Demos Daily: Slow down – the return to local food

Cooking has been a great form of escapism for many people since lockdown begun – whether we’re getting our aprons on for those in need, or to test our own tastebuds. For those of us who have extra time on our hands, being more adventurous in the kitchen and trying out new recipes has kept many of us occupied too. But do we recognise different places in the flavours we’re cooking? Many of us are most likely unaware of the food production process behind the raw ingredients we’re cooking. But does this matter? Back in 2002, Carlo Petrini – founder and President of Slow Food – argued that it does.

Read Petrini’s piece for Demos Quarterly below on why consumer power offers the surest route to preserving diversity within national and local food cultures.

Food as an entity, as a mere set of nutritional elements devoid of all other possible connotations, is universally seen as ‘body fuel’. Fair enough – that is its primary, natural, irreplaceable function. Food is, of course, necessary for human survival, one of our few truly essential needs. This is why the search for and consumption of food occupy such a large chunk of our time (it’s part of our nature). This is also largely why food manages to influence our culture, our history and our habits – so much so that it has become a distinctive trait of relatively large groups of people.

Food is produced from the land, from its fruits, from the animals that live on it. It can be consumed either as it is, or processed by human beings. Besides thinking in terms of our needs, we thus have to consider where food comes from and how it has been treated and kept. In this sense, food has always been the main factor of interaction between human beings and nature, hugely influencing the transformations that people have imposed on their natural environment and the places where they have chosen to settle and work. The sourcing of raw materials prompted people to develop techniques to maximise their use; this heightened their ingenuity and, over the centuries, allowed them to assimilate a whole baggage of know-how, tricks and discoveries that is now part and parcel of our culture.

Food can also be extremely pleasurable; it is thus necessary to take into account aspects such as choice, methods of preparation, and ways of serving and eating dishes. Every processing technique, every recipe, the various phases and codes of eating, at the table or in the street, by day or by night, have become veritable rites, designed to improve not only economic, political and social situations that have arisen in the course of history, but also the potential pleasurableness of what nature has to offer. Just think of all the precepts the world’s various religions have established with regard to the consumption of food. Alternatively – mysticism apart – consider service and preparation in the world’s finest restaurants.

All these aspects are interconnected and have helped write a good part of the history of humanity, deciding the outcome of wars, enriching peoples, and accompanying or changing with the great upheavals our world has undergone over the centuries.

It is thus undeniable that food plays a central role in the formation of local cultures, affecting the economic, social and political aspects of the lives of the various populations. It is just as undeniable that such aspects, in turn, influence the way food is produced and consumed. Between the industrial revolution and the ongoing processes of globalisation, the speed with which one technological innovation followed another in agriculture and food production (partly thanks to the development of transport and the computerisation of human activities) has, on the one hand, redefined the relationship between human beings, food and nature and, on the other hand, allowed new standardised models of production and consumption to spread over most of the planet.

The onward march of science and progress

Major radical changes started to take place in agricultural practice just after the end of the Second World War. Huge masses of people were in need of food and better nutrition, but agricultural production was unable to satisfy this demand in terms of both quantity and quality. Governments decided to finance research and development in the agricultural sector, placing the onus on studies aimed at increasing productivity. New techniques, new products, and new hybrids and crossbreeds gradually appeared on the market, giving rise to what we now call intensive agricultural practices. Chemical solutions were found to solve problems of soil fertility and to fight the war against parasites; medical solutions were adopted to increase and speed up the fattening of animals; and new varieties of plants and animals appeared capable of sustaining these treatments and supplying larger quantities of food in the briefest time possible. An appropriate example was that of Holstein cattle, specially bred to produce larger quantities of milk than older breeds. The age of biotechnology had begun. The operation proved successful and set in motion a highly profitable industry tied to agronomy and zootechnics, with a few large multinationals holding the patents and developing research to increase productivity. These selfsame industrial groups are now testing, and starting to market, transgenic organisms worldwide.

The urgent need to produce more somewhat overshadowed the costs – in terms of the chemical pollution of soil and water, the progressive replacement and disappearance of autochthonous varieties and breeds, lower food security, and loss of flavour and aroma – of this productive approach.

While this was happening in the fields and farms, food processing was making great strides forward. Faster, safer transport, new food conservation techniques, and the use of additives to modify aroma, taste, texture and colour allowed the food industry to transcend the freshness of ingredients, their seasonal cycles, and their provenance. The industry invented more and more innovative ways of food processing (from the foods of the 50s, deliberately adulterated to conjure up an aura of modernity, to present-day pre-cooked frozen concoctions which are designed to give the appearance of having just come out of a domestic kitchen, thus stressing the freshness and naturalness of their ingredients) whilst at the same time creating new needs in terms of raw material production (the need for products capable of resisting violent processing treatments and meat and vegetables that are as standardised as possible, even if they do come from opposite ends of the globe).

Intensive agriculture and the food industry have managed to feed millions of people at a low price and have become closely connected – so much so that they now combine to form a single sector. Large-scale retailing in supermarkets and franchise catering have completed the picture, closing the circle from the field and the barn to the consumer, simultaneously thus triggering a whole series of problems which, although initially not considered top priority, have proved decisive and strategic over time.

The casualties of change

What have we lost in our fight to win the postwar battle of hunger? The picture I have painted gives an idea of the production techniques of many of the foods served on our tables today. The Western world now boasts food in abundance. The urgent needs of the postwar years have long been met, but the productive approach has changed very little. Why? The answer is simple: although this approach made food available at a lower price, it was also very profitable for its perpetrators. But what are these foodstuffs that cost less, and are available all year round, all over the world, really like?

They are poorer in terms of taste and aroma because the characteristics of raw materials – the elements that add taste and give pleasure – are destroyed by unnatural chemical treatments and are reconstructed using standardised additives. They are less safe and healthy for our bodies because the centralisation of production techniques may create mass problems of public health. Such foods are completely de-contextualised because they are the fruit of a global industrial culture that has nothing to do with the socio-economic situations in which they are produced and consumed. These are foods that become part of our culture simply because they appear in all their glory in advertising posters.

The modern way of producing food has left a strong mark on the bonds that have been consolidated over centuries between food and local cultures. Standardised industrial food is the identity of a brand, not of a people. The cultivation of raw materials and their transformation are processes that no longer involve consumers, who thus lose their ability to choose and judge food. The countryside has been depopulated and whole fields have been given over to monocultures. Rural communities are progressively becoming inhospitable, polluted environments in which biodiversity is threatened every day. Food traditions risk becoming an anthropological exercise, totally removed from reality.

We have already lost a good deal of biodiversity. The least productive autochthonous animal breeds and vegetable varieties that have been replaced by new crossbreeds and hybrids in many parts of the world have disappeared, or are disappearing, taking with them their special qualities, unique flavours and aromas, specially developed traditional artisan production methods, rites of consumption and recipes tied to the passing of the seasons. We have thus lost cultural diversity, local identity and variety of taste.

Salvage effort

But what has been saved and what can be saved? The processes I describe are of course common only in some areas of the developed world. Both in Europe (the most depressed areas of the Mediterranean, for example) and in developing countries, what was once considered productive backwardness has allowed us to save at least some of the traditional agricultural and gastronomic practices that combine to form a strong cultural identity. Developing countries where broad sections of the population suffer from problems of poor nutrition are, alas, becoming ideal places to transfer many of the intensive techniques increasingly frowned upon by public opinion in the Western world.

Today, in the wake of food scandals such as ‘mad cow disease’ and ‘dioxin chickens’, the average consumer has become much more conscious of the methods of production and origins of food. Until a short time ago, we had the paradox of a few rich farmers producing large quantities of poor-quality food for huge masses of low wage earners, while a few peasants in depressed areas continued to practise quality traditional agriculture for an elite of wealthy consumers. Today we are witnessing the breakdown of this class-based division of Western consumers. On the one hand, we have consumers concerned about the quality of the food they eat (in terms of its wholesomeness, knowledge of production methods, the origin of raw materials, freshness, naturalness and the cultural connotations any artisan product is bound to encapsulate). On the other hand, we have consumers, rich and poor alike, who see food basically as body fuel with no interest in all its other aspects.

It is this second group of consumers with whom we have to share the blame for the persistence of intensive agriculture and a food industry without any care for quality, not to mention the progressive erasure of food’s nobler, deeper significance within our society. But it is on the first group of consumers that we have to pin our hopes for at least a partial reorganisation of the agro-industrial sector.

‘Shopping bag power’ is one of the most effective means by which civil society imposes new methods of food production. Defending breeds, varieties, techniques and products on the verge of extinction is not only a way of promoting an agro-industrial sector using eco-sustainable practices. It is also a way of claiming the right to food pleasure: meaning not only taste but also knowledge. By catering for consumers sensitive to these issues, small economies of scale bound up in local agriculture and the surrounding countryside will demonstrate that they work better than the present system of food production – in every sense. In this way, it will also be possible to safeguard local cultures and identities. Far from being a form of conservatism, all this amounts to a mission to defend every aspect of the complexity and diversity that are the most important values of a world moving towards top-down standardisation. Food is no longer a decisive factor in the formation of distinctive, vibrant local and national cultures; however, it can be a way of defending them, helping them to grow and come to terms with each other in a peaceful way.