The Italian village of Mals has set an international precedent—and a model for other communities to follow.
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.