

And what I find really interesting is the behavior of some of the separated politicians; one might expect them to support something that makes the lives of the separated easier, but Casini, the former head of the House and leader of UDC, one of the Catholic parties, is against the legislation despite having divorced his wife (with whom he had kids) to live with a much younger, very wealthy second woman with whom he has also had a kid. How the Church can stand to have him as the head of a Catholic party is beyond me, but it does, and his family situation pretty much sums up why I think it's high time the Italian legislature accept the fact that people (not just gays) are choosing to live in ways other than those approved by the Church, and adopt legislation to make their lives easier.

We shall see what the legislators do. And what do non-politician Italians think, you wonder? If the question were to be put to a popular vote, the thing would pass by a huge margin, because divorce is common in Italy, and everybody has friends or relatives who have separated and reformed new families.

Seeds and The Third World
Moving in a very different direction, long-term subscribers to Cosa Bolle in Pentola will recall that a number of years ago I wrote about the way Western agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies send people into developing countries to collect promising plants, bring them home, and patent the seed stocks so anyone who wants to grow the seeds commercially has to pay them royalties -- a practice known as gene theft, or gene piracy.

An example? In 1997 Rice Tech, an American company owned by the Crown Prince of Liechtenstein, successfully patented Basmati rice in the United States -- that Basmati rice has been celebrated for centuries in India and all the selection of the strains was carried out by untold generations of Indian and Pakistani farmers made little impression upon the Court that granted the patent. At least at first; when the Indian Government got involved the American courts greatly reduced the scope of Rice Tech's patent. But that doesn't mean other companies aren't still trying this sort of thing.

Carlo Petrini, founder of Slowfood, mentions another American company, W.R. Grace, which patented the curative properties of the seeds of the Neem tree, an Indian tree whose seeds, leaves and bark are used for all sorts of things, from food to tooth protection to pest control. And the patent might have stood, had someone not showed the Court sacred Indian texts hundreds of years old that discuss the properties W.R. Grace was hoping to profit from. You can't patent something when someone else has already written it down and it's general knowledge.

And thinking about this has led Carlo to an inspired proposal of the sort that's so obvious that it doesn't occur to people: To combat gene piracy, why not establish an exhaustive online database listing seeds, plants, and their traditional uses?

Such a database, compiled by the farmers who grow the plants, those who use them, and local experts, would help keep western companies from using western courts to snap up procedures and techniques that are well known elsewhere but appear new to the West, and whose commercialization and should benefit the third world farmers and healers who have developed them over the centuries -- not the western company that sends someone out to talk to a shaman and gather seeds of the plants he mentions.

The first step to true independence is having control over what one grows, and I do think this database will help achieve that goal. It's still in the planning stages, Carlo says, but when it goes online I will visit it.

Carlo's article, from La Repubblica (in Italian)
Seed Savers:
A number of sobering (and frightening) talks on seed diversity and the doings of agribusiness, from this year's Terra Madre meeting in Torino.

Cantine Aperte
Winding down, if you'll be in Italy on May 27 and like wine, you should definitely plan to head out into the country to enjoy Cantine Aperte, the semi-annual opening of wine cellars to the general public organized by the Movimento del Turismo del Vino. won't want to miss Cantine Aperte, the annual opening of wine cellars to the general public. Many of the wineries that participate do more than just open their cellars, organizing, for example, walks through the vineyards or tastings of local foodstuffs. In short, it's a lot of fun. For more information, in Italian alas, see

This time's proverb is from the Veneto: Xe mejo cascar dal balcon che dai copi, or It's better to fall from the balcony than from the roof.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review