Talking Turkey

28 Nov 2005

In the United States Thanksgiving is a long-standing tradition celebrated on November 24 every year. Though institutionalized in the second half of the 19th century, it dates back to at least two centuries previously, when the early pioneers decided to give celebratory thanks to God for regained prosperity when crops flourished again following the hardships suffered through two failed harvests.

Last week 45 million turkeys were served up on American tables for the occasion. It is quite a number. And this year there were thousands of families, far more than in past years, who decided to buy from farmers’ markets in large cities or directly from farms in the country.

It is estimated that in New York alone, 250,000 people preferred to buy directly from producers, ensuring the food for their celebration meal would be sourced from clean sustainable agriculture, including the Slow Food Presidium.

The New York Times highlighted the phenomenon and the news was picked up by the Italian press too. But all this raises an awkward question. If it was a restricted and affluent elite that was choosing quality and spending a fair amount of money to get organic food, aren’t we running the risk of creating two parallel markets — one of expensive but wholesome food just for rich people and one of mass-produced products for the rest?

It is precisely because I am opposed to any elitist conception of ‘gastronomy’ (and I have always been against the term ‘niche product’ in this context) that I think we need to consider the issue.

We need to recognize that there are people willing to spend a bit more for better food, even if they are not necessarily well off. But there is a problem because the family budget does pose constraints.

In the past those with limited resources maybe ate less but they also ate well. Now the huge quantitative abundance is something of a sham: in passing through an endless sequence of journeys and industrial processing, food loses its goodness on the way. It is not a matter of demonizing industrial production, but just of presenting it for what it is — exposing inaccurate platitudes and thinking of alternatives.

Mass production of food is not a benefit in itself and it has not managed to save nations from hunger. If anything, the opposite. Replacing traditional recipes — based on knowledge of the resources of the local area (which are wholesome and good value) —with industrial products has meant families spend more and traditional knowledge has been lost without bringing any benefits.

Churning out billions of cans from a few centralized plants also exposes us — and it is a topical issue — to significant risks because when there is a problem at the source it is immediately transmitted down the whole chain. There are various examples, some very dramatic, of how pollution due to the intensive methods of the agrifood industry has impoverished and denatured the land.

There are enough contraindications to make us reject the present situation. Above all, mass production only offers an illusion of being inexpensive. It isn’t cheap for the individual consumer, if you consider that a hamburger bought at a rock bottom price actually has a far higher real cost. And it isn’t cheap for society if you calculate the social and environmental costs of agribusiness.

Our aim is to replace the industrial approach to agriculture which was born in the last century and is now obsolete due to its unsustainability. It is right to encourage a new model, where the country comes to the city with its produce without relying on intermediaries.

The American success in resorting to direct sale arrangements for Thanksgiving is a good sign. We can hope that with increasing numbers of customers the prices will come down and bring them within reach of ever more people, until direct sale become the rule and not an exception. Because good healthy food, produced in a natural way without the improper use of pesticides or antibiotics, is an inalienable human right.
<brFirst published in La Stampa November 28, 2005

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