Every revolution has its devils. Just as the French Revolution had Bernard de Launay, Marie Antoinette, and Louis XVI, Slow Food’s revolution has Ronald McDonald, big agriculture, and Monsanto. From the very beginning they’ve served as focal points for our passion and our understanding of what we think is wrong with the food system.
Demonizing them and protesting against them, from the first handful of penne pasta thrown at the Spanish steps, is easy. What is harder, and what Slow Food has not done well, is to think about how to react when those protests actually start to succeed, and conventional food interests start to adopt elements of our program. As Slow Food and related progressive-food movements gain traction, this will become an increasingly critical question.
Some of Slow Food’s “devils” are already incorporating aspects of Slow Food’s agenda, but not in ways that are consistent with Slow Food’s larger philosophy. Monsanto is a perfect example: they don’t make genetically modified seeds just for kicks, or just for profit—many of them are designed specifically to require fewer natural resources or fewer pesticides, both goals that are, on paper, congruent with ours. They can point to these facts when arguing that they are “committed to sustainable agriculture.” The problem is not that they’re lying, necessarily. The problem is that they have not actually succeeded in increasing yield, drought-resistance, insect-resistance, or nutrition. What they have succeeded in doing, aside from creating monoculture vulnerabilities, is creating crops that are more tolerant of herbicides—an outcome that makes crops easier to grow, granted, but promotes more rather than less pesticide use.
In other cases, conventional food giants are starting to incorporate elements of Slow Food’s agenda because, not to put too fine a point on it, they’re in the business of staying in business, and they realize that good, clean and fair food is starting to catch on. When their deeds don’t match their words, they are simply “greenwashing” and should be shamed accordingly. But when they do, we should realize that the incorporation of parts of the progressive-food agenda into the existing food system is actually our goal. Local Crop is an excellent example. Based in northern Ohio (and recently expanded to our area), they connect local, artisanal producers with restaurants, markets, and food institutions. How do they do it? Through a partnership with conventional food giant Sysco.
This is not to say that Slow Food should welcome every partnership with a conventional entity with open arms, of course. The larger point is that, as the movement matures and becomes more mainstream, excoriating devils, however viscerally satisfying, is bad strategy when some of them have realized that it’s in their interests to help us.
What, then, might be some worthwhile general principles for relations with large conventional food interests?
- First, know your subject, inside and out. Seek a diversity of perspectives: read Peter Pringle as well as Vandana Shiva, and Blake Hurst as well as Michael Pollan—and then keep reading. Don’t just buy food from farmers at the farmers’ markets: talk to them about these sorts of issues, if they can spare the time. Their perspective might surprise you.
- Second, don’t be afraid to praise some aspects of a company, organization, or practice while criticizing others. Many “devils” turn out to be not so devilish after all: demonizing a whole organization leaves you blind to the parts of it that represent genuine progress. Progress toward an improved food system will be incremental, and it is important to recognize and encourage it when it happens (and to recognize it when it does not).
- Third, be clear that the essence of the principle in question, not its outward form, is what is important. A good example here is organic produce from large chain supermarkets, which, while it might not have the same romanticized foodie cachet as organic produce from farmers’ markets, is nevertheless organic.
- Fourth, don’t just point out what’s wrong, but ask what can be done to fix it. Often little to no thought is devoted to this question, and as a result much time and effort are expended to no good end. If you don’t like Monsanto’s practices, fine; but what would you have them do instead? Simply close their doors? If you can’t imagine any other outcome that would satisfy you, then you’re probably not trying very hard. Perhaps a less restrictive form of intellectual property—something like what the software industry has done with Creative Commons licensing, or even a more conventional “branding” model, where the value of the intellectual property comes from consumer loyalty rather than directly from the patent itself (an approach advocated in an essay by E. Richard Gold)?
- Finally, recognize that the behavior of established food interests is, to steal a line from The Godfather, “nothing personal, just business.” Why have companies worked so hard to make food a little cheaper and a little worse for so long? Because, frankly, it’s good business: consumers notice the price more than the quality. This is why Slow Food’s emphasis on taste education is so important: increasing consumers’ emphasis on the taste of food they eat changes the food industry’s profit motive.
A degree of cooperation with conventional food interests is an idea that won’t come naturally, or easily, to many in the Slow Food movement. (Someone, no doubt, will point out that the “business” in The Godfather was murder.) But a movement that fails to recognize opportunity where it exists does itself no favors; a movement that doesn’t work to understand how its principles can best be applied to a complex world risks irrelevance or, worse, the perversion of its goals into a mockery of their original intent by forces beyond their control.
Just ask the French, who started a revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity but ended up exchanging one tyrant for another.