Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A New Way To Feed The World? Slow Food Nation Says Yes

Mary-Jo and I just got back from an extraordinary weekend in San Francisco attending the first Slow Food Nation conference. (The picture above shows the "Victory Garden" created on the grounds of the city's civic center as part of the conference.)

After spending four days joining an estimated 50,000 participants in sampling many of the activities offered--including food tastings and sales, panel discussions, film screenings, educational exhibits, and (of course) some amazing dinners--I came away feeling as though I'd witnessed one stage in the emergence of a new social, political, and economic movement.

As you may know, Slow Food is an international organization founded by the Italian cultural critic Carlo Petrini. Its original intention was, as the name implies, to combat the spread of American-style fast food and to defend more traditional forms of agriculture and food preparation. It has spread to the United States (as well as around the world) and has now become--as I witnessed this past weekend--a popular movement that strives to address and link an array of economic, cultural, and political issues related to the production, sale, and use of food.

Thus, the people and organizations loosely affiliated with Slow Food come from many varied backgrounds and bring a wide range of interests and values to the table. Some are food lovers for whom the pleasure of fresh, local, well-prepared farm products is the chief motivating factor. Others are economists focused on issues like global hunger and the exploitation of farm workers. And still others are scientists and activists concerned with nutrition, food safety, pollution, and global climate change. In a vague way, most of the people I met and heard from this weekend could probably be described as "leftist" or "progressive," but it's not at all obvious that their disparate interests add up to a single coherent "food agenda."

Nonetheless, it seems clear that something big is happening here, represented not just by the thousands of people who attended Slow Food Nation in San Francisco but also by millions of other people around the country who are engaged in activities like shopping at organic food stores, at local farmers' markets, or through community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs); asking their kids' schools to get junk food out of the cafeterias; planting community gardens; writing their representatives to call for changes in farm subsidies, better regulation of meat production, and clearer food labeling standards; and ordering fair trade coffee when they get their morning caffeine fix.

The overall tone of the weekend was best captured, I think, by the standing-room-only panel I attended on Saturday at the Herbst Theater. The avid audience listened enthralled--and frequently broke in with applause--as a who's who of food celebrities discussed the meaning and significance of the conference.

Essayist, poet, short-story writer, and farmer Wendell Berry, who has been writing about the need to reform the U.S. agricultural system since the 1970s, spoke about how industrial farming damages communities, destroys ecosystems, and squanders resources.

Restaurateur Alice Waters (who launched the Slow Food movement in the U.S.) shared her dream that the next U.S. president will plant a garden and harvest vegetables to be served at state dinners at the White House.

The movement's Italian founder Carlo Petrini explained (through a translator) that Slow Food is not merely about the pleasures of good eating--though these are important--but also about community, family, and the creation of a truly humane and sustainable way of life.

Activist Vandana Shiva gave a fiery talk about how corporations like Monsanto and ADM are driving a new enclosure movement that is driving millions of farmers in developing nations off the land and impoverishing entire societies.

And journalists Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) talked about the political prospects for reforming the U.S. food production system so as to better protect workers' rights while producing abundant, nutritious, safe, and healthful food for all.

Where is the Slow Food movement heading? Is its dream of a reformed food supply system attainable? That remains to be seen. It's obvious that food-related issues--hunger, childhood obesity, rising food prices, water shortages, soil depletion, and many others--are on the radar screens of plenty of individuals and organizations. But nothing that adds up to a global "food issue" is on the agenda at a national political level--for example, in the platform of the Obama or McCain campaign.

Still, events like the Slow Food Nation conference may play an important catalytic role by bringing together thousands of people and getting them to draw lines connecting seemingly unrelated economic, political, and social issues. Someday, food activists may look back on Labor Day weekend of 2008 as the coming-out party for their movement--one that may end up having a vast impact on the national and world economy.

Cross-posted on The Triple Bottom Line blog.

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