Marco Gualtieri (Founder of "Seeds&Chips")

Il nuovo approccio italiano al cibo: innovazione, sostenibilità, cultura

Sep 03, 2018 9656 ITA ENG

Italy is the greatest food and wine superpower of the planet: it's hard to find somebody who disagrees with this statement. But food is not just nourishment: food is culture, integration, dialogue and innovation. And, also from this point of view, Italy has excellences that look towards the future with leadership and talent.

One of them is Marco Gualtieri, creator of "Seeds&Chips": one of the world's leading events in the field of Food Innovation. Marco is also one of the many Italians who has a special love relationship with the United States. We are pleased to host him on We the Italians, and we thank him for what he does and for his friendship

Marco, food is effectively a part of the cultural heritage of a country. Indeed, it was the philosopher Feuerbach who stated that, "Food is the foundation of culture and sentiment ... We are what we eat." By this account, Italy is the richest country in the world by far. What do you think needs to be done to enhance this, considering how we are perceived by the world?  

Even before Feuerbach, though certainly from a different perspective as it was linked to health, the same thing was said by Hippocrates. Today, we have something that was not present before that enhances both of those aspects: technology. That comprises digital resources, big data, artificial intelligence, along with many other elements. On one hand, this opens up an immense horizon in knowledge and understanding of the relationships between food and health; on the other hand, it can help us communicate directly to communicate the history, traditions, origins and production processes of our food and agri-food system. The wide range and growing availability of these tools portend a moment of great change, which I think is irreversible, in which consumers want to know who and what is behind and around a food product.

With this in mind, the characteristics which make Italy so special not only can, but must seize this opportunity by enhancing its traditional products and the uniqueness of both its system and model. This can be accomplished using available technologies, primarily in the digital realm, and seizing the opportunity to use the most cutting edge products and services available. A great example of this is the application of blockchain technology to food, which can help build an extraordinary certification system that establishes traceability in the food system. But as always, it is not enough just to have the tools available, you need to know how to use them. In our case the biggest mistake (along with the dramatic and incomprehensible lack of system building!) is to take things for granted. Too often we not only tell each other how our food is the best and healthiest in the world, but we are convinced that the world shares this belief and knows it implicitly.

Instead, it is fundamental to change this paradigm almost as if we were starting from scratch, and start talking about this in a new way that does not rely on foregone conclusions. This is to say nothing about what people may know about us in ‘emerging’ markets (which may be little to nothing) or massive markets like what China is shaping up to be.  I always like to remember, and use as my reference, an idea that an American friend told me many years ago: "Remember that 85% of Americans do not have a passport". What does that mean? It means that they have never traveled outside of the continent and that much of what they know has been mediated through indirect experience. Today we have the opportunity to communicate directly with people and, if done right, this can be the catalyst for extraordinary development in both the Italian agro-food system as well as the tourism sector.

You are the creator of "Seeds & Chips", one of the world's leading events in the field of Food Innovation. It is also the most important, and a natural heir to the wealth of content and communication that came out of Expo 2015. Can you tell us about it?

From May to October 2015, Milan organized Expo 2015 with the title "Feeding the planet, energy for life". For the first time the world came together to talk about food as the center of an enormous matrix, which led to a real discussion of the challenges related to the growth of the world population, to climate change, to urbanization, and to the word that has come to define our era and will continue to do so in the coming decades: sustainability.

Those of us for whom memory serves longer than the short term (a condition which, alas, is often a defining feature), would do well to remember that the majority of people, including those within our economic and political system thought, until the opening day, that the event would be a huge flop. Some even believed that the event would not be held at all. 

Despite those difficulties I always thought that EXPO would be a huge success but, to be frank, we should have kept Italy at the center of the discourse and continued advancing the central themes of EXPO as well as everything that it represented. That it was a success, organizationally as well as in the public that attended, is an objective fact; it has also had an undeniably positive effect both on Milan and on Italy as a whole. Less well known, however, is what the event represented for the global food system, be it within the different sectors as well as the growing awareness that has taken hold at the societal level.

Coincidentally, EXPO happened in the same year in which the United Nations approved the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals for 2030), and as nearly every nation in the world signed the COP21 Agreement in Paris to combat climate change. These events coalesced to generate, and will continue to generate, an epochal change for the entire global economic system: as I mentioned above, the concept of sustainability has been a uniting force, and within this, food is a dominant and transversal factor.  In this push and on these themes, Italy has been a driving force. It is perhaps a matter of luck or fate, though I tend to think it was a matter of vision and foresight as well as a specific skill set that we brought to the table.

It was on this basis and in light of these various global scenarios that I thought, even before the opening of Expo, that we had to lay the foundations to make that universal exhibition live on even after its closure. Thus, in March 2015, quite honestly on our own and barely understood, we organized the first edition of Seeds & Chips. It was a four-day summit to talk about all the challenges and issues of food, involving all stakeholders (policy makers, companies, media, startups, investors, etc) and comprised of three fundamental elements: the presence and substantive involvement of young people (not only Millenials but also teenagers, or what is labeled Generation Z); a special exhibition area for research and the presentation of solutions and models that not only talked about change but were actively working on it; and a strong sense of the international character of an event which was, while distinctly Italian, tackling global issues.

We have a rule regarding young people: every conference session must have at least one speaker under 30, and each session is opened by a teenager, who we call ‘Teenovator’, who takes the stage at the beginning of the discussion to talk about their dreams, projects, ideas, and values. This is a steadfast rule we have and one of which I am very proud. Indeed, I often find myself listening to these speeches over and over again: they are an incredible source of inspiration and give me great confidence in the future.

In the last two editions of “Seeds&Chips” you chose Barack Obama and John Kerry, two incredibly prestigious Americans, to give Keynote speeches. What is your relationship with the United States?  

First let me say that rather than us choosing them, it was our honour to have them accept our invitation. In particular, to have President Obama make his first public appearance after two terms in the White House, was obviously a turning point. His speech (with the Milan logo well framed, if I may emphasize!) was broadcast live by 144 television stations worldwide. This was of course, our goal: to make everyone understand the importance of the topic with which we are dealing, and the enormous opportunity for economic development that it represents. Paradoxically, this has been especially difficult in Italy, and continues to be a challenge. The arrival this year of John Kerry, Howard Schultz (founder of Starbucks) and many other important figures is confirmation not only of the continuing importance of these issues, but also of the fact that in while small, we work with passion and tenacity.

Certainly, this resulted from my long standing, and in many ways broad links to the United States. A fundamental aspect of this, and a key element in my own life, has been the strong relationship with the Kennedy family and specifically with Kerry Kennedy, one of my dearest friends and one of the most special people I know. We met many years ago when I was asked to give my small contribution to the enormous work that she, with her mother Ethel and all the so-called "Kennedy clan" have been carrying out for years with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Today, Seeds & Chips has an incredible network in the US that includes people, companies, universities, startups, incubators, investors, research centers. We have ongoing and daily relationships that never cease to inspire us and present opportunities, much of which is extraordinarily cultivated and nurtured by Sharon Cittone, Chief Content Officer of Seeds & Chips, who calls herself "half Italian and half American" (Sharon was born in Italy but lived in the USA for 25 years).

I will tell you a little anecdote. Sharon and I met through her daughter Morgane who was 15 years old at the time. I asked her, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" Morgane replied "I want to change the world". She wasn’t joking! It then occurred to me last year to call her to ask if she would like to introduce President Obama at Seeds & Chips. It was very emotional for all of us: myself, Morgane, Sharon, and Morgane’s legendary grandmother Marilena who keeps us all in step. On that same day,  they showed me a picture of Morgane who, proud and full of conviction at the age of 7, sported a T-shirt with the words "Obama, my President!" Morgane, at 3 years old, was in the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. And President Obama, just before his speech, tried to reassure her backstage by saying: "don’t worry, don’t think about the people and cameras, it's just you and me". She replied, "You are not helping!"

One of the main problems with which the Italian system is confronted is distribution, whether by an entrepreneurial structure that privileges the great diversity of thousands of exceptional but small producers, or by the historic lack in the Italian food sector of large international distribution channels. Do you think it’s possible that networks and new technologies could help us unite supply and demand, and to promote and distribute our extraordinary products, particularly in America?

As I previously stated, absolutely! Provided, however, that the tools are used properly; for example, regardless of the revenue, every study reports double-digit growth in the next few years in e-commerce, and this alone is enough to warrant our attention and investment. Digital is THE channel and if you're not there, you do not exist. Even large retailers are changing rapidly and in some ways radically; retailers have understood that they can safeguard their business by focusing on food.

This means creating an experience for physical retailers, but for everyone it means imbuing value onto the product, telling its story and continuing to incorporate innovation. The speed of these changes and the explosion of startups or small and medium-sized companies that focus on innovative products as well as the appearance of new online distribution models makes the transactional process of large chains even more complicated. This is precisely why I, for example, am giving all my support to an extraordinary Italian startup, Emerge, which has developed a completely disruptive platform to help streamline the process and the relationship between producers and distribution networks.

It is a model that brings enormous benefits to both actors and that not only reduces both sales management and research costs, but it optimizes their dynamism. Emerge not only has a platform that allows you to find or be easily found, but leads to buyers a system that operates on the logic of social networks and tells the stories of products, producers and the territory in which these operate with a brilliant mechanism that helps you discover and get to know them. This is a concrete example of how a small startup can become a large company and in doing so, can contribute to an enormous development to the agri-food system and, ipso facto, to tourism.

It is one of those situations in which, beyond the economic return for the individual producer, one can create value for ecosystems and for the entire Italian system as a whole. In short, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To give a sense of its potential, Emerge, which is not even 2 years old and which is still developing and evolving it’s platform, has already started working with some of the world's largest retailers. In addition, and this is no small thing, they’re working with colleagues and startups around the world that are growing by two percentage points. One of them, practically unknown to most, has two thousand employees and 400 electric vehicles for deliveries and has done so in less than 3 years.

In an interview with WTI, Piero Bassetti shared his thoughts on Italian Sounding, which has one of the main markets in America: he sees the many cases of obvious product fraud as a sort of tribute to Italian excellence. In addition, a marketing plan for these products would lead the way and thus facilitate the entry onto the market of original Italian foods, which would save the effort of launching an unfamiliar food in a virgin market. In short, not a problem, but an opportunity. What is your opinion on this?

As I see it, Piero Bassetti’s idea of tribute to, or better of the potential of, Italian excellence. And I think that’s the question right there: the potential we have! But we must exploit it. To me honestly it hurts when I see people’s belief in and enthusiasm about products that are considered ‘Italian’ but are clearly not. Just as it hurts me, traveling continuously and understanding this incredible potential, to realize that we are not taking advantage of it. Consider this: the Netherlands, which has only 17 million inhabitants and an area equal to that of Lombardy and Veneto combined, with land and biodiversity that does not come close to Italy, has an export revenue of almost € 92 billion, which is double that of Italy. Why? Because they are better at system building, and because they were at the forefront of innovation.

However, as an optimistic person, I see the glass half full. We have all of the ingredients for huge economic development in Italy that, were we to combine the agri-food-tourism sectors, would serve at the catalyst for billions of euros in growth. We just have to be aware of it, see it as a priority and know how to use these ingredients well. The key word is innovation: not only in the technical sense of the term, but also in the cultural sense of changing our thinking (by not taking things for granted), our methodology and finally trying to build a system. 

The Italian production of quality food views the huge Italian-American community as a valuable network of ambassadors. Their cuisine is born from the recipes of Italian immigrants and evolved according to the different foods they found in the new world, which were much different from those they had in Italy. There was also the need to inexpensively feed nutritious meals to families, particularly given the difficult work that most Italians were tasked with doing in America. 

There is also a parallel with the Italian ‘cucina povera’ rooted in the need to cook cheap and highly nutritious dishes. If Italy were to recognize this, as a tribute to a cuisine that has distinguished itself from its roots through evolution, what does that say about the roots that are firmly and distinctly Italian? 

Italian Americans, what an untapped potential. And I speak of Italians abroad all over the world, not just in America. The change in mentality must also go in this direction, and your suggestion is certainly interesting. It is about understanding to what extent we should be puritanical, what is extreme, or to recognize and enhance those evolutions and interpretations that deserve respect. There is a thin line that must be defined. To be sure, however, in this case I support the defenders of tradition in the broadest sense of the word. When I accidentally find myself in restaurants that pretend to be Italians or run by people of Italian descent, are clearly bluffing, I get angry and run away. Because it is one thing to adapt to certain circumstances and then adapt the dishes, the menu, etc; another is fooling people across the board. Today, however, making claims about the supply of raw materials is no longer a valid alibi.

Rightly, one of the topics you insist on is the sustainability of Italian food. With her "The Italian Garden Project", Mary Menniti told us that even in the United States, Italians are recognized leaders in the cultivation of the garden, prizing the sustainability of natural products and composting as traditions that go back to the habits of Italian immigrants to beginnings of the last century ...

Sustainability is the key word for everything from here on. And so it is also and above all for food. People want to know how a product was grown, where it comes from, what impact it has on the planet, etc. They want to know. Here is the great opportunity we have. We have a lot of those things that people want to know. We just have to tell them. Until recently, all the wonderful storytelling around our products interested only a select few, they were a niche. Today they have the power to evoke feeling. And therefore to honor. Think of Parmesan: being able recount the pedigree of Padano, Reggiano, Trentino, and then specifically talk about the dairy that has a hundred years of history... And so on. It’s a wonderful, never-ending story made up of extraordinary elements that have been maintained and evolved over the years. I am convinced, and I hope to be able to communicate, that innovation is the best ally of tradition.

The theme of food waste, and the fight against it, is also among those dearest to you. And at Seeds & Chips you postulate how pasta can be particularly helpful. It is the same principle that motivates Bruno Serato, an Italian chef now living in California, to serve a dish of pasta for free every day to 1800 children too poor to afford a meal. Looking into the future: can the combination of innovation + Italy help eliminate waste and help those who need it?

One third of the food produced in the world is wasted, and goes directly into the trash. Beyond this, there are ethical problems: almost 800 million people on the planet have no access to regular food and water, the global population is growing, all scientific findings conclude that resources are limited. And again: producing and eliminating that wasted food has a huge impact on the environment including the impact on climate change. What madman who would waste 1/3 of what he has? All of us!

The issue is complex and must be urgently addressed in a number of ways: first cultural, then normative and finally by exploiting and developing solutions. By cultural I mean that from childhood and beyond, respect for food should be taught. For example, I think that American is light years ahead and Italy is exactly the opposite about what we call the Doggy Bag.  In America it is customary to ask, and often waiters do it automatically, to bring home leftover food from a restaurant. In Italy we are ashamed. Madness! One should be ashamed not to do it. I paid for that food and that food has cost resources to produce.

Removing the stigma of this would benefit everyone: our wallets, restaurateurs (because I think it could also help achieve growth), the planet (especially the breaking of a vicious circle that occurs with this simple gesture of manners and intelligence). Normatively, there are already many examples that are increasing all over the world and that should be copied. Among the many, and as Italy has recently done, I think we need to institute a rewarding mechanism, more than punitive: less waste, more advantages. Otherwise, we might be forced to cede what is likely to be lost because it is no longer marketable to those who need it.

Regarding the technological aspect, there is an extraordinary world of opportunities opening up to us for, as we have said, waste affects the entire supply chain, from field to table. I think of the solutions that improve the transport or the shelf life of the products (biomimetic opens up stimulating horizons), systems of optimization of supplies and so on. But culture and education, as in all things, are fundamental and make all the difference.

You are part of the Coordinating Committee for the Year of Italian Food 2018, an initiative that is facing the inevitable slowdowns in government changes. Do you think the project will be able to continue, and will it create an an opportunity to promote our food and wine in the United States as well?

I accepted this position with great honor and a sense of responsibility. On the other hand, I told myself, this is what I have been doing for years on a daily basis. I am one of those people who is deeply in love with Italy, and who has wrung their hands seeing the enormous opportunities available, and who made acting and pitching in a way of life. In this case, I combine everything in which I believe and to which I have committed myself: in that sense, it feels quite easy and natural for me. Of course, the recent change of government has not facilitated that which, with the extraordinary personalities and professionalism of the other colleagues of the Committee, could or should have been done. I hope it will endure. But if it should not, in my small way and beyond the role I have, I will continue to believe and above all to act. Because I believe in it.

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