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Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities
Founder and President of Slow Food
the value and price of food
The triumph of consumerism has seen the triumph of another prejudice-cum-cliché: the idea that the price and value of food has to be low—as low as possible, in fact. It’s natural, in a market, for us to opt for the product that costs least. But we should do so when quality is equal, or at least when we have the opportunity of choosing a standard of quality suitable for our needs. This is no longer possible in the case of food; it has to be cheap, period. Vegetables or pasta only have to go up by a few cents and the papers spew indignant reactions. Yet people don’t protest the same way if their bank account or telephone bills cost more, if a professional fleeces them for his services, or if a television-repair call costs the equivalent of a dinner for two at a restaurant. But food’s a different matter; it isn’t to be meddled with. The widely held opinion is: “With a great deal of effort we managed to beat hunger years ago. We are a rich, opulent society; food has to be available everywhere and, if possible, cost a trifle. If it’s expensive, let’s leave it to gluttons and guzzlers with plenty of money to spend.” This is what comes of having transformed food into a consumer commodity, stripping it of all its spiritual, cultural, and
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material values: the system built around it or of which it is part has replaced value with price. Money has supplanted other values to become the secret of happiness. Food is thus no longer produced to be eaten, but to be sold. Price becomes the principal, if not the only, choice criterion. In the global agro-industry food system, foodstuffs have become commodities just like all the others—no more, no less; just like oil, timber, or other tradable goods whose prices are established by international stock exchanges. Grain, corn, coffee, and cocoa are commodities like metals or energy, hence subject to the laws of supply and demand, distributed on the market without differentiations in quality and without a care about who produces them. Subjecting food to these laws leads to a standardization of food production that tends to reduce biodiversity and increase “eco-unfriendly” monocultures. And it also causes a huge amount of injustice. Especially in the South of the world, and often on account of their colonialist or neocolonialist heritage, whole countries have become specialized in given agricultural products and promptly suffer huge upheavals when their prices plummet. Mostly in countries that are experiencing rapid urbanization, the fact that food is becoming something to buy and not to produce is creating poverty, hence hunger and malnutrition. A peasant farmer in a poor country who decides to abandon the hard life of the countryside for a move to the city stops producing the meager amount of food that allowed his family to get by, albeit in poor conditions. But if he doesn’t find a job with a decent wage in the city, he won’t be able to buy enough food for himself and his family. In a short space of time, he will descend from poverty to nothing—to hunger and downright squalor.
food is eating the environment 63
Total commodification is the price we pay for the degeneration in the value of food in both the North and the South of the world. Yet practices exist that may not be viable in monetary terms— think of home jam making, which certainly costs less than buying jam in a store—but which enables us to earn value in terms of conviviality, personal gratification, community service, environmental protection, and, in a word, well-being. We have perpetrated the most appalling disasters, all for the sake of Mammon. Destitute of authenticity, food ultimately eats us. Deprived of cultural, social, and environmental values, it stops being an object of attention, care, and pride—as a true resource should be—morphing into a monster that devastates the countryside socially and ecologically, causing injustice everywhere. We may think we can nonchalantly throw away food, but we can’t.
Food Is Eating the Environment
Industrialization, as intense in the agri-food sector as it is in others, relegates quality to the back seat. The drivers are quantity, productivity, standardization, and homogenization. Nature, characterized by complexity, indeterminateness, diversity, and multifunctionality, is something else. Industrial agriculture (what an oxymoron!), the industrial processing of food, the distribution over five continents of foodstuffs that could be cultivated in loco, low prices, and the laws of the free market—all these factors have combined to make the food sector one of the most unsustainable spheres of human activity. Over the last hundred years, biodiversity has disappeared at an
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alarming rate: the need for vast monocultures to supply industry with large amounts of cheap food has limited people’s choices to the few varieties suited to this production model—to the detriment of others. As a result, in the United States alone—the world leader in industrial agriculture—80.6 percent of all tomato varieties became extinct between 1903 and 1983, as did 92.8 percent of salad varieties, 86.2 percent of apple varieties, 90.8 percent of corn varieties, and 96.1 percent of sweet corn varieties. Of the 5,000 existing potato varieties, only 4 constitute the majority of those cultivated for commercial purposes in the United States. Only 2 varieties account for 96 percent of all cultivated American peas, and 6 varieties for 71 percent of the total of all cultivated corn. These have been the results wherever the industrialization of food has had the upper hand: a triumph for standardization and homogenization, and a serious peril for two of the cornerstones of life on earth—biological diversity and the ability of species to adapt. The damage that has been done has achieved biblical proportions. In just one century, we have allowed the fruits of thousands of years of evolution to vanish. Luckily, many countries that have yet to experience the agro-industry boom still enjoy a decent level of biodiversity. But if their ambition is to emulate the example of the West, the disaster will become universal. Unfortunately, we are already seeing worrying signals of how, in countries such as Mexico, India, Brazil, and China—among those boasting the most edible vegetable varieties and animal breeds, but also with galloping industrial growth rates—the phenomenon of the destruction of biodiversity is repeating itself with unprecedented intensity. Furthermore, even the land is being “eaten” by food on account
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of production being carried out on an industrial scale. Over the last few years, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has increased exponentially. The same amount of synthetic chemicals has been applied to the world’s soils and introduced into its natural systems in the last ten years as was used in the whole of the preceding century. The products in question are, of course, foreign to the natural cycle, and it is no secret that they will jeopardize soil fertility in the long term. The soil is a living thing, and we are murdering it. Industrial agriculture has embraced the idea of farming without farmers, but at this rate one day we’ll be forced to farm without land. Damage to the environment caused by the industrial global food system is so widespread and severe that the problem is now the first item on the ecological agenda. News about what is going on has leaked from the “alternative” world of organics and environmentalism and now entered the public domain. It’s no longer possible to deny the facts. The countryside used to be an oasis for town dwellers keen to escape from pollution. Today many areas of the planet have become dangerous for our health, especially places where fertilizer is spread and pesticides are sprayed. Agriculture used to be—ought to be—an alliance between man and nature, but it has gradually become a war. It’s no coincidence that the technologies used to produce pesticides all originate in the armaments industry. Industrial agriculture is de facto a declaration of war on the earth. To date, environmental devastation has never been calculated as an item in food economics, even though it does represent an increasingly onerous cost. I believe that we pay a low market price for food, but that we
THE VALUE AND PRICE OF FOOD
also pay a high-and hidden-price, not only in economic terms, but also in terms of the earth's capacity to produce food in the future, and in terms of the quality of our own life and health and of those of future generations, to whom we cannot deny the sacred right to enjoy well-being and happiness. The low cost of food not only devalues food itself, but also hides all the evil we are doing to the earth. Sooner or later, someone will have to pay for all this, and ultimately it will be "consumers," even if they are convinced they are getting a bargain when they spend small sums of money on eating.
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