Land and food: a vital question

23 February 2021

We’re now in the fifth month of Terra Madre and the 35th year of Slow Food activities. And we continue undeterred, spreading our message, our way of thinking about food, agriculture and fishing. It was important 35 years ago, and it’s just as important today, if not more so.

Speaking about land and food, as Piero Sardo says introduced this conference dedicated to the theme, is a vital issue for our future on this planet. And to understand the times we’re living in.

Land and food is an important, essential topic. We discuss it with some of the people that have followed it closely, alongside Slow Food, in recent decades. Eric Schlosser, American investigative journalist whose Fast Food Nation was published in 2001, but still has much to teach us, unfortunately. Paul Ariès, French sociologist and Winona LaDuke, American writer, economist and indigenous activist.

Rewatch the conference:

The physical impact of food

What would Eric Schlosser change in Fast Food Nation, if he rewrote it today? “I wouldn’t have to change much. Unfortunately many of the situations discussed in the book have only worsened and the impact of ultra-processed food is more evident than ever. It’s a physical impact of food. Today three-quarters of Americans are overweight or obese. And it’s the same with children, where 1 in 7 between the age of 2 and 5 years old is overweight.”

As ever, it’s the poorest and most fragile sections of the population who’ll pay the highest price. “It’s a comparable situation to what has happened with tobacco: the rich have stopped smoking, while more poor people have continued. It’s also the poor who are consuming the most damaging food, which will have an enormous impact on the individual and society in general.”

A few rays of light

Restarting from education

How has the situation got worse? “In 2001 I was already speaking about industrial animal farms, and the unchecked power of the multinationals. Today this power is stronger than ever, and the African continent has become their new target. It’s the same methods as we saw 20 years ago. Covid-19 has further exacerbated the injustice of this system, a system which the Trump administration facilitated with all its means. The movement for good, clean and fair food still has a long way to go.”

Even in this bleak picture there is room for hope, and more importantly, room for action. “The key to change is education. The more access to education and information we have, the more the probability of becoming obese is reduced. The more access to education we have, the more we evolve towards a sustainable food system. The new administration in Washington has an enormous potential to change the status quo, and to make companies pay the enormous costs they’re responsible for inflicting on society.”

A double food revolution

We talk to Paul Ariès about meat, as this is the topic that may play the most decisive role in our future. “Today there’s a double food revolution taking place. It’s a revolution of what we put on the table today, and what we’ll eat tomorrow. Experts are debating the rate of change in diets, which could reach 70 or even 100%. What’s for certain is that our children and grandchildren won’t eat like us, and indeed, we don’t eat today like the generations that preceded us.”

“What’s new is that this revolution doesn’t reflect cultural changes, but the new possibilities afforded by biotechnology. The key word of this revolution is the denaturing of the table, the industrialization and artificialization of eating.”

“The second revolution concerns how we eat and what it means to eat. The key word of this revolution is the destructuring of the table. We eat whatever we want, however, wherever, with whoever. We’ve lost the value of the table as a social place that reflects our being as individuals and members of a community, where eating is an act that responds to our biological and spiritual needs – the pleasure of eating as something social, ecological, and even political.”

Artificial foods and how to avoid them

Rif Einkorn Wheat
Restarting from biodiversity

But if our dining tables are the litmus test of a culture, then what is our current diet telling us? “We live at a time where we eat – often alone – but don’t know what we’re eating. We live in an age of technological miracles: cisgenesis and mutagenesis, the hidden GMOs; meat and eggs, restructured olives; nanotech foods studied to stimulate the same neural responses as real foods; ionized foods and decelerated aging; food printed in 3D. Then there’s the great risk of cellular agriculture which could spell the end of the ten-thousand-year link between food and agriculture. It would spell the end of for rural and farming communities.”

Another future is possible, as Ariès says. And it’s the future that Slow Food and many others are working to build; organizations like Via Campesina, the Incredible Edible movement and community-support agriculture. “People don’t behave the way companies would like. People love eating and sharing. And this love is accompanied by a strong political desire that favors ecological transition and defends the principles of social food security.” The solution isn’t biotechnology, but the individual and collective desire to take back control of what we eat, to ensure access to real food.

Indigenous responses

In 2003 Winona LaDuke won the prize for biodiversity protection thanks to her work saving the Anishinaabeg Manoomin, a Slow Food Presidium which she still grows today. “Indigenous people are 4% of the global population but guardians of 70% of our biodviersity. The deconstruction of the food system has been clear to us for decades. Our solution is to take care of resources. To grow our wild rice we take care of the water, the seeds, the ecosystem. This rice is resistant to change, and there’s always change. It’s fundamental that we preserve these resistant varieties.”

“Many indigenous people are farmers. I, for example, grow rice, potatoes, artichokes, corn. And I can confirm that my crops are more “smart”, more intelligent, because they’ve developed the capacity to adapt to change. It’s not a question of a single product, but a holistic approach to the theme of food and resources. We need to think about food in this framework of adapting to climate change, defending biodiversity, and protecting indigenous food. Everyone. Because we’re all in the same boat.”

Rebuilding the food system

Education. Culture. Biodiversity. New alliances. Decolonization. It’s a massive challenge, and can seem impossible at time. But change is possible.

by Silvia Ceriani,

Rewatch the Terra Madre conferences!