SLOW FOOD WORLD – No Farming Without Intelligent Consumers

09 Jul 2004

Introductory speech to the food quality and safety meeting at the 24th Regional European Congress of Non-Governmental Organizations and Civil Society Organizations
Montpellier, France, 3rd-4th May 2004

I am speaking in the name of the Slow Food Movement, with reference to this association’s experiences.

We are convinced that matters regarding quality should be at the centre of discussions about the future of the farm food system. This is revolutionary, because until now quantity was the central concern. Slow Food is a consumer movement – but not only for consumers.

Slow Food was founded over 15 years ago in Italy, as an educational movement. Education is a fundamental part of our existence. When we talk about quality, we always bear in mind the fact that appreciating quality is the result of training and education. For us, quality means taste, first and foremost. Taste is only partly innate and partly social heredity. Taste must be learned, and taste must be taught, at any age. Whether enjoying simple foods like bread and water, or more complex foods like cheeses, cured meats and wines, we need knowledge and experience. Knowledge of production processes and the work carried out by farmers, traditional producers and industries. Experience acquired through tastings, which gradually form a kind of internal library in our memory which will be a useful reference later on.

All Slow Food groups around the world (there are 700, half of which are in Italy, and 30 in France) organise special activities called ‘Taste Workshops’. During these 60-90 minute sessions we taste products attentively, while they are described by the producers or experts. 20 or 60 people attend these events and often say, “I didn’t know this kind of taste existed; from now on I will look at this product differently”. Whether it is chocolate, beer or prosciutto crudo, the result is always the same. We do not enjoy high quality products on a daily basis. Advertising tends to standardize our experience a priori and the pleasure of convivial eating distracts us from making it a purely sensory experience. Great products are often used in great cuisine, but smart restaurant décor and sophisticated culinary techniques lead us to believe they are inaccessible. Slow Food’s Taste Laboratories provide an opportunity for taste education. Taste education is not currently promoted in our society. We learn to drive, to play music or practice sports, but we do not learn to eat and to enjoy what we eat. Our societies seem to think this comes naturally. But that is not the case.

We believe that if consumers are not intelligently aware, competent, demanding, there can be no farm food production! Traditional farm food production and small food industries can provide fine foods that are far superior in quality to those produced by the mainstream food industry. But consumers must know how to recognize them and they need taste education in order to do so. Public bodies should promote food education for young people, as well as taste education and enjoying food, and publicizing taste education events organized by consumer associations.

Traditional and farm food producers and industrial fine food producers must see consumers as long-term partners and commit to developing their skills rather than profiting by their ignorance. Only through awareness will consumers spend more to purchase high quality foods rather than standard products: so there can be no farm food production without consumer awareness!

Poorer consumers are the first victims of marketing gadgets and continual food novelties with their increasing content of “empty calories” and inviting appearance. The poorer social classes actually suffer more from obesity than others. So they should be given priority in taste education events.

Slow Food does not defend any single food model, but promotes an attitude: the quest, through food, for awareness of pleasure. We believe that feeding ourselves is not the same as filling up our car with fuel. We know that our body is made up from the food we eat: we become what we eat. We know that eating is not just a physiological need: it is a cultural, social and political act, a way of relating to the world, becoming part of the environment and society.
It is no coincidence that the section of the family budget dedicated to food shopping is diminishing, nor that the cost of farm foods is continually decreasing.

If eating is a profound, healthy pleasure, if it becomes (or goes back to being) a cultural event, a way to establish a relationship with the world, we are ready to pay the price and favor natural products, or those transformed at the source (in the farm); products from farms which respect the environment, men and animals, rather than those produced industrially. A new consumer model, like a new production model, will create a new model for rural development and a new food system.

Today most of Europe is free of famine, which prevailed just fifty years ago. Our problem is no longer eating enough, but choosing what we eat. Our physical makeup has been marked by famine: our bodies are programmed to build up stores. But we are also psychologically conditioned by famine: we believe that pleasure lies in eating more – more of foods that were once rare delicacies like sugar, fat, animal products…. We now eat every day like aristocrats used to eat on a feast day fifty years ago. The farm food system is organized to meet these desires. Meats, cheeses, sweets are plentiful and cheap. Chickens are sold for 2 euros, pork ribs at less than 3 euros per kilo. But these farm food industry products are only distantly related to the farming of two generations ago. That raw milk cheese is pasteurized today; it used to be made in the mountain pastures, but today it is made in the plains; once the milk of a local cow breed was used, but now it is made from the milk of Holstein cows…

Today the supermarkets of richer nations offer a seemingly infinite variety of products but most of this is fake. In France, 98% of milk is made from only three cow breeds compared to the several dozen breeds of fifty years ago. As for cured meats, they are almost entirely made from a single breed of pig, the Large White. Animal and vegetable products are becoming standardized, which means standardized tastes too, but it also means that traditional flavors are being lost and countless rural areas are being deserted.

Official recognition of quality and origin, like DOC and PDO (when honestly defined and strictly controlled) resist this tendency and we support them. Comté cheese, for example (a raw milk cheese from a single cow breed, montbéliarde), genuinely promotes rural development. New Indications of Geographical Origin must be created in countries where they are scarce, and worldwide protection of these IGO must be guaranteed.

All countries must develop a system for the discovery and listing of traditional foods linked to biodiversity, terroir diversity and cultures. Slow Food has created a system of this kind, which we have named the Ark of Taste after Noah’s Ark. 750 products worldwide belong to the Ark and national selection committees are at work in about a dozen countries. These are all products which deserve to be saved before they are swept away by the avalanche of standardized products supplied by the globalized food industry. We bring together partners who wish to help support some of these products: local or national public bodies, distributors, experts and scientists. We make Slow Food’s communications network available to them and create real projects to relaunch what we call the ‘taste presidia’ to consumers. Research carried out by an Italian university on 65 of the presidia showed that in two years sales increased by an average of 60%, and the unit price increased by 30%. Other experiments of this kind prove that official recognition of quality does not cover the whole field of product diversity. They also show that there are consumers prepared to pay the right price for rare products of outstanding quality.

In many cases these original, small-scale products find themselves in a position of non-conformity regarding some commercial, technical or health regulations. It is vital that we oppose these regulations, and make them more flexible; or else if they are already flexible, we must defend their characteristics. For example, we believe that the use of raw milk is vital in cheese production. Raw milk guarantees diversity of cheese flavors and ensures the survival of small-scale breeding. It is important to stress and make known the scientific results proving the importance of raw milk for health.

As an international movement, Slow Food US defends its rare raw milk cheese producers, and in Australia, where the use of raw milk is prohibited, Slow Food is promoting lobbying action.
Health regulations should protect the consumer but their main effect is to favor industrial producers, to the detriment of traditional ones. Small producers and consumers must be represented by experts on boards which define regulations especially concerning the Codex Alimentarius. It is also vital that, when the regulations are applied, small producers have the appropriate support and time to adapt to them. Lastly, we must promote the principle of guidelines for correct functioning rather than rigid regulations which do not account for specific situations.
Remember that in europe today more people die as a result of a bad diet than from problems related to food hygiene and safety!

Slow Food began as an Italian gourmet movement aiming to bring fine foods down from their elitist pedestal. It progressively became a worldwide movement supporting taste diversity and at the same time, a movement for a new kind of agriculture. An important stage was reached in 2000 when the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity was created, defined by a French journalist as “the farmers’ Nobel prize” and awarded to 50 people over the last four years. The next stage will be Terra madre, the meeting in Turin from October 20-23 this year, of 5,000 representatives of food production from around the world. These 5,000 farmers, traditional producers or experts will be able to meet with the 150,000 visitors to the International Hall of Taste held during that same period in Turin. This may well be the first meeting on this scale between farm food producers and intelligent consumers, and it certainly will not be the last.

Didier Chabrol is the Vice-President of Slow Food France and President of Slow Food Languedoc
[email protected]

I owe the title of this speech to Marc Parcé, a winegrower in Banyuls

Adapted by Ailsa Wood

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