Folk Snails

22 Jun 2005

I was recently at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC to meet with the organizers of the Folkways Festival (which will be held in the US capital from June 23 to July4). I came away even more convinced that we must start looking at the world of agriculture — and food production in general — from a much broader perspective than we have done to date.

When talking about these issues at any level, be it global or local, we can’t tackle problems by confining ourselves to highly specialized — or scientific — discussions and courses of action. The food system, the agriculture that produces it included, is always part of a more complex cultural system, which is just as endangered as traditional agricultural techniques and many areas of biodiversity.

Leaving aside techniques based on the indiscriminate exploitation of resources and focusing on ever-increasing productivity, the approach used by agribusiness is assumed to be the only method that should be used in any part of the planet. But agriculture is a human activity which treats relationships with the surrounding environment and the expressions of local culture as fundamentally important. It works in harmony with nature and people’s lives. You can’t generalize and impose a standard solution: every region has its own distinctive features, its people and its biodiversity. Undistorted, sustainable production systems are achieved by seeking equilibrium among all these diverse elements and endeavoring to realize the full potential of each.

While these issues are fairly well developed from an agroecological point of view, and have built up a substantial literature, the same cannot be said for gastronomic perspectives and this is even less the case for the cultural perspective. The three dimensions should be tightly interlinked, however, in a holistic approach that enables activities to be safeguarded in full. What I mean is that we cannot insist on saving gastronomic heritage without asking ourselves what culture it is embedded in or what agricultural models are threatening its traditional ways of production. This is something we have to do when we study a local culture; in fact, it is a first essential step if we want to completely understand a culture, help it recover or even survive.

We need to adopt a much broader vision of food and agriculture. This suggests it is justifiable to introduce and integrate studies into areas which are currently regarded as ‘folklore’: dance, song, music, oral traditions, traditional architecture, instruments, and other means of expression which, for example, are used to accompany work in the fields.

For too many years these expressions of identity have been relegated, like gastronomy, to a limbo. Deprived of scientific dignity, they are kept in ethnographic ghettos which do not do them justice. These traditions need to be studied in depth and, most importantly, they should be kept alive as an integral part of complex local food and agriculture systems. Systems should be saved, just like good food products, from standardization, trivialization and any attempt to wipe them out in the name of dishonest so-called development.

Saying this, and thinking on a global scale — about the Terra Madre communities, for example — opens up amazing prospects and demands a different type of commitment from what we have been undertaking. Interest in traditional songs, music and dance is a sign of respect and interest in the communities that produce food. Organizing initiatives that allow these traditions to remain a living symbol of distinctive and productive identity is a service anyone who wants to help should render.

It is not too fanciful to imagine a large multimedia archive, along the lines of the Smithsonian, which systematically collects and catalogs all the forms of expression of traditional farming cultures around the world. Modern methods of recording and archiving allow incredible things to be accomplished and it is appropriate that we begin to use them for these objectives. Otherwise a large part of this age-old heritage will be lost, but above all it is the cultures themselves that will be lost, and it will be practically impossible to safeguard them in any context (starting from the agrifood area) without reducing them to some sort of museum, an artificial and contrived representation of a few high quality examples while the overall system collapses due to consumer standardization.

First published in La Stampa on June 6 2005

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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