A book I read as a child has stuck with me. Gorgeously illustrated, it showed how families lived all around the world – what they ate, where they slept, what they wore, even their unique festivals. In only a turn of the page, it was possible to jump from a boy drinking yak milk on a Nepalese mountainside to a family eating miso soup in a tiny Japanese apartment. The incredible spectrum of humanity and its compression to fit within those pages baffled and entranced me in equal measure. I had the same feeling in Turin in September. With over five thousand delegates from all over the world, those pages came to life. Growers, educators, researchers and activists from every continent filled the city of Turin from the 22 – 26 September, and thanks to sponsorship from Slow Food Shoalhaven, I was lucky enough to be among their number.
The mainstay of the International Slow Food conference was – you guessed it – food. But not only in the gastronomic, endorphin-causing, belt-loosening sense you’d imagine. For me, Terra Madre was a complex, interwoven tapestry of food systems and the stability of their economic supports in an uncertain world. We live in a world in which country boundaries are more fluid than ever – much like the simple transitions afforded by pages in a child’s picture book. Rapidity of travel and communication is a wonderful thing. But it also means multinational corporations have a global reach. It means a terrifying, homogenous future.
We are locked into an economic system where business is based on hubris instead of altruism and even raw materials have ASX prices. Today, agricultural policy is based on competitive pricing, volume and GDP markers that fall far short of our traditional custodianship of nature. In a forum discussing the future of organic farming, the Italian speaker flailed his arms as he searched for a word to describe the supply chains for cocoa and coffee. He settled on ‘Tarantino-esque.’ Large scale, fossil fuel based agriculture defers the inherent ecosystem maintenance costs (such as soil health and water quality) so they can be dealt with by poorer nations and future generations. We’ve created an economy in which damaging systems are the norm in order for a bag of $1 pre-washed spinach to sit under fluorescent lights at the supermarket. The true costs of food production are not included in the cost to consumer. The Earth is taking the blows instead.
The overarching theme of the forums and talks presented at Terra Madre is the need for a global economic paradigm shift, as best explained by two economist philosophers, one French (Serge Latouche) and one Italian (Stefano Zamagni). They argue for the need for radical change in the way food is viewed from a financial perspective, involving the removal of subsidies for large-scale, fossil fuel based agriculture and the inclusion of internal costs in sale prices. A few decades ago, before glyphosate and cheap fuel, farms were sustainably sized. Farmers protected their soil and used resources from the local area because they wanted to keep farming for a long time. These costs were included in the price of the nutrient-rich produce that resulted. We’ve lost that personal accountability in the transition to warehouse-sized supermarkets filled with blemish-free, perfectly rounded tomatoes and ramrod-straight carrots.
It’s not a simple transition. For the most part, society is locked into traditional jobs, loans and limited by purchasing power. A level of social revolution is required to instigate transformation – a revolution that stems from the individual.
Terra Madre is a showcase of the power of the individual. The mustachioed José Bové, jailed four times for his environmental protest action and now a member of European parliament, joined Marion Nestle, academic food advocate, to impart the message: ‘they are giants, but we are millions.’ Revolution is as accessible as buying produce at your local farmers’ market and directly supporting your local growers. It’s helping your neighbour munch through a windfall of apples or convert a citrus bonanza into killer marmalade that will brighten your shelves all year long. It’s starting a garden in your backyard so you can grow swathes of parsley and kohlrabi and whatever else floats your boat. Grow cumquats and avocados and custard apples – whatever you want to eat. It’s joining a solidarity group such as Slow Food and engaging with your local community. It’s learning new skills by trading and bartering with skilled people in your area. It’s creating a future of economic diversity via cooperative enterprises that build social utility.
When I first came across that picture book, I was probably seven or eight years old. I lived on the edge of the Woronora River on the outer edge of the Sydney suburbs. Fuelled by slightly-too-concentrated red cordial, I was busy bumbling through school and accumulating scrapes and bruises thanks to gravity and various hard surfaces. I’d never really thought about what I ate before. I gullibly traded the homemade muffins in my lunchbox for the plastic-wrapped supermarket fare my friends toted around. My life didn’t feel as exciting or vibrant as that of the families in the book. No colorful flags, no dumplings, no yaks on mountainsides.
It wasn’t until my family moved to the south coast that food became really important. More space meant a vegetable garden, fruit trees, chickens, ducks, geese, a wandering peacock and more dogs and cats than a suburban kid could ever have dreamed for. My mornings began with bird song, farm chores and homegrown scrambled eggs. Mindy the donkey became chief lawnmower. We had watermelon-seed-spitting contests down the hillside and nearly couldn’t eat the enormous crop that followed. Summers spent equally between the beach and the mountains quickly superseded memories of lukewarm clamshell backyard pools and sticky zooper doopers.
Terra Madre was a well-needed kick in the pants, a reminder to lift my head out of my everyday work routine to stop and think about the global issues in our food supply chains. A call to work harder, to network with people living and working in tune with nature, the people looking to shape a future not based on GDP but on homeostasis with the Earth. It turns out there’s a lot of them, seeded on every continent, instigating change.
The work of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, French photographer and environmentalist, adorned my books in primary and high school. Carefully cut out from discarded calendars, his landscapes brightened the terrifying terrain of algebra and calculus. At Terra Madre he presented a special screening of a short documentary that stemmed from his 2015 work ‘Human.’ Aerial footage of agricultural practices around the world is interspersed with first-person narrative by farmers. It’s hard to explain how stunningly beautiful it is. I felt overwhelmed sitting in the darkened theatre, watching the seamless passage from desert fringe to deep jungle, populated by more people than the seven-year-old me could ever have imagined from my picture book.
We live on a beautiful planet. It’s worth protecting. Start small. Start local. If you’re interested, watch ‘Human’ here. Complement it with this staggering photo essay of large-scale fossil fuel based agriculture here.