Saturday, 9 June 2012

Slowly Coming to Appreciate Slow Food

It was the word convivium that always made me suspicious, uneasy. It reeked of elitism, of secret knowledge and exclusivity.  I learned this week that it comes from convivial (fond of feasting, drinking, and merry company according to one dictionary), so that makes some sense. I decided to push past this concern (it's just a word after all) and went to listen to Chef Michael Howell who was on PEI this week. He's been the face of Slow Food in Nova Scotia for many years. I've still got some niggling concerns, but was very impressed with Howell, and what he had to say.

The history of Slow Food is inspiring.  It's 1986. Carlo Petrini , a Marxist journalist from  Langhe district of Piedmont, Italy  becomes aware of a McDonalds being built.  He immediately sets out to create a philosphy about food that's now become a world-wide movement. It's basic values:

"Good, Clean and Fair

Slow Food's approach to agriculture, food production and gastronomy is based on a concept of food quality defined by three interconnected principles:

GOOD a fresh and flavorsome seasonal diet that satisfies the senses and is part of our local culture;

CLEAN food production and consumption that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health;

FAIR accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for small-scale producers."

So it's the original local food movement, and anyone who's been reading this blog knows, I think all of these principles are very important.  I've been trying to understand why I was uncomfortable at times at this week's meeting of very well meaning "foodies", chefs, and at least one producer, to re-start a Slow Food  "you know what" on PEI.  Here goes (and I'm not expecting much agreement here). It has to do with the definition of "small-scale producers". In the last couple of posts I've talked about my admiration and respect for small organic farms, but that they're motivated more by values and lifestyle. I'm not convinced that their scale (or what consumers are prepared to pay) can make these enterprises financially successful. People will do them until their back breaks down, or the credit union won't maintain their overdraft.  This isn't an argument not to do it (I did it myself through the 1970's and it taught me a lot about life and farming), but as a society we tend to treat these farmers like artists: we like to have them around, enjoy their output from time to time, but  we're not really prepared to ensure that they live anything beyond a very marginal existence.  So if we're to have a functioning economy on PEI we have to end the hostility towards larger commercial farming operations. This isn't to excuse fishkills or nitrates, or to say they're the cost of doing business. Slowly there's recognition and action on all these issues (too slowly I agree), but as consumers we're all complicit in environmental degradation of some kind whether its contamination from the solvents used to make computer chips, or the gasoline in our cars. The pollution may not be next door,  but it's next door to someone. 

So if the Slow Food movement convinces consumers to think harder about where their food comes from, and to properly pay for fresh food grown locally,  and if farmers understand and respond to  this growing appreciation,  I'll do everything I can to support it. If it becomes a bully pulpit to whine and complain every time a farmer has the sprayer in the field,  or traffic has to slow down because there's a tractor moving from field to field (I've heard both this week),  then I'll keep thinking.

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