THE BLOG

Cultivating 'Wild' Food: The Ethics of Truffle Farming

12/05/2014 12:03 EST | Updated 02/04/2015 05:59 EST

Climate warming means countries that never cultivated truffles now have the appropriate climate conditions. For example, the North American truffle, the Oregon White, which was originally discovered in California in the 1890s, is now being farmed in southern B.C. The new cultivating countries have a new approach to truffle production. This sound good, but is it? And who monitors what you are eating?

Truffle production was booming in Europe until the World Wars and thereafter it was utterly lost until the 1960s. This was a result of the destruction of traditional European farming culture, and as people migrated to cities after the war the woodlands were unused and truffle dogs or pigs were no longer trained. In addition, the absence of scientific research meant truffle production was utterly hit and miss.

Still now production is low in relation to globally increasing demand. Prices are high to the point of absurdity; for instance in 2000 the Tuber magnatum was commanding a higher price than that of gold. The strong market means truffles are now cultivated in Australia, New Zealand, USA, China, Croatia, etc.

Italy and France remain the heartland of a traditional truffle culture. This is a way of life and a multi-million Euro business. In Italy truffles have been prized since Greek times and the Romans believed truffles were made by the king of gods, Jove, hitting his royal tree, the oak, with a lightening bolt to create a divine food. Indeed there are recipes for preparing truffles dating from Imperialist Rome, and a tradition for thousands of years of enjoying truffles on special occasions.

The culture is ancient, so the manner of cultivation in Italy is relatively traditional. Generally small-scale landholders with small plots in the mountains (Apennines) work the land with little mechanization. Most work is done with a hoe, a strimmer and rototiller. Truffles are grown in the mountains because of the purity of the earth. There is a recognized lack of uncontaminated land as most of the lowlands have been used for industrial agriculture. Hence truffle plantations in Italy tend to be in mountains.

Since Italian truffles are sensitive to chemicals they only grow well on truly organic earth. They can only be watered with rainwater, as chlorine is detrimental for them. Once the oaks are planted the land is never ploughed so the topsoil is intact and they arrest erosion in extreme weather. Since no herbicides or pesticides can be used the natural biodiversity is undisturbed. As such, truffles represent a highly sustainable mountain product, and in this culture they are extremely ecologically friendly 'farming'.

Contrastingly in countries where there is no history of truffles they may be viewed as a 'fad food' and get rich fast vehicle. Generally in these countries cultivation is industrial style. Truffles may be of genetically modified stock, herbicides are used abundantly, soil is fertilized and modified, irrigation with tap water is heavily used, and the plantations are flat, large scale and mechanized.

I suggest this unsustainable approach is unethical considering the truffle's heritage; Aristotle called truffles "a fruit consecrated to Aphrodite."

What it means for you is that you can't tell what you are buying. Truffles are still considered a 'wild' food hence there's no organic certification. In Italy truffles fall under the control of the Corpo Forestrale and they are putting through legislation to have power to spot check plantations for genetically modified truffles and chemicals in the soil. The Italians are passionate about maintaining the quality of this heritage produce. It's a shame new cultivating countries approach truffle production in terms of quantity, rather than history.

Governments need to put quality controls in place before this ancient luxury food is ruined and debased.