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Startupping traditional agrifood knowledge amid biodiversity loss

Seasonal ingredients, Southern Italy’s Cilento region. Photo by Sofia Cavalleri.

This is an interview piece with Sofia Cavalleri, member of the Young Scientists Group of FAO at the World Food Forum. Sofia obtained a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a master’s in environmental sciences policy and management. She completed a joint PhD programme on sustainable indigenous food systems in Thailand at Chulalongkorn University and SEI Asia. While conducting field research on the connections between urban consumers and rural food producers, she developed a passion for ethnobotany. Her work focuses on the relationships between territory, landscape, biodiversity, and local populations and how cultural traditions can be used to protect biodiversity.


Upon returning from Thailand to her Italian roots, she wondered  if some elements of those indigenous food systems could be found in the most authentic rural Italian regions. These questions brought her to Cilento, in Southern Italy, where she met Amabile – a young chef focusing on creating sustainable local indigenous menus based on the Traditional Mediterranean Medicine and Diet that are rooted at the regional level and give visibility to the bio-cultural diversity of Cilento.


Sofia and Amabile have cofounded RISTOLAB s.r.l. – a scalable hybrid restaurant-laboratory based in Pioppi, in the Italian rural region of Cilento, where Ancel Keys, an American physiologist conducted his studies on the Mediterranean Diet. The restaurant-laboratory primary objectives are to conduct research and cook traditional, seasonal, healthy and sustainable local food to preserve the regional bio-cultural diversity, Sofia’s domain as sustainable food systems researcher and Amabile’s expertise in Cilento’s indigenous menus will provide guest with  gastronomic experience to actively taste yummy dishes.The World Food Forum of FAO has recognised RISTOLAB s.r.l. as one of  the most promising innovative food startups and is now part of the Youth Food Lab incubation programme with the support of Wageningen University.

This has several positive impacts on the local communities: sustainable tourism, redistribution of income in the local economy, preservation of regional bio-cultural heritage and collaborative sustainable food value chains.

Indigenous food systems in Italy: The Cilento context

Southern Italy’s Cilento region is renowned for its high quality of life and a strong sense of community among its rural residents. The area is also notable for the longevity of its inhabitants, who live long and active lives. To assess the local population, various indicators and criteria related to natural and ecosystem services and anthropological and social dimensions are considered. By considering both the social and ecological factors, we can gain a deeper understanding of how populations relate to their environment. Our lifestyle choices can impact the ecosystem, leading to climate change and other external stressors.

Indigenous seasonal local food & herbs. Photo by Sofia Cavalleri.

Traditional knowledge should be seen as fluid and active

When it comes to traditional knowledge, we tend to be very careful with the terms preservation or conservation. Although they are widespread in the literature, they often carry a passive connotation, which makes biodiversity or local culture and knowledge appear like objects in a museum. To shun away from reinforcing the perception of traditional knowledge being very passive and inactive, we would like to reframe the concept and allow it to stay true to its essence — traditional knowledge should be very active and is co-created with the local community. This way, instead of a custodian, the community becomes more like a messenger and deliverer, passing on the traditions or the biodiversity to the next generations.

Co-creating Participatory Action Research

The startup adopts a co-creating methodology called Participatory Action Research. This method requires engaging local communities and population at a substantial percentage and developing a network of partnerships anchored to the ground, supporting traditional landscapes and systems of knowledge. It’s a long term effort. Yet over time, this approach pays off. For example, members of agripreneur fishermen have started to adopt regenerative agriculture and collaborate at a more landscape scale. The results further incentive and give visibility and credit to those contributing towards regenerative practices and sustainable practices in agriculture.

RISTOLAB co-founders collaborating with the local farmers market. Photo by Sofia Cavalleri.

Multi-Stakeholder engagement

The applied study behind RISTOLAB s.r.l. is being carried out systematically and collaboratively, operating with local producers on the territory. It is a whole socio-political view of how the community should evolve sustainably and repopulate ancient Italian “borghi” with an alternative sustainable development model involving youth, startups, innovation to revitalise traditions and biodiversity as the epicenter and pivot for positive local change. This process entails stakeholder engagement bringing on board not only the municipality but also the private sector, public sector, NGOs in the area, and local universities in the region. As they work closely with the communities and various stakeholders in the region, the consumers in this area actively support regenerative agriculture, sustainable fishery practices, and sustainable tourism trends in the area. It’s a whole concept that has to be co-created daily and requires daily effort, but it pays off in the long term. Co-creation is the key to developing a cohesive strategy.

Sustainable tourism in Pioppi

Under the pressing timeline to address climate change and biodiversity loss, RISTOLAB is co-creating and developing a variety of inclusive instruments and tools to support sustainable tourism trends at the local level in Pioppi. One of the pathways involves adopting renewable and sustainable energy, while another important focus is sustainable water management. The sustainable use of resources, particularly food, is also heavily emphasised at all stages of the project.

Pioppi has a promising sustainable tourism sector. Although there are existing tourism businesses, the region is still relatively unexplored, but not devastated (yet) by mass tourism regarding infrastructures or transportation. The area is largely unknown, with well-preserved natural surroundings and a community of fishermen intuitively committed to the mission of conservation. Local involvement in developing and managing tourism is necessary. This approach allows large foreign businesses to take over and establish their tourism facilities. Designing a community-centred strategy from the beginning that promotes collaboration is crucial. Diversification is thus key in this case. Some examples observed from previous work of Sofia in Thailand include agripreneurs supported by seed investments from incubators and subsidies from municipalities.

As an agripreneur, diversifying your business can lead to a more sustainable operation. Instead of solely producing food, you can also consider exploring other options such as tourism or developing byproducts. This benefits the local economy and encourages resource and investment mobilisation at the local level.

The fishermen village of Pioppi. Photo by Sofia Cavalleri.

The roles of Indigenous Peoples, women and youth in delivering traditional knowledge

When co-creating, it’s crucial to begin with a blank page. Researchers and entrepreneurs doing R&D should break down previous frameworks because they often embody privilege and are developed from a position of power. Starting fresh and seeking guidance from the community is more effective in selecting indicators, criteria, parameters, and priorities most suitable for the local area.

Sometimes we must set aside our opinions and approaches to consider new perspectives and methods when addressing certain issues. This involves reframing specific issues, applying certain methodologies, rethinking the process and ensuring that everyone, especially marginalised groups like women, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, are included in the conversation.

In today’s world, we have access to various communication channels, such as videos, pictures, social media, and journalism. This gives us various options to convey our messages with policymaking-oriented channels as the first access. By utilising social media strategies or networks, we can change general and social perceptions of an issue and achieve our goals. This strategy can significantly impact because it involves passing a policy and shifting a mindset.

In Italy for instance, grandmothers possess a wealth of knowledge beyond just pasta-making. They hold valuable insights into various aspects of life that are not as easily accessible nowadays. Actively involving grandmothers with an intergenerational intersectional approach in the project design can help children develop critical thinking and appreciate local wisdom. This promotes intergenerational learning and breaks down social barriers in the community.

Retreats to reconnect to the source of food

Based on personal experience living in Bangkok in the last three years, I have realised the profound impact a mega city can have on one’s diet and how easily habits can become unsustainable. The greatest challenge lies in food sourcing, as many consumers, particularly urban residents, are often unaware of where their food comes from. Due to fast-paced city lifestyles, people are often disconnected from their food and have limited time to develop a profound bond to the source of their food. As a result, organic or regenerative agriculture products are not a top priority for most urban citizens.Based on the questionnaire Sofia developed during her PhD, urban consumers seem to prioritise convenience over health and sustainability, creating a gap between producers and consumers. Those who visit farms have a stronger connection with rural producers and tend to frequent farmer’s markets and seek organic labels on produce.

Visiting a farm, even just once, can help us understand the entire food production process. Getting our hands dirty and learning about traceability and value chains provides insight into the reasons for paying more for a specific product or purchasing directly from the producer to avoid intermediaries.

Culinary tourism, or gastro tourism, involves visiting food-producing farms and can connect consumers with their local community. This type of tourism can also encourage sustainable food choices through farmers’ markets and direct communication with farmers. This is where startups like RISTOLAB s.r.l. come in: providing a retreat experience for urban consumers to reconnect to the source of their food.

These interviews are part of SIANI’s ‘Tune in to Food Systems’ interview series composed of monthly interview articles with experts across fields dedicated to sustainable food systems.