'Slow Food' gets to grips with EU farm policy

ANSA, Friday 2 Dec 2011

Grass-roots European initiative takes aim at EU's Common Agricultural Policy, controversial blueprint for subsidising industrial agriculture

Slow Food
Picking slow food tomatoes (ANSA Photo)

Fast food has an antithesis: Slow Food, a movement that finds industrial agriculture disgraceful, and is taking on the EU's Common Agricultural Policy as it's being restructured.

For over 20 years, Slow Food has persuaded Italy and much of the globe to savour artisanal, ethically sourced food. Its curious name is an inversion of its enemy, fast food. Fast food's supplier, industrial agriculture, is just as high on Slow Food's blacklist.

While Slow Food's political roots reach back to its beginnings, when Carlo Petrini founded the organisation in the late 1980s, its methods have focused on conversion through the palate. Its Salone del Gusto (taste fair) in Turin draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to its organic and traditional delicacies. Specialty food fairs like Slow Fish, Slow Wine and Slow Cheese offer more tasting opportunities as well as heart-wrenching stories from the trenches of traditional agriculture.

Beyond its wildly successful edutainment events, Slow Food has created a restaurant guide for Italy, a culinary school, an internationally celebrated Terra Madre awareness day, thousands of community initiatives and a network of approved food producers. It claims 100,000 members across 150 countries, and tallies 5,000 initiatives per year. Slow Food has even become a quality indicator more relevant to most Italians than Michelin stars, signalling gastronomic and social value for money, rather than aesthetic pleasure regardless of cost.

Now Slow Food is taking on the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the controversial blueprint for channelling a large chunk of the EU budget into farming subsidies. "It is the first time," secretary-general Paolo Di Croce, told ANSA. "It means a lot to us." Slow Food has developed a strategic policy document on CAP, delivered it to the commissioner for EU agriculture and rural development, Dacin Ciolos, and launched a series of grassroots forums across EU countries to broadcast its position.

"We are creating a new way of lobbying," added Di Croce.

The CAP was originally formulated in 1957, at the Treaty of Rome, to ensure decent wages for farmers, protect them from price fluctuations, and to provide a secure food supply to European consumers at reasonable prices. In the mid-2000s, CAP spending neared 50 billion euros – almost half of the EU budget – but has undergone deep revision since then, and is supposed to drop to 32 per cent of the EU budget by 2013, the year in which a wholly revamped CAP is due to take effect. A first draft of the new CAP came out in October of this year, and the next months are critical to the final form the new CAP will take.

Slow Food blames the current CAP for rewarding big agribusiness at the expense of small farmers, since it pays subsidies based on size, and claims the next CAP doesn't do much better, since it bases subsidies on farm surface area.

Industrialised agriculture and livestock breeding gravely damages the environment, Di Croce said, and also has lead to twisted consumption patterns. After years of industrialised farming, 250 million Europeans are overweight, or roughly half of the population, Di Croce explained.

Moreover Europeans have become absurdly wasteful, throwing out roughly 40 per cent of their edible food or 90 million tons per year. Meanwhile, roughly 8 per cent or 42 million don't have enough to eat.

Meanwhile, the value of food has been reduced to its shelf price, ignoring values like environmental tutelage, nutrition, quality, social benefit and taste. Slow Food says CAP's failure to dignify agriculture for new and smaller farmers has led to dangerous attrition. Only 7 per cent of farmers are younger than 35 and one fifth of them are over 65, according to a 2009 Eurostat estimate. There has also been a 25 per cent drop in the number of farm workers over the last ten years – a loss of 3.7 million jobs as of 2010 – reported by Eurostat.

In addition to creating educational programs and networks to recruit new farmers, Slow Food proposes turning all CAP subsidies into payments for "environmental services" supplied by farmers to the community.

Recent CAP reforms already require far stricter environmental norms than the past, and a draft of the new CAP released in October does allocate 30 per cent of direct payments to farmers on environmental criteria, but Slow Food believes every cent of direct payments should go to greening the sector. "If the CAP creates incentives for monoculture and industrially produced meat, there are grave consequences for our health," declared Di Croce. "We need to understand the real cost of food – the cost to the environment, the cost to cure our health problems, the cost of what we throw away.”

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