Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni has for thirty years been vegetarian and animal advocate. He is owner and chairman of one of the most renowned wineries in Europe, Querciabella, the largest vegan vineyard in Italy producing nearly half a million bottles of wine a year. His wine is produced chemical-free and biodynamic to naturally enhance ecosystems and healthy soils on some 105 hectares around Tuscany. His vineyards also act as a sanctuary for thriving honeybee colonies whose honey is unharvested, letting them find their own balance with nature.
With international business interests, Sebastiano is a frequent traveller. We met in Milan earlier this year at an annual event to encourage food companies to adopt higher welfare practices.
Philip: How did you first learn about how animals are raised to produce food? How did this knowledge impact your life?
Sebastiano: It was 1981 – I was fifteen – when I became aware of how animals are exploited, tortured and killed in abhorrent experiments. I just picked up some literature from a group of activists in the subway, and was shocked by what I read. There was no doubt in my mind that there was no moral justification to the abuse. It was then inevitable to extend this ethical consideration to all other situations where animals suffer at the hand of humans. I became vegetarian from one day to the next, banned the use of leather, and started to read about animal suffering in general.
The first serious book I read about the subject was Animal Rights and Human Obligations, edited by Tom Regan and Peter Singer. It opened my mind to why my considerations were not only justified by how I felt, but also by the fact that they had a strong, compelling moral and philosophical foundation. I joined various organisations and became active in anti-hunting, anti-vivisection and animal welfare groups. In a very short time, consideration for other sentient beings had become the new moral foundation and guiding principle of my life. It still is.
Philip: In Farmageddon, I describe how current farming methods are industrial and have grave implications not only for farmed animals but also ourselves as consumers and custodians of the planet. What do we need to do to change course to avoid the harm that intensive farming causes today?
Sebastiano: Evidence of how vastly damaging animal farming is for humans, for animals and for the planet is absolutely overwhelming. There is no alternative to completely stopping all animal farming activities immediately and permanently. They are morally unjustifiable, an enormous burden to present and future generations.
One of the great contributions of Farmageddon was to finally put facts and figures in black and white in front of everyone who refuses to bury their head in the sand. The evidence is available, the solution obvious, urgent and moral. Of course, short-sighted economic interests are in antithesis with what is right and in the interest of animals, and present and future human generations.
As in many other situations, our struggle is not of an ethical nature, but it is a fight against systematic disinformation and misleading policies. Unfortunately, the economic might of the forces we oppose is frightening, but we must not be discouraged.
Philip: Your vineyard in Tuscany, Querciabella, produces wine using methods of production that are organic and biodynamic. Please describe what this involves.
Sebastiano: Being organic implies the elimination of synthetic, chemical and artificial compounds from all phases of production. Biodynamics takes this approach even further, with the addition of innumerable techniques to bring balance to the small ecosystem the vineyards and winery represent. From cover-crops to herbal teas, from manual tending to careful study of the environment, biodynamic techniques seek to enhance the vitality of the soil while at the same time bringing life back to the ecosystem the plants live in.
Microbial life proliferates, while innumerable animal species, from insects to birds and even large mammals, repopulate the fields and thrive in the surrounding forests. As ever in nature, the smallest change triggers the biggest consequences. Biodynamics promotes a geometric surge of natural life. While there are several ways to practice biodynamics, we at Querciabella have developed our own methods, completely removing all animal products from our processes. While traditionally biodynamic preparations are based on cow manure, we produce green manure (derived from composted plants), and produce our own medicinal and aromatic herbs for the compounds we spray, while we grow our own seeds for cover-crops mixes encompassing as many as 36 plant species at a time.
Philip: How does organic and biodynamic production methods distinguish Querciabella wines?
Sebastiano: All the techniques we employ allow us to obtain better quality fruit. And – as obvious as this may sound – you can obtain much better wine from healthier, more flavourful grapes. A good explanation of this concept comes from a very common experience, such as comparing an organic carrot to a conventional one. The difference in flavour is astounding. Now bring the same difference to grapes, and imagine the difference when turning these into wine.
Compare two scenarios. One, the biodynamic environment, where vines are nourished exclusively by the soil they grow on, with all the natural compounds there found, improved by a very rich microbial life and by a myriad of worms, insects and other creatures contributing to a vibrant, vital, nutritious breeding ground. Flavour in the grapes comes directly from the natural environment they grow in. The other, the conventional scenario, where plants grow on dead, denatured soil, where all forms of life are killed by pesticides, and the only nourishment comes to the plants in the form of synthetic fertiliser, since the soil is so poor and devitalised it is almost desert. The only source of flavour for these grapes are those fertilisers, which are often by-products of the oil refinement industry.
Philip: How do you think organic and biodynamic principles can be applied to growing food to feeding the world’s population?
Sebastiano: We have a moral duty to innovate, to rethink all processes with an open mind, taking into consideration not only our immediate goals, but also the potential consequences of our actions.
At Querciabella we care about the environment, and our wines are the living demonstration that excellent quality can be obtained using organic and biodynamic methods. We also practice vegan agricultural techniques, because the use of animals in agriculture is not only completely unnecessary, but also extremely damaging to the planet, as documented by Farmageddon.
We now know from research that organic and biodynamic cultivation methods continuously improve the quality of the soil, as opposed to conventional techniques that tend to impoverish soil giving rise to desertification. Over time, production and yield of organic and biodynamic farms is superior not only because the produce is healthier and more nutritious, but also because soils get richer and more fertile, reducing erosion and pollution, and promoting CO2 entrapment.
Organic and biodynamic techniques can improve agricultural production globally, because by their own nature they promote and protect biodiversity. Simply by reversing desertification, and by abandoning all animal farming practices, adopting vegan agricultural techniques and promoting a plant based diet, one could abundantly feed the planet almost overnight. Food scarcity is the product of political choices, not of our planet’s shortcomings.
Philip: Thank you!