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November 08, 2006

Slow Food Movement: Idiots!

Now I'm actually all in favour of good food, decently cooked. I do it myself: make sure that the fish we buy is locally landed, fresh out of the ocean this morning, buy decent meats, not just the cheapest, go to the local market for most of our veg and fruit, spend time preparing foods and so on.

However, the Slow Food Movement itself appear to be entirely idiots:

"Eating is an agricultural act," Petrini said. "Choosing quality food, produced respecting the environment and local traditions, can protect biodiversity and a fair and sustainable agriculture."

It's a message that resonates today as consumers become increasingly concerned about man's effect on the planet, be it through climate change or the destruction of natural habitats.

The United Nations says food production is the major cause of pollution and destruction of ecosystems because of the massive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

All of the delicacies on show at Slow Food's fair in Turin -- including Peruvian potatoes, vanilla from Madagascar and Himalayan pink salt -- were organic, produced without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or hormones.

Organic for the flavour perhaps, but to stop the destruction of natural habitats? Insane: organic farming requires more land than intensive. So by insisting upon organic you demand more land be used for agriculture and less is available for those natural habitats.

November 8, 2006 in Food and Drink | Permalink


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I have been trying to grow Peruvian potatoes, vanilla from Madagascar and Himalayan pink salt in my window boxes for years but have regretfully admitted defeat and buy the stuff that's flown halfway round the world instead.


p.s. Do you think I was being a trifle optimistic with the Himalayan pink salt despite being three up?

Posted by: ScotsToryB | Nov 8, 2006 1:52:09 PM

Personally I am in the gastro-organic camp, the stuff just tends to taste lot better. This is partially do to the fact that it is fresher, which in turn is an unregodnized side-effect of using no preservatives. And whether it makes sense in Africa or like places is one thing, but in Europe we already have overproduction anyway, so I wouldn't worry about land use.

Long term, it is by no means clear that current industrial farming methods are the way to go, and GMO may well be just one more piece of the biotech bubble. (I have nothing against GMO as such, but the benefits are exagerated and the argument that has a lot of teeth is that any new GMO product ought to be tested like a new medicine before feeding it to people, which would destroy the cost-benefit in most cases.)

Something I'm watching with great interest from the tree hugger camp is 3D farming, that is growing trees, bushes and ground level plants at the same space, see for example http://www.pfaf.org/leaflets/woodgardintro.php
If they can make this work, productivity gains would be huge, and it would also turn agriculture from net source of CO2 emissions to a carbon sink.

Other thing to watch is bio-fuels, particullary methane (biogas) which seems the most sensible one. The cool thing about methane is that you can basically make it out of anything organic, and this implies maximum biomass generation per land area, which in turn is not something current farming methods are optimized for.

That is, while do accept that global scale organic farming is not sensible at the moment, the point is that if we have learned anything from the history of innovation, it is that it tends to come from strange sources and often from ideas that seem mad at first. And if we have learned anything from history of economics, it is that its practioners tend to do an awful job when it comes to evaluating future sources of innovation... What would current mainstream economist think of DARPA in 60's basically throwing tax payers money at weird ideas like the Internet with practicly no accounting? Heck, the ARPANET guys where bunch of hippies...

Posted by: teme | Nov 8, 2006 3:31:58 PM

Good comment teme - in Britain anyhow, what we call countryside is in fact agricultural land. More organic = more land kept in cultivation. And it will keep the CPRE happy and all those green wellied muck spreading, gun collecting country folk happy to keep urban dwellers like me from building a nice concrete block of flats or factory on their land, which I would really like to do.

And I do prefer organic food. But having said that, going to a butchers in the UK that is a member of the Guild of Quality Butchers ensures good meat etc, usually reared well and hung for a decent period of time. I like buying organic food because as you say its fresher, its better quality, and there are now shops where its all in once place (in London anyway) and so its now convenient. And the farmers market come to your neighbourhoods and even deliver organic veg boxes to your door (nay, in polluting vehicles!). Otherwise a trip to a normal supermarket is a disappointing affair - choosing whats fresh, decent, no additives or unknown chemicals, hormones etc - not much to choose from.

For me - the organic label is convenient and quicker. I'm a busy man...

Posted by: angry economist | Nov 8, 2006 3:37:18 PM

Sorry, I have to disagree with the commenters on the organic side.

If you think the stuff you pay 30 to 50% more for is better, well fine. Go ahead and hand your dosh over to the supermarkets that have been clever enough to identify you as someone willing to pay a bit more up the higher price end of the demand curve.

But don't forget that the Advertising Standards Authority and the Food Standards Agency have both come down hard on the Soil Association for making claims that could not be substantiated that organic food tastes better or is better for the environment. This approach is better than anecodote.

Me - I like the organic label because I know I can save 30% or more by avoiding it and buying something just as good that doesn't carry the label.

Posted by: stephen c | Nov 8, 2006 9:55:14 PM

So matters gastronomical are now settled by "Advertising Standards Authority and the Food Standards Agency"?

Posted by: teme | Nov 9, 2006 6:51:10 AM

I think the point about land use is misleading, on the surface yes with organic farming more land is used to produce an equal amount of crop than intensive farming requires. But in practice this means that large areas of land are devoid of any wild life habitat.

Organic farming correctly followed creates a more natural environment, the organic farmer works with nature rather than trying to obliterate its effects. The fields are smaller the hedgerows wider and taller creating runways of natural habitat for wild life, they leave the stones lying on the land which has the affect of keeping moisture in the ground and helping insects. They rotate the crops, which means that each year a different crop is adding to the land rather than taking away and then being forced to use industrial fertiliser. Instead of their cattle and sheep eating grass they are grazed on land which is planted with a wide variety of herbs and different grasses, hence the better flavour, instead of draining small swamps on the land they leave them, not only does this allow yet another natural habitat but the different plants that grow in those wetter conditions are natural medicines for their stock thus cutting down on vets bills and the costs of medicines.

Because an organic farmer is producing less their markets are closer to home thus they do not have to transport their stock or crop vast distances, this also has the affect of keeping local slaughter houses, local mills in business, maintaining a more diverse local community and offering greater choice to the consumer.

On the financial side why on earth would we actually belive that is it beneficial for society to pay a farmer to produce nothing from parts of his land and just leave it to grow into rough scrubland, whilst intensively farming the rest and creating a desolate tract for wild life, why should we think that transporting live stock hundreds of miles to slaughter and then transporting the produce in refrigerated lorries back right across the country is in any way going to help.

Posted by: Ken | Nov 9, 2006 9:16:33 AM

Stephen - it depends on what 'organic' produce you buy.

I've bought organic food off the shelves in supermarkets and, to be honest, it tastes much the same as all the other non-organic produces. Only the increased cost leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

I've also bought some of those organic baskets you can get from specialist companies (they deliver them to your door). You pay through the nose for them, and I didn't expect much when I bought the first one. But, actually, I was pleasantly very surprised by the high quality. The food actually tasted like food! If I could afford to, I'd get all my fruit and veg via this route.

Posted by: Andy | Nov 9, 2006 11:58:59 AM

I think there is a lot of confusion of what natural and organic actually means.
Is a natural environment one where man is not using pesticides or is it one where the farming methods are 100 years out of date?

Plus, what constitutes a natural crop? Potatoes are not a natural UK crop as anyone who did history would know. Maybe what natural means is that there should be a technology stop at the year 1900? Anything produced as a technological advance in agriculture after this date is considered bad - anything before this date considered natural?

For instance, crop rotation is a natural process - regardless of the use of pesticides. Maybe extra organic could mean using a horse drawn plough rather than a dirty great big tractor? It should take more than a few moments to come up with a convincing marketing story to explain the benefits of this and justify the return of higher prices for the foods? 'Yes, now you too can use 25% of your income to pay for food, just like your grandparents did!'

Personally, I see organic as being a great marketing term that works to create an elitism in the food industry. Prior to this introduction, the cost of importing the most exotic foods dropped to a level that everyone could enjoy the latest and most fad like foods.

Posted by: Oli | Nov 9, 2006 12:26:03 PM

Oh Tim. I'm surprised you missed the air/road miles argument. Not much point protecting diversity if our food ends up getting cooked, really slowly, through global warming.

Although I recognise this isn't the case for many other countries where wilderness is being eaten away by GMO soya (why? Who eats the damn stuff, or anything made from it?) Britain's "natural" habitats have been created by 2000 years of organic agriculture. It's what made our land.

P.S. I want a SLOW. FOOD! sticker for my car bumper.

Tim adds: It's not that I ignore the food miles argument rather that I reject it. We could grow our pineapples in the UK. Would be expensive mind, we'd use an awful lot of heating. Wouldn't it actually use less energy to grow them in the tropics and then ship them?

Posted by: auntymarianne | Nov 10, 2006 4:26:15 PM

Bit slow in getting back to this -

Teme says: So matters gastronomical are now settled by "Advertising Standards Authority and the Food Standards Agency"?

That is totally disingenuous- outlandish claims by the Organic movement were not allowed by the relevant regulators - the same standard that should apply to any advertiser.

What the Soil Association can say amounts to not much at all - because there is NOTHING that backs up their claims that organic food per se either tastes better, is better for you, or better for the environment.

You are at liberty to waste your money but don't think it is based on anything rational.

Posted by: stephen c | Nov 19, 2006 5:36:38 PM