Slow Food International President Carlo Petrini discusses energy, environment, food and democracy with economist and activist Jeremy Rifkin. The following are extracts from their interview, first appearing in La Repubblica (Italy) on June 9, 2010.
Petrini: My dear Jeremy, I find that there are extraordinary similarities and parallels between the new politics of energy you promote and the new politics of food we are trying to pursue with Slow Food. In fact, food politics must be based on the concept that food is the primary energy of life. If food is energy, then we must realize that the current food production system is a disaster. I believe that the two main ideas we share are the rejection of over-centralized systems and a return to a holistic conception of our existence on this planet. The real problem is that on one side there is a centralized vision of agriculture, made up of highly unsustainable monocultures and intensive farms, and on the other there has been a complete rejection of a holistic way of thinking, which should be innate in agriculture, and instead mechanistic and reductionist ways of thinking have been combined. A mechanistic view ends up reducing the value of food to a mere commodity, to simple merchandise. And this is why as far as food is concerned we can no longer perceive the difference between value and price: We all pay close attention to what food costs, but not to its deeper meaning. Additionally, with this system, small-scale food producers in every corner of the world have been reduced to a desperate state. We can’t go on in this way anymore. We must change the paradigm.
Rifkin: My sense is, and I hope I’m wrong, that our species may be nearing the end point of our journey on this planet. We may be facing extinction, sometime over the next several generations. It’s hard to say this, because we’ve had apocalyptic visions through history and thank god they’ve all been wrong. But let me share something with you and with everyone watching: we humans are the youngest species on the planet, we’re the babies, we’ve only been here for 175,000 years and we represent only one half of one percent of the entire biomass, the living material. But as you know we are currently using 24% of all the photosynthesis of the earth. We are monsters, we are devouring this planet and we’re going from 7-10 billion people in the next 20- 30 years. That means almost half the photosynthesis of the earth will be used to sustain one species at the expense of our fellow creatures. We’re not going to make it. If this is the reality them we’re doomed. And of course agriculture is right at the centre of this. The agriculture economy is the basis of civilization; without agriculture we don’t exist. Only when you have a strong agriculture society can you then create an industrial society on top of that and then a service society on top of that and then an experiential knowledge society on top of that. If the base goes, which is agriculture, based on photosynthesis then the whole pyramid collapses.
Let me start with the energy question: If you know how a civilization organizes and distributes power, you know a lot about its values, its concepts of nature and the meaning of the human journey. Our civilization relies on the carbon deposits of the Jurassic age and it starts with agriculture: coal, oil and natural gas. We grow our food in these very centralized energies: Petrol chemical fertilizers and pesticides all made from fossil fuels and then we transport them, these centralized foods, to distant markets thousands of miles away. Take a grape from Chile and ship it to the United States and think of the energy and then not just the transport costs but the marketing costs. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are used and our agriculture relies on it. These energies are centralized and not distributed because coal, oil and gas are only found in certain parts of the world. So they require huge military investments to secure them, huge deal political investments to manage them and massive capital to organize them from the top down.
So we have an energy regime in the first and second industrial revolution based on fossil fuels: It’s the most patriarchal, centralized, top-down energy system in the world. And now because that’s the basis of our agriculture, our agriculture is now centralized, top down, big agribusiness farms and mechanized and they are completely divorced from the natural environments from which they are supposed to be embedded.
For modern agriculture, based on chemical farming and now GMO, the idea is that the environment is the enemy. You have to spread pesticides everywhere and insecticides everywhere to ‘protect’ your plant against all the other forms of life in the environment. It’s forfeit and it’s no accident that after World War II, as you know, when we developed pesticides, we then used them first for the war and then we used them in agriculture. So our agriculture is based on a war model: It’s centralized, it’s military, it’s top down and the energy that we used is toxic and it’s deadly, it’s a killer, it kills everything around including the water, the insects and the other plant life. So our agriculture is based on the idea, the Cartesian idea, that we can separate and isolate the particulars from all the relationships that surround. What’s impressive about Slow Food is that it’s completely counterintuitive to the way that we do agriculture.
P: Imagine, because of this, they often accuse us of traditionalism. But I believe that the past should not be forgotten. For example, we need to return to the approach that countrypeople would take when gaining awareness of their plot of land and planning how to use it. They would look at it carefully and decide where the best place for a vegetable patch would be; maybe in the shady spot behind the farmhouse and they would also raise some chickens. Actually, the chickens would be moved around to fertilize different areas together with the other livestock. Then the sunniest part would be planted with grapevines. This vision was rooted in a complex approach, paying attention to interconnections and managed to get the greatest efficiency from the surrounding environment without harming it. Humans collaborated with nature. When I hear your theories about energy it seems to me that the concept is the same: We cannot act in a monocultural and monoproductive way. We should follow the example of the peasants, of how they decide what to do with their plot of land; this would be a good cultural practice that could be tried out in all human spheres. It means rediscovering what my friend Wendell Berry defines as the “spirit of local adaptation.”
R: We are on the cusp of a third industrial revolution, a new convergence of energy communication. We had the internet revolution, which we talked about, this is distributive communication. Now everyone creates their own information and shares it with each other; no one owns the internet. Information likes to run free, share on the commons. This distributive communication revolution is now converging with its own new energy regime: distributed energies. When distributed communication manages distributed energies we have a powerful third industrial revolution and the first to blaze this trail will be slow foods. So distributed energies are renewable energies, we call them distributed because they’re funneled in every square foot of the world: The sun shines everywhere, everyday; the wind blows around the world every day; there’s heat under the ground for energy; there’s agricultural and forestry waste in the rural areas for energy; there’s small hydro for electricity, water and there’s ocean tides. So these are renewables and they’re distributed because they’re found in every square foot of the world in some proportion. Unlike elite energies: coal, oil, gas and uranium that are only found in a few places in the world and require huge geo-political efforts and commitments. So what we can begin to conceive here is that the coming together of distributive communication organized distributive energy, which has huge implications for the Slow Food movement and sustainable agriculture.
P: They’ve got to the point of patenting life. We cannot budge on this: Life can’t be patented. At the same time I’m convinced that it is necessary to implement a dialog between realms. There are two realms of knowledge: Official science on one side, which in the last three centuries has become very authoritative, and traditional wisdom on the other, which in an empirical way has created subsistence economies. There has been an attitude of superiority towards these economies, which were considered pitiful, to the point of trying to obliterate them. But we must remember that these kinds of economy, of subsistence, have fed millions of people for centuries. So I think it’s time for a dialog and a dialectic between the realm of science and the realm of traditional wisdom. However, science can’t place itself on a different, a higher level, because you can’t have a dialog like that. They must have the same dignity, they must be on the same level, there must be parity. Only in this way can there be a dialectic, maybe even a clash, but that’s how you start a process of truth, something really constructive.
R: You know it’s interesting that you say this because traditionally in my country the agriculture extension universities were designed so that ordinary people, who were farmers, could go to there and get the knowledge that they needed and be able to disseminate it to each other. That’s all changed now: Now these extension universities are controlled by these big life science companies and the labs. As human beings who believe in ecological agriculture we have to say: No the gene pool is open to everyone. We all are stewards of life on this planet and I think that’s a mission for this next generation. Open the gene pool: It’s a ‘commons’ and it’s our shared responsibility to steward.
We’ve been at war with nature for too long and we’ve been at war against our own human nature and it’s time for us to put it down, it’s time for us to act as human beings. You know, that’s what we’ve been looking for, we’ve been searching the universe for intelligent life, we’ve been sending out radio shows, television shows to the universe hoping that some intelligent caring life will respond to us. Nobody is calling us back, they may be very smart and don’t want to have anything to do with us. But here we are looking for intelligent caring life in the universe and right in front of us is life is our plant life, beautiful in its diversity, our animal life, our mammals, who are so much like us who have feelings and rudimentary culture, they’re sentient. Here we are surrounded by life, surrounded by the mystery of life and we’re killing it off, constant warfare. And so the Slow Food movement is a movement for peace, it says it’s time for peace on the planet.