In case you haven’t been following the comments section of Mental Masala’s and my post today about Slow Food leader Carlo Petrini’s lecture in San Francisco, there’s quite a kerfuffle over the part in his new book in which he visits San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. I was able to read the entire section, and his depiction is indeed inflammatory. I’ve excerpted it after the jump below should you want to check it out first.
I am trying to give Petrini the benefit of the doubt, not being able to read it in the original Italian and also not knowing Petrini’s point of view quite well enough to ascertain if what sounds like insults are really neutral statements, coming from him. However, I do think Slow Food’s U.S. team should have tread more carefully when publishing this section, as it deals with some of the same divisive issues of class and access to good food perhaps even more clumsily than I did in a recent post about my food-buying habits.
(Full disclosure: Last month I accepted an informal invitation to join the leadership team of the Slow Food Berkeley “convivium.” You may assume that makes me a fancy-pants apologist, but I accepted (a) because I believe in the mission and (b) because they offered to help with the meat CSA I’ve been laboring to get going. But I admit I would also basically pour sulfuric acid on my toes, or perhaps my husband’s, to avoid getting banned from Slow Food Nation next May in San Francisco — and if I am, believe me, I will ninja my way in somehow.)
For those of you outside California, the Ferry Plaza farmers market is basically the St. Peter’s Cathedral of the local, organic food movement, and the farmers who sell their wares at it are our clergy. So for the Pope to visit it, even as Bishop Alice Waters’s guest, and look around and describe it as a “boutique” that serves a clientele “whose social status was pretty clear: either wealthy or very wealthy” and then go on to censure an olive farmer for his monocultural ways and a young hippie farmer for exacting such extortionate prices for his squash that he can spend most of his time surfing is just…. blasphemous. No culture likes outsiders to come in and size it up critically in a glance, and Petrini getting most of his facts wrong just adds insult to injury.
Here’s Napa Valley bean farmer and Slow Food delegate Steve Sando, whose posts are how I first heard of Petrini’s characterization:
There are a number of disturbing suggestions and some flat-out lies. The easiest finger to point is at price. Yes, the price of food at Ferry Plaza, both in the shops and at the farmers market can be high. You can spend over $3 for a single peach. You can also find bunches of spring onions for 39 cents, juicy oranges for 99 cents a pound and lettuce mix for less than five dollars a pound, all comparable to an average grocery store. Petrini full well knows that “regular” prices are artificially low and I would say it’s downright irresponsible to bring up price without mentioning what it takes to bring a 69 cent head of romaine to a grocery store.
Sando has a lot more points to make, including that the supposed suited-up olive farmer is invented and that the bearded surfer-farmer is Joe Shirmer of Dirty Girl Produce, a hardworking friend of his who does not deserve to be called an extortionate dilettante. He also apparently said as much to Petrini, which did not go over well.
The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which manages the Ferry Plaza market, canceled Petrini’s May 12 appearance there to sign his book. (The Book Passage entry for the event has been deleted, but still exists on Google’s cache.) A meeting between the farmers and Petrini was called for Saturday, which Sando said on his blog that he will report on more fully tomorrow.
This might seem like a tempest in a Fair Trade teacup to some — after all, no one’s disputing that the Ferry Plaza is the most expensive of the markets around here, and Petrini’s main point, that the organic movement is in danger of being co-opted by operations that follow only the bare minimum in standards, is also commonly accepted around here. Reading the excerpt a third time, I notice more signs that Petrini knows full well that he’s dissing the church:
I do not like to find fault with people—my friends of that morning—who sell products that are so naturally good. But perhaps it is better to have doubts. Reality is complex and resists labels. There is a risk that technocratic thought, when it is deeply rooted, may shape and influence even those tendencies that are opposed to the system, thereby creating other anomalies.
My interpretation is that what seems to disgust him the most is the unfettered display of capitalism, the blatant free-market success of the Ferry Plaza farmers market. He offers Brazil as an example of how “sustainability can be achieved through public intervention, through politics,” citing how in those regions where the Workers’ Party is in control, “all food served in public cafeterias must by law be organic and must be produced by small local producers at fair but accessible prices.”
There are better ways to convert this fast-food nation into a Slow Food one than by a socialist coup. One would be by recognizing that for all its much-hyped growth, the organic sector represents just 3 percent of all food and beverage sales in this country. (From Meat & Poultry, which is citing preliminary results from the Organic Trade Association’s 2007 Manufacturer Survey that report U.S. organic food sales totaled nearly $17 billion in 2006, up 22% from 2006.) That’s nothing, people. We need to stop accusing each other of being elitist and concentrate on increasing the numbers of sustainable U.S. farmers (by enabling them to not just cover their costs, but make a living, and their workers too), by supporting our local farmers, by helping to get fresh food into urban areas that have no access to it, by teaching young people how to grow and cook (and think critically about food advertising), and any number of additional urgently needed missions.
We have so much to do. We need everyone who cares about any aspect of this mission — including full-quiver fundamentalist Christians, longtime back-to-the-landers, concerned soccer moms, globe-trotting eco-gastronomes whose organizations have hefty membership fees, environmentalists, vegan animal-rights warriors — to pull a chair up to the table and start passing the salad, dammit. Let’s save the finger-pointing as to who doesn’t deserve the golden halo of “good, clean, and fair” for when real food hits at least the 10 percent milestone, shall we?
And now the excerpt, so you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth getting worked up over:
From “Slow Food Nation” by Carlo Petrini (Copyright 2007 Rizzoli Books):
Morning. The cool morning began quite early: if you are going to the market, it is best to be ready by seven o’clock at the latest. The sun was not yet warm enough when, in the company of my chef friend Alice Waters, I entered an elegantly refurbished area of the docks; pretty little coffee shops were serving warm mugs of excellent organic fairtrade coffee; sumptuous bakeries were putting out all sorts of good things, spreading the fragrant aroma of some wonderful kinds of bread. Oil and wine producers were offering samples in marquees, while hundreds of open-air stalls were selling excellent products: fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, sausages, and even flowers—fresh, healthy-looking food, all carefully marked organic.
One could have easily spent a fortune there. The prices were astronomical, twice or even three times as high as those of “conventional” products. But how hard it is to produce things so well, and what costs are involved in obtaining certification! I am convinced that the farmers’ intelligent, productive efforts deserve to be paid for generously, so I was not too scandalized by the prices, even though they were those of a boutique. Yes, a boutique: for I soon realized I was in an extremely exclusive place (bear in mind that this is one of the oldest and most important farmers’ markets in town, la crème de la crème). The amiable ex-hippies and young dropouts-turned-farmers greeted their customers with a smile and offered generous samples of their products to a clientele whose social status was pretty clear: either wealthy or very wealthy.
Alice Waters introduced me to dozens of farmers: they were all well-to-do college graduates, former employees of Silicon Valley, many of them young. Meanwhile, their customers, most of whom seemed to be actresses, went home clutching their peppers, squashes, and apples, showing them off like jewels, status symbols. Two of the producers in particular struck me: a young man with a long beard and a man who was selling oil. The former, with long hair and a plaid flannel shirt, held his lovely little blond-haired daughter in his arms and told me, in a conspiratorial tone, that he had to drive two hundred miles to come and sell in that market: he charged incredibly high prices for his squashes, it was “a cinch,” and in just two monthly visits he could earn more than enough to maintain his family and spend hours surfing on the beach.
The latter, who wore a tie, extolled the beauties of his farm: it consisted of hundreds of hectares of olive trees, stretching as far as the eye could see, and nothing else. While I was tasting his excellent organic oil on a slice of bread which reminded me of Tuscan bread—absolutely delicious—I was thinking of what he must have uprooted and cleared away in order to grow all those plants, each one of them impeccably organic.
Afternoon. In the early afternoon, with those odors and aromas and the faces of the marvelous farmers’ market still in my head, I was sweating in a taxi (it lacked the usually ubiquitous American air-conditioning) on the way to Berkeley for my appointment with Miguel Altieri. The professor, an entomologist, teaches agroecology at the university. He spends six months a year in California and the other six elsewhere in the world, especially in South America, where he carries out fieldwork and projects of sustainable, family-based, organic farming. He is a champion of biodiversity, with his theory that agricultural systems, like all ecosystems, ought to have all the necessary capacities for self-regulation, without the intervention of external factors such as pesticides and fertilizers. According to Altieri, the existing biodiversity—on which farmers’ knowledge has been molded for thousands of years—and local people’s know-how are the only basis for developing agricultural systems that are sufficiently productive and respectful of cultural diversity all around the world. By blending the local farmers’ knowledge with the discoveries of “mainstream” science, it is possible to create a clean and productive agriculture which will foster human well-being while respecting nature.
I walked across the beautiful Berkeley campus under a warm, dazzling sun (green California gets it even in the fall) and reached Altieri’s small office. I listened spellbound for over an hour to his theories, conversing in Spanish (he is Chilean) and relishing his militant passion and the unmistakable honesty of this man who works and struggles for a better world. Biodiversity before all else: this is the only secret behind sustainable development. His aversion to the use of chemical substances in agriculture is clear, absolute, and motivated. He proposes alternative methods with such utter conviction that in South America he is considered a luminary and is respected by universities, research centers, NGOs, and governments.
In his opinion, the main task is “to promote sustainable agriculture; a development program which is socially equitable, environmentally healthy, economically affordable, and culturally sensitive.”
I asked him what he thought of organic farming and its rapid expansion in California, wanting to test his agroecological “extremism.” He replied:
There are many cases of organic farming that are not sustainable, because they create a vast monoculture, one that relies on the use of integrated pesticides which greatly reduce the surrounding biodiversity: vast stretches of vineyards in Chile and in Italy, huge plantations of vegetables in California, hectares and hectares of olive groves in Spain.
Olive groves . . . I thought of the man I had met that morning. I remembered the faces of my wine-producer friends in southern Piedmont, who, since Barolo sells well, have in the space of a few years planted vines everywhere, even in ditches, removing woodland and fields, indeed most of the surrounding biodiversity.
And in addition to the environmental question, there is also a socioeconomic one: nowadays in California there is a lot of organic agriculture which is unsustainable because, although it has a limited environmental impact, it exists at the expense of people who are paid very little, just as in conventional agriculture. Hosts of Mexican immigrants exploited like slaves, with no rights and earning a pittance. It is not fair, because the organic product is sold at a much higher price than the product of conventional farming. And only the very rich can afford it, the fruits of this work; the minorities don’t eat organic food in the United States.
I had seen confirmation of this a few hours earlier, and indeed, as Altieri flowed on:
In California, 2 percent of organic producers make percent of the total amount produced by the industry in this sector; I use the term “industry” advisedly: we are facing the same problems as conventional agriculture. The concentration of production, the exploitation of the work of ethnic minorities, monocultures, the reduction of biodiversity, and prices determined by a free market which is not sustainable. Social sustainability can be achieved through public intervention, through politics: in Brazil, in those regions where the Workers’ Party con-trols the local government, all food served in public cafeterias must by law be organic and must be produced by small local producers at fair but accessible prices.
Agroecology has a scientific basis, but it also has profound political implications, because it is badly in need of public intervention: before an agroecological approach can be established in Latin America, there must be agrarian reform and public intervention in the market to protect small farmers or to guarantee fair prices for producers and consumers. All these factors are crucial, and they affect both science and politics.
Evening. On my way back to town, I pondered those words and the market I had visited. Organic farming is undoubtedly a very good thing; it is an excellent alternative to agroindustry, and I do not like to find fault with people—my friends of that morning—who sell products that are so naturally good. But perhaps it is better to have doubts. Reality is complex and resists labels. There is a risk that technocratic thought, when it is deeply rooted, may shape and influence even those tendencies that are opposed to the system, thereby creating other anomalies. As the outskirts of town flashed by outside the window of the taxi, chains of fast-food joints succeeded one another on almost every block. They were all crowded with ordinary people, very different people from the customers I had seen at the farmers’ market.
In the evening I returned to Berkeley, and went to Chez Panisse, the restaurant owned by my friend Alice Waters, where I had a memorable dinner based on raw materials so fresh you could almost taste the life that had animated the vegetables only a few hours earlier. They served me the best agnolotti I have ever eaten. At Berkeley! Green California . . . vive la contradiction!