August 5, 2008

‘Demand for Local Markets Will Grow’

By Scott Russon

Dr Geoff Andrews, the author of a new book on the Slow Food movement, tells Scott Russon why politicians must focus on long- term, localised solutions to the global food crisis

The first in-depth study of the politics of the Slow Food movement has been published by Dr Geoff Andrews, a social scientist at the Open University, whose background is in the history of political ideas and Italian politics. Coming at a time of rising food and oil prices, The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure sets out to explore the relationship between gastronomy and politics.

The Slow Food (SF) movement was set up in Italy as a response to the rise of fast food chains, supermarkets and large-scale agribusiness. It seeks to defend what it calls "the universal right to pleasure" and promotes an alternative approach to food production and consumption based on the promotion of "good, clean and fair" local products - food which is produced in an environmentally sustainable and non-exploitative way, and tastes good as well.

Over the last 20 years SF has grown into an international organisation with more than 80,000 members in over 130 countries. Here, Dr Andrews answers questions about how our relationship with food is changing.

Q what is the Slow Food movement?

A Slow Food has its origins in left-wing politics in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, although the term was first used in 1986 following a demonstration in response to the setting up of a McDonald's in the centre of Rome. The concern at the time was that fast food was expanding, while local food and food traditions were seen to be under threat. The SF movement is now raising a number of concerns about food around the world. The composition of the members of the SF is a mix of people - chefs, self-taught gastronomes, anti- globalisation activists, farmers, foodies - who have become politicised. In that sense the new politics of food is distinctive because of the people that it is reaching. It has appeal that goes across political and ideological boundaries.

Q What's the link between food and politics?

A Many newspaper headlines, for example, are about issues centred on food - "global food crisis", "concern over obesity and health", etc. Also, there's more coverage of farmers' markets and local produce. It's true that people may not see that as overtly political, but it is asking questions about the origins of food and the links between food consumption and poverty, and making connections between food and the environment. Jamie Oliver's very public intervention has touched on a whole range of issues that people feel strongly about. So I think food has become a site of politics in a new and broad way.

Q Have Jamie Oliver et al helped develop our understanding of food issues?

A The relationship between politics and food has grown in the public awareness, partly because Jamie Oliver is a charismatic and incredibly popular figure. His intervention in the school dinners debate made a connection with the public that politicians are unable to do. Consumers are also citizens. There are many things now that are making people think about food and the pleasures of food - people have become much more discerning about it. The Slow Food movement has touched on a particular way of living; not only a way of eating but a way of life. How we eat is a reflection of how we live.

Q Gordon Ramsay has called for restaurants to be made to serve seasonal food. What do you think of this?

A In general, I support it, but it's very difficult to do. I think the call reflects the way in which things have changed in a wider sense. People are questioning where food is coming from, which reflects a growing appreciation of the pleasures of food. One of Slow Food's arguments is that we need to liberate gastronomy from its elitist connotations. They argue that in fact gastronomy concerns everything to do with the origins, cultivation, production and consumption of food. More people - who I call self-taught gastronomes in my book - are now thinking more about these questions, and about their quality of life more widely, including the simple pleasures of food, and less about work.

Q Aren't the real issues about who can afford to buy local and who can't?

A There are issues about cost; about who can afford to eat from local stores and farmers' markets, and it is true that their prices are higher than in supermarkets. But you could argue that the prices are higher because people are being paid a just price for the goods that they produce. In that sense, it's an egalitarian decision to shop locally: you are thinking about the environment and social justice.

Q Is education the key to changing food habits?

A Education is a crucial part, particularly with the younger generations. When I was in the US travelling for my book, I visited school garden projects and city farms that have been set up where kids, in many cases taken from quite rough estates, are given the chance to look after the produce and learn about the environment and it has quite a life-changing effect.

Q The Slow Food movement is also about protecting food heritage, but hasn't Britain already lost a lot of its traditions?

A That's definitely the case. We have lost part of our food culture. In Britain, and the US, it's about rediscovering food traditions, and it's interesting that there are more oral histories coming to light, from people who used to be food producers or from families who consumed in different ways. It's part of rediscovering culture in general, as food is a crucial element of the cultural landscape. We do have good food traditions in Britain - now they are beginning to be uncovered again. SF has a scheme called Presidia, where it works with local producers when quality products, based on important local knowledge and traditions, are at risk. In Britain, SF has helped support and promote products such as Cornish pilchards, the perry drink in Herefordshire, and Old Gloucester beef - prestigious products of outstanding quality.

Q What effect has the BSE crisis had?

A One of the interesting outcomes of BSE and other crises is that we don't know who the experts are any more. Scientists have come up with different reasons for the causes of BSE and we don't know who to believe. As I argue in my book, food is the archetypal expression of this postmodern ambiguity about knowledge and how we live. What we've discovered is that there are other kinds of experts: food producers and farmers whose knowledge we should value, perhaps as much as the scientists'. Perhaps we can learn from what SF calls the "intellectuals of the earth" - people who know the land, know the food, know their culture - and their knowledge and experience is often just as important as the scientists'.

Q Do the leading political parties care about food production and the public's consumption?

A The trouble with politicians is that they're always thinking about short-term electoral advantages. They understand that food has become very important in politics and so they're taking it seriously. The question is whether they have the breadth of understanding, or willingness to engage with a big question which isn't going to be solved by one government or another, it's dependent on global cooperation.

Q Doesn't the influence of the supermarkets mean that they are the most powerful factor in being able to shape consumer behaviour?

A They are powerful and they dominate the food sector, but what we have seen in recent years is that consumers also have powerful political voices and supermarkets now have to respond to them. We hear a lot about political disengagement, but the area of consumption has become highly politicised, which is good for society and democracy. Alternative consumption is one area where people are asserting themselves in politics. It also means that supermarkets won't have it all their own way in the next few years - the rise of the farmers' markets is one such example.

Q What do you think will be the next big issue related to food?

A The global food crisis is likely to continue and this will bring more scrutiny of government policies and hopefully more evaluation of our lifestyles. At a different level, I think we'll see more demand for local markets. There might be a change in menus, with more British food restaurants and more interest in micro- breweries. Also, the allotment movement is developing; if young people become interested in allotments and things like that, then we are on the road to significant changes.

'The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure' is published by Pluto Press

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