ISIS Report 25/03/09
Cooperative for Health, Food Security and Environment
Against the Credit Crunch
An institution thriving in the midst of the credit crunch could show us
how to exit the food, fuel, and financial crisis Dr.
referenced and lavishly illustrated version of this article is
posted on ISIS members’ website. Details
An electronic version of the full report can be downloaded from the ISIS online
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Un Punto Macrobiotico and Mario Pianesi
One institution that’s thriving in the midst of the credit crunch is Un Punto
Macrobiotico (UPM), a cooperative in Italy that promotes health, food security
and the environment through the macrobiotic diet. Could it show us the way
out of the food, fuel and financial crisis?
UPM was founded in 1980 by autodidact Mario Pianesi, who taught
himself everything there is to know about health and nutrition, guided and
re-interpreted according to the ancient Chinese theories of yin and yang and
the five transformations (see  Transparent Label An
Alternative to Organic Certification, SiS 37), having taken his
inspiration from Georges Ohsawa’s Zen Macrobiotics . Ohsawa (1893-1966)
was reputed to have cured himself of tuberculosis using what he knew of the
ancient yin-yang theory.
The UPM movement has swept through Italy from its headquarters
in Tolentino of the Marche region in the centre of the Italian peninsular,
simply through word of mouth and some brilliant organisational skills, no
doubt. UPM does not have a website, and never advertises. Pianesi’s
macrobiotic teachings are based on the traditional Chinese theories, which
he has extended, elaborated, and some would say, transformed; applying them
not just to food and nutrition but also to agriculture and ecology, and beyond,
to the origin of the universe.
UPM has formally split with the US macrobiotic movement, as among
other things, Pianesi does not support food supplements like his US counterpart,
which makes lots of money selling them. Pianesi believes there is no substitute
for good food, and I am inclined to agree. The “Ma-Pi” diets , which
Pianesi has formulated for healing and health-promotion, are firmly based
on “the positive sides of traditional Mediterranean cuisine.”
UPM now has 120 centres dotted all over Italy (including Sicily).
The centres are typically a restaurant and shop, or a factory. A few
of them are also distribution centres which receive and package goods from
the regions, and deliver to the shops and restaurants once a week. There are
200 000 members who pay €5.00 a year for the privilege of eating in the very
affordable restaurants, attend lectures and conferences free, and buy from
UPM shops that sell natural foods, detergents, cosmetics, clothing, furniture
and even house paints and artists’ paints.
Typical UPM Shop
Healing diseases with macrobiotic diets
The Ma-Pi diets have helped hundreds of thousands in Italy recover from serious,
often terminal illnesses, and that has contributed primarily to UPM’s success.
The organisation is essentially run by people who have experienced remarkable
cures, and are therefore firmly committed to the movement. Pianesi and his
wife Loredana now spend much of their time leading conferences and workshops
to which scientists from national academies around the world are invited.
Funding for these come entirely from the UPM membership; they believe in spending
as much as possible to promote the movement, losing nothing to taxation. One
big project involves the treatment of diabetes through macrobiotic diet in
different countries, and there have been notable successes so far in Thailand
and especially in Cuba, where thousands have been cured of diabetes and other
diseases. Trials are planned in Tunesia, Mongolia, China, and Pakistan.
The full clinical evaluation of 25 adults with type 2 diabetes
placed on the macrobiotic diet for 6 months in the Finlay Institute of Havana,
Cuba, was described in a scientific paper published in 2007 . The improvements
were remarkable. Blood glucose fell from an average of 11.7 mM to 5.5 mM,
along with a significant reduction in body weight (Body Mass Index shrank
from 28.0 to 24.1), decrease in blood cholesterol and triglycerides, drop
in blood pressure, and so on. Eighty-eight percent of the patients were able
to stop taking insulin and other drug treatments for reducing blood glucose.
The Chinese principles
of yin and yang translates most concretely to the pH of food, yin is acid
and yang is basic, and they determine the pH of the blood, which could account
for much of what goes wrong. Though a lot more dedicated research is
needed in this important area of how biological water interacts with inorganic
ions  (see Water’s Effortless Action
at a Distance, and other articles in the series, SiS 32), the electronegative
and electropositive series having obvious resonances with the concepts of
yin and yang.
Seeing Italy in a week in a methane-driven Audi
My main interest is in the UPM organisation and the farming system that Pianesi
has devised for growing macrobiotic food, the ‘Pianesian polyculture’ (introduced
to countries carrying out the diabetes trials), which have obvious applications
in the integrated food and energy carbon sequestering Dream Farms that ISIS
is currently promoting around the world (see final chapters in  (Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable
*Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS publication).
So, I was very grateful when UPM agreed to organise a visit for
me in July 2008, even though it meant traversing the whole length of the Italian
peninsular (Milan at the top of the boot to Calabria the toe) in a week, followed
by a week workshop in Calabria with Mario and Loredana, and whichever scientists
from national academies happen to be dropping in (in the course of that week,
I met scientists from Tunesia, Algeria and Pakistan, all very keen on Dream
I was transported in a 17 year old 2000 cc Audi by the head of
the UPM secretariat, Giovanni Bargnesi, a wonderful companion who drives like
a typical Italian man: fast and furious, and with sudden change of lanes,
a bit hair-raising at times. But amazingly, there was not a single accident
on the road during the entire trip, despite frequent road works and congestion.
Bargnesi did not seem to need water either (this, like everything else that
is good, he attributes to the miraculous macrobiotic diet), and would happily
drive for hours at a stretch without stopping. The car is not air-conditioned,
and it was sunshine and clear skies everyday, with temperatures in
the high 30s pushing 40 during the day.
I made a major discovery
while on the road. The car could run on either natural gas (methane) or petrol,
and has a gas cylinder in the boot for methane and the petrol tank in the usual
place. By simply pushing a button next to the steering wheel, Bargnesi demonstrated
how he could switch from one to the other smoothly and imperceptibly
while on the road. It is a small modification that cost him €700. What’s more,
filling stations for methane are every 25 km, except on the motorways where
they don’t seem to be available. Even the old monster of a car did about
30 km per cubic metre of methane. A cubic metre of methane contains 40
MJ of energy, about 20 percent more than a litre of petrol, but methane runs
the engine more efficiently. Methane was selling at about €0.95 per cubic
metre, and petrol at €1.50 or more a litre. The cylinder capacity was 11
cubic metres, so the range just over 300 km; and it cost only
35 percent as much on methane as on petrol. No wonder people were all filling
up on methane rather than diesel or petrol. Italy is predisposed to take advantage
of biogas methane, much more so than the UK, though anaerobic
digestion is still uncommon in Italy.
Natural gourmet foods, furniture, clothes, paints etc.
In the course of the week, I was treated to macrobiotic gourmet food, mainly
Ma-Pi diets 4 and 5 which are not vegetarian, as opposed to Ma-Pi 1
and 2, which are, while Ma-Pi 3 includes fish. And every meal was in a different
restaurant if not a different town or city. Not surprisingly, the macrobiotic
cuisine grew on me, as it continued into the second week. UPM take their culinary
art very seriously. Every initiate starts as an apprentice in the kitchen.
I was generously feted everywhere as ‘friend of Mario’ on fish of all kinds
(including those freshly caught in the sea in Calabria), scallops, fresh
water shrimps and lobsters, squid, cuttlefish. I had goose, pigeon, and even
rabbit, though I declined the rabbit leg offered. Beer or wine was served
with almost every meal, though dilute green tea is the healthy option. The
beer was excellent. Surprisingly, I did not miss coffee, tomato, aubergine,
mushrooms, milk, cheese, or eggs, all hallmark Italian foods on
the macrobiotic forbidden list. Miso (fermented soybean and barley or rice)
substitutes well for cheese; toasted sesame with sea salt, or soy sauce, is
a sure winner; the cold pressed macrobiotic virgin olive oil is the best I
have ever tasted; and the rice ice-creams made with various fresh fruits are
mouth-wateringly delicious. I even acquired a taste for toasted barley water
(coffee substitute), and just cannot get enough of almond milk on the rare
occasions it was served in the morning.
A lunch plate
A feast to end all feasts
The main emphasis is on whole cereals, so polished rice
and potatoes are out. Brown rice is considered the most healing food, though
white milled (not polished) rice is frequently served. Millet and barley
are favourites too. The only cereal excluded is maize. The cereals are traditional
varieties rather than the commercial ones. Sugars, if used, are complex sugars
such as malt (from rice and barley) and unrefined cane.
I was quite sceptical of macrobiotic food before I went on the
trip, but came back much more receptive and appreciative, if not entirely
convinced. I made a mental note that if I became ill, I would definitely go
macrobiotic rather than take drugs or go into hospital.
Working for oneself and for the movement simultaneously
The way it works is that all the businesses, restaurants, shops, factories,
etc. are under franchise to UPM, but not owned by UPM. Everyone seems so contented
and enthusiastic it seemed unreal, especially at first. I only saw one single
person who was overweight in all of the UPM places I visited. They are typically
absurdly slim (as well as mostly young), even though they eat huge portions
of whole cereals and vegetables. Apparently, they have no fat, it is all muscle.
As proof of their prowess, they won their yearly vegetarians versus
carnivore football match in Calabria with a decisive score of 14 to 11.
Apart from the farms (described below), I was taken to visit
bakeries where they make their own bread and cookies (flour from traditional
wheat varieties) with wood-burning ovens, and ‘food factories’ where simple
food processing and packing are done (with small machinery also suited to
on-farm use, and some indeed used on-farm. The machine making puffed brown
rice cakes was particularly interesting as it is very small and easy to operate,
and takes about a second to make one rice-cake starting from a tiny handful
of uncooked brown rice dropped automatically into the cake mould.
The rice cake machine
In a furniture showroom and workshop, I saw natural wood stains
and preservatives, for example, linseed with orange peel is excellent as wood
preservative, and natural rubber used for foam mattresses and soles of shoes
(impregnated into woven natural straw), organic cotton and other natural fibres
such as hemp for clothing, bags, as well as filling for mattresses. Natural
non-chemical treated leather is made into shoes and bags.
Particularly interesting was the factory of natural paints, all
made without chemicals from vegetable dyes, minerals, expired milk, eggs,
etc. Roberto Mosco, the young man who runs and owns the factory, has taken
over after his father died of cancer making chemical paints, and at Pianesi’s
suggestion, began making natural paints. They are innovating all the time,
making new composites out of eggs and gypsum that can replace bathroom tiles,
for example. He gave me some natural pastels for artists, a range that
they are just creating, and some water colours, which were sadly confiscated
at the Rome airport checkpoint on my way back to London, and tossed into a
Natural paints factory and workshop
UPM farms and Pianesian polyculture
The UPM farms are typically ordinary farms on contract to grow food
the way Pianesi prescribes. It is a no-till or minimum-till ‘polyculture’
of diverse crops either in rotation or mixed together, based on recovering
traditional varieties, and letting beneficial weeds grow with the crops
as far as possible. Many of the weeds are edible, and can form a harvest along
with, or after the main crop.
Pianesi suggests first looking at the weeds in the field for
clues as to which crops will grow best there, and planting trees in the fields
5 m apart (presumably to allow small tractors and harvesters that many of
the farmers use) to help provide shade and conserve water. After harvesting,
the residues are left in the field, which are not ploughed, and the seeds
for the next crop, saved from the previous, are sowed by hand or with machines,
but with minimum disturbance to the soil This makes for minimum effort;
so much so that farmers now have plenty of free time for other pleasurable
things. The crops are either rain fed, or with minimum irrigation, and of
course, no chemicals are used.
All the farmers I met were keenly interested and engaged in their
trade, and some are enthusiastic experimenters, encouraged by Pianesi. And
of course, like Pianesi, they are all dead set against GM crops.
The farms I visited were as follows.
Farm of Conte Radice Fossati 10-11 July
After I arrived at Milan airport, Bargnesi drove me by car to a farmhouse
near Mezzana Bigli, about one and a half hours away, owned by Conte Radice
Fossati, who also owns
1 200 ha around Milan, the major rice growing region in Italy.
My room was beautifully furnished with period pieces and remained
remarkably cool even though it was stifling hot outside, apparently due to
its double-wall construction within which water is trapped to cool the building
by evaporation. It seems we have much to learn from the ancient builders.
Fossati is the biggest industrial rice-grower in Europe. His
accountant, Guiseppe Mirabelli had been ill with hepatitis B since 1971, and
25 years of conventional drugs had failed to cure him, only made him worse.
Fortunately, he met Pianesi in 1996, and became better within months of starting
his macrobiotic diet.
At around the same time, Fossati’s farmers were having less and
less success with chemical farming and some of them switched to Pianesi’s
method, which brought the yields back up within a couple of years. So Fossati
finally decided to devote 20 ha to macrobiotic farming in 2007 of a traditional
rice variety; the result was so good that in 2008, he switched another 30
ha of wheat to macrobiotic cultivation, again, of a traditional variety.
Fossati was not yet ready to give up chemical farming wholesale,
but if he does, then it would really seal the fate of industrial agriculture,
and with it, GMOs in Italy, and possibly the rest of Europe.
Other factors are coming into play, chief among which, Italy
is turning into desert under the severe drought of recent years. The mighty
Po River, which has fed this rice-growing region for centuries, has now dried
to a trickle, while unsustainable practices continue.
Rivers running dry in Italy
On our way to visit the second farm the next day, I saw a tractor-like
vehicle parked near a maize field with no one in it but a noisy engine running.
It turned out to be operating a pump and delivering copious ground water into
the maize field. More than two hours later, when we returned from the farm,
the pump was still going with no one in the tractor, and the maize field was
about a foot deep in water.
Tractor pumping water to flood a maize field
Throughout the region, automatic sprinklers can be seen spraying
pumped water in fields early in the morning and late in the evening. Pianesi
later showed me many photographs of dust clouds over the fields taken in March
The rivers and tributaries are drying up also in the Marche region
where the same unsustainable wastage of water is perpetrated by industrial
monoculture farms. Climate experts are forecasting droughts for the whole
of Southern Europe as global warming continues, turning the entire area into
Farm of Guiseppe Oglio 11 July
Guiseppe Oglio, a handsome 39 year-old bachelor, has taken over his parents’
26 ha farm to run organically since 1990, and began working with the UPM in
2001. One major change since working with the UPM is that he is “very difficult”
to find. Despite carrying out many experiments in his fields - which he was
happy to show us at length - Oglio now has plenty of free time to visit his
girlfriend in the city.
Biodiverse fields where weeds and crops co-exist for mutual benefit
Among the many experiments Oglio showed us were the following
Rice fields planted with traditional varieties without weeding,
where the worst weeds were kept under control, while other beneficial/harmless
weeds also grew up, which is very good for wild life.
Millet field sown by hand and not irrigated was doing much better
than one that was irrigated and sown at the same time
Barley can be grown with a wild green that is eaten as vegetable,
without losing yield. Oglio seemed genuinely delighted that such marginal,
sandy soils could yield 2 tonnes per ha, and attributes that to the Pianesian
Field covered by crop residues, which has not been cultivated
or watered for several years, nevertheless sprouted self-seeding leaf lettuce.
The seeds from these plants, according to Pianesi, are best suited for growing
on the same plot of land.
Oglio has his own rice-threshing and milling machine, and apart
from selling his produce to UPM, also sells direct to other customers.
Oglio does almost all the work on the farm, with some help from
his aged uncle.
There were some farm animals kept in less than hygienic conditions,
not for UPM, but mainly to indulge his uncle, probably not up to UK animal
welfare standards. It is clear that the farm could benefit with a small biogas
digester to improve animal hygiene at the very least.
Farm of Ivano Mazziere 14 July
This is a small 12 ha farm in Appignano on a hill in the Marche region, which
has only started to work with UPM a year ago. Ivano uses drip feeding for
his crops. His pride and joy appears to be mixed vegetables fields on four
of the five ha (one ha left for green manure), yielding 50 tonnes of harvest
each year. He delivers fresh vegetables to nearby UPM restaurants and shops
four times a week.
Ivano and his wife run the farm and he uses light machinery,
some he has built himself, such as a lightweight seed planter and a weeder,
which altogether consumes about 1 000 litres of diesel a year. He also saves
and catalogues seeds.
Polyculture drip-fed vegetable plot
Farm of Michele Carpineti 14 July
This is a 15 ha plus 6 ha farm in Sambucheto of the Marche region. The farmer
started to work with UPM 8 years ago when his parents failed to keep the farm
going due to illnesses from pesticides. Now the farm is obviously thriving,
producing a diversity of grains and vegetables.
There are also many animals on the farm, mostly kept as pets,
especially a free range pig that seems to like the company of the horses.
But two bulls were being “fattened” and kept mostly shut up in crammed housing
in less than desirable conditions. Animal manure piled up in the corner of
a field. This farm too, could benefit from a biogas digester.
Unlike Mazziere’s farm, this farm is on completely flat land.
And Carpineti has started planting trees as recommended by Pianesi, first
in hedgerows around the fields and then within the fields. He also drip-feeds
his crops and pumps water sparingly from underground. The underground housing
for the pump doubles up as a convenient storage place for his vegetables.
Other signs of Pianesian polyculture are evident, such as a diversity
of weeds growing among the crops. I have never seen such an interesting collection
of weeds anywhere else apart from those I saw on UPM farms.
Carpineti is helped by his father and two young daughters, and
uses 3 000 litres of diesel a year for machinery and the water pump. There
is a bakery on the farm to take advantage of freshly ground flour.
Carpineti too, delivers fresh vegetables to nearby UPM centres,
as well as a hospital that has started serving macrobiotic food to patients.
Farm of Ivan Bruno 15 July
This is an unusual farm in the Campana region in the south of Italy, which
consists mainly of natural forests (some 60 ha) in the hills that the family
has acquired. After initial unsustainable harvesting of forest trees, the
youngest son in the family was inspired by Pianesi to do sustainable agriculture,
leaving most of the natural forests untouched. .
The 23 year old is exceptionally articulate, not only about what
he learned from Pianesi, but has views on globalisation and EU’s policy against
small farmers. He is very happy to be working with UPM, as he receives 6 to
7 times the amount he would get from usual buyers, and when he had a bad harvest,
they bailed him out by paying him more. Especially impressive is the fact
that he has never been a farmer; but by following Pianesi’s advice he was
able to do very well.
The first field he showed us was one that belongs to a friend,
which has been previously farmed chemically and left uncultivated for a year
or two. His friend agreed to let him farm it in return for part of the harvest,
and he has sowed a variety of wheat that was traditional in the region. The
wheat grew extremely well, and crowded out most of the weeds that were growing
in the field.
Bumper harvest of traditional wheat
On his wonderfully scenic hill farm, which could only be reached
by a rather treacherous unpaved steep and winding path, he showed us how by
following Pianesi’s advice he was able to plant carrots or onions in particular
fields, simply by observing the wild plants that grew there. The key is to
plant crops that are similar to the weeds. He also showed us photographs
taken of frost destroying commercial varieties of cabbage on his farm while
the traditional varieties remained unscathed. And during a previous drought,
it was the part of the crops next to trees that survived.
We were treated us to a sumptuous lunch in the family home where
he lived with his parents, a sister and one of two brothers; a delicious stewed
leg of goat was included in the menu.
As we were leaving for our long drive to Calabria, he and his
father showered us with gifts of seeds, essential oils, herbs, and their very
own mountain spring water.
UPM and Bernard Shaw socialism
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about UPM is that it is run on George Bernard
Shaw’s socialist principles, as expounded in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide
to Socialism and Capitalism . UPM buy directly from farmers and producers
and sell to customers through their shops, bypassing all ‘middlemen’, as Shaw
had prescribed. As a result, farmers could be paid 6 to 7 times what they
could get from the conventional buyers and are happy and independent.
None of them takes any government or EU subsidies. The same goes for producers
of other goods and the artisans. One thing missing from the cooperative,
perhaps, is its own bank and/or LETS (a trading network supported by its own
internal currency ).
What particularly impressed me was the attitude of all the people
working in UPM. I did not ask how much they were paid because it was probably
less than what they earned outside, but as workers get their food and
lodging free, or at reasonable prices, everyone is happy, and they even
seem to run on “to each according to need” principle. They are all united
in loving/adoring Mario Pianesi. Everyone has a story to tell of how Mario
gave them back their life by curing them of some terrible disease: terminal
cancers, hepatitis, diabetes, autism, heart disease, asthma, allergies, etc.
That was why I got a special treat everywhere. All are united in promoting
the macrobiotic way of life to the world, of course, which is why they give
generously, not only in money, but in hard work, to Pianesi to run his workshops
and conferences, which typically require a retinue of cooks to prepare the
There are now UPM food served in the Italian air force canteen
in Marche, and UPM dinners have been taken to the EU Parliament in Strasbourg
in October 2008.
Question is: would something like UPM work without someone like
Pianesi, the universal saviour of them all? Would it work in US or UK where
family ties are not so strong, and local communities don’t really exist anymore?
Perhaps the food, fuel, and financial crisis will make people think again
of what real wealth is, as opposed to paper money  (see Financing Poverty, SiS
40) and why happiness and contentment depends on ridding the world of Darwinian
competition, to be replaced by cooperation and reciprocity.