Slow Food for Thought

September 5, 2008

windmill There was no shortage of ideas at Slow Food Nation 2008. The “Food for Thought” speaker series at Herbst Theater, the Soap Box in the Civic Center victory garden, and Friday’s Changemakers Day gave many of today’s brightest food thinkers a place to expound. And while the weekend’s writers, policymakers, activists, and food producers were often preaching to the choir, they reminded those of us who are in the choir just how nice it can be to hear a good sermon.

In Friday’s opening panel, Carlo Petrini, the contemplative founder of the international Slow Food movement, recommended that Americans stop identifying as consumers. Instead, he hopes we begin to recognize that, as eaters, we play an important role in the production process and are, in fact, “co-producers.” When we see ourselves this way, says Petrini, we empathize with and feel inherently supportive of every other step in the creation of our food.

Urban eaters who identify as co-producers of their food take an interest in the whole food system. And they place a clean environment at the forefront of their choices, because they know it’s crucial to producing more food. They also see the importance of re-investing in rural areas, said Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm (which sends out over 1500 CSA boxes every week). When eaters begin to investigate how their food is grown, “it changes what farmers are paid for,” says Muller. “It’s not just the number of Brussels sprouts they grow, it’s the fact that they are willing to be stewards of the land.”

Co-producers might also start thinking differently about climate change, an issue that received a great deal of attention on Friday and Saturday. Food production has contributed heavily to climate change—in the form of fossil fuel-intensive agriculture and transport —and the industry will need to adapt, as shifting climates create greater uncertainty for farmers. Panelists suggested that eaters take a stand against climate change by participating in urban gardening, eating less meat and more local food, and helping their communities adopt renewable energy alternatives. The Sierra Club’s Carl Pope was among a panel of experts who spoke on the issue. He said that while the destabilization of the climate promises to bring enormous challenges, two shorter-term problems might force changes that will keep the earth’s climate from going completely off the rails: an impending lack of water in the Western states (itself partly a symptom of climate change) and the rapid decrease of available fossil fuels.

Being a co-producer also inevitably sheds light on farm workers and small-scale farmers, many of whom have only a marginal chance of earning a living wage. At the same time, it has the potential to put us further in touch with the industrial food trap, wherein many of the working poor must rely on “cheap,” highly processed food. The key, said worker’s rights advocates from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and spokespeople from the domestic fair trade movement, is to start seeing the solutions to these problems—farmworker justice and equitable access to good food—as inherently linked. Blogger Jen Maiser’s suggestion to incorporate a public service component into next year’s event might be a small step in that direction.

With all these challenges in mind, co-producers might also want to start helping to recruit and support young farmers. A number of panels and discussions at SFN returned to author and theorist Richard Heinberg’s projection that the country will need 50 million new farmers in order to successfully de-industrialize our agriculture system and feed people while shifting away from fossil fuel-heavy food production. Achieving even part of that goal will require a major re-integration of food production skills into our education system, especially as the median age of today’s farmer approaches 60.