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 Civic Center Plaza during Slow Food Nation San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza got a makeover during Slow Food Nation, with a mega-farmers market. (All photos this page courtesy of Slow Food Nation.)


As an audience with an insatiable appetite for sustainability listened, an expert panel picked over the appetizing carcass of Slow Food Nation

| 11 September 2008

  pizza
At Fort Mason, the action was all about tasting food, including the pizzas above, baked in one of three wood-burning ovens.
 

The thread connecting thousands of people tasting artisanal mortadella on a sunny weekend in San Francisco with thousands of farmers losing their land in India may not be obvious.

But it’s there, a capacity-plus crowd in Wheeler Hall heard last week from a panel made up of some of the best minds in the sustainable-food movement — Vandana Shiva, Fred Kirschenmann, and Berkeley’s Michael Pollan and Raj Patel — who gathered to conduct a postmortem on the recently wrapped-up Slow Food Nation extravaganza.

The sustainable-food movement’s festival and educational forum drew some 50,000-plus people to San Francisco over Labor Day weekend, under the auspices of the organization Slow Food USA. It was American Slow Food’s biggest gambit to date to shed its elitist image and take its “delicious revolution,” in Alice Waters’ phrase, to the masses.

How well it succeeded has major implications for Slow Food, both the organization and possible future such events in other cities, and for the future of national and global food production, the Berkeley panel members emphasized. The “Slow Food Nation Considered” panel on Sept. 3 was part of a speaker series sponsored by Berkeley’s two-year-old Agriculture in Metropolitan Regions interdisciplinary project; its parent program, the Center for Global Metropolitan Studies; the Graduate School of Journalism; and the Berkeley Institute of the Environment.

  Slow Food Nation panelists
From top: Vandana Shiva, Raj Patel, and Michael Pollan, speaking on panels at Slow Food Nation; last week, they appeared together at Berkeley’s post-mortem of the event.
 

Before the provocative two-hour discussion ended, it was clear that whatever it may have failed to do, Slow Food Nation’s most powerful accomplishment was in trying to get people to connect the dots between handcrafted salumi and starving Indian farmers — that is, between what Americans choose to eat and how that food is produced on the one hand, and, on the other, some of the most formidable challenges of the age: energy policy, water scarcity, climate change, health threats, hunger and rising food prices, and the global agricultural economy.

What Slow Food Nation left out, however, was the evening’s main question, and the answer came loud and clear: a lot. The discussion became as much about Slow Food, the organization, as about the previous weekend’s event, which was envisioned by its organizers as a model for other cities.

The panel’s pointed critiques drew frequent applause from an audience that included Waters herself, who was Slow Food Nation’s founder, and other event leaders.

The most devastating view came from Kirschenmann, an organic farmer from North Dakota, a fellow of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and an author who has advocated for a more sustainable food system since long before most people ever heard the word sustainability — meaning a system that can go on, healthily for land and for people, into the indefinite future.

“The message that was there [at Slow Food Nation] was, ‘If we go organic, if we go local … then we are all going to be OK,’ ” Kirschenmann said. “I think that’s missing a part of the real challenge we are all going to be facing over the next few decades.”

America’s industrialized food system, one that’s being exported all over the world, is “absolutely dependent on cheap energy, on an endless supply of cheap water resources,” Kirschenmann continued. Both are running out, and climate change is already destabilizing weather systems and causing more crop-ravaging droughts and floods, he said. Food activists need to start focusing on how to create a sustainable-food system that will provide enough good, nutritious food under those circumstances.

“We’re not going to have 100 years to figure that out. It’s going to be more like 10 or 20,” Kirschenmann warned. “I’m hoping that when the next Slow Food event takes place, that will be a central piece.”

Raj Patel, a visiting scholar at Berkeley’s Center for African Studies whose 2007 book Stuffed and Starved (Melville House) exposed the human cost of industrial agriculture’s spread across the world, said Slow Food Nation failed to give enough prominence to social-justice issues — earning the first burst of clapping from the standing-room-only audience. About half had been to Slow Food Nation, according to a show of hands.

Not just for the rich

“It can’t just be pleasure for the rich alone; it has to be for everyone,” said Patel, who spoke as well at Slow Food Nation’s opening session on the world food crisis. His point included but went beyond the issue of whether most people can afford $4 farmers-market peaches (and the $65 ticket to Slow Food Nation’s tastings).

At the salumi tasting, for instance, a sign described how the meats being served conformed to Slow Food’s mantra that food be “good, clean, and fair.” Fairness, the sign said, meant that the animals sacrificed for the meat were treated humanely, Patel related. But “what about labor?” he asked. “Meatpacking is the most brutal end of the food system. Labor is treated badly in the meat industry.” That point had in fact been the focus of one Slow Food Nation panel discussion, but the session could seat only a tiny proportion of festival-goers.

Bringing a global perspective to bear on all this was Vandana Shiva, a physicist, environmental and food activist, and author. Back home in India, industrial agriculture — expensive chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds — is spreading and creating more hunger, not less, Shiva said. Farmers buying into the system are succumbing to debt and losing their farms — a model well-known in the United States. And more food is being grown for sale instead of local consumption.

“The most nutritious crops can only be grown on a tiny scale and ecologically, so as the ‘Roundup-ready’ monocultures take over, you really have the recipe for very little food,” Shiva said. “One of the challenges of the Slow Food movement is that even when it takes on fairness and justice, it leaves out what the system is doing [globally].”

The Slow Food movement and the evening’s panelists share the view that changes need to be made to a food system that commodifies the world’s major food crops — corn, rice, soy, wheat — for the sake of keeping food cheap and making corporate shareholders happy, pointed out moderator Richard Walker, a Berkeley professor of economic geography and chair of the campus’s California Studies Center.

Slow Food’s message of “local and sustainable” takes aim not just at corporations like Wal-Mart and Cargill, but at the entire system of agrarian capitalism, whose logic is built on the exploitation of labor and creating “factories in the fields,” said Walker, who has written extensively about agribusiness and serves as a director of Global Metropolitan Studies.

“I think a critique of capitalism is in Slow Food’s DNA,” agreed Patel. And Slow Food Nation’s planners reached out to involve food-justice organizations, including People’s Grocery in Oakland, which focuses on improving access to good food and raising wages for the poor. But the food-justice world has kept Slow Food at arm’s length, Patel said.

At a Slow Food Nation panel discussion on food justice, he recounted, People’s Grocery co-founder Brahm Ahmadi was asked why that’s the case.

“What does Slow Food have to offer us?” was his answer, according to Patel. The danger, Patel explained, is that Slow Food, with its connections and ability to attract media attention, “can suck all the air from the room,” can engulf a smaller movement.

“The civil-rights movement would have been a failure if it had been led by white people,” he said by way of comparison. “I think Slow Food’s challenge is to figure out how to support and not dominate.”

Michael Pollan, professor in the Graduate School of Journalism and a friend of Slow Food who often served as its defender during the evening, responded, “You shouldn’t overlook the power of getting the attention of the middle class.

“You’re right — the greatest successes of the [civil-rights] movement were the struggles by African Americans, but the greatest progress was made when the movement was cast in the language of the American idea,” added Pollan, whose 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma lit a burner under the national sustainable-food movement.

Slow Food’s power, he said, lies in “finding that middle,” bringing up something Kirschenmann, the farmer, had said earlier — that one of Slow Food’s greatest contributions has been raising the awareness that “farmers and eaters share to some extent a common agenda.”

Yes, Pollan said, “there were things missing” from Slow Food Nation. But “the presence [there] of people like Vandana and Raj exposed to this white middle-class audience a whole constellation of ideas that were completely new. There was a cross-pollination that was one of the most valuable things about it.”

Given the very large forces that play into food policy in this country, he said, “To ask Slow Food to solve all those problems is a lot to ask.”