Slow Food Columbus Blog

Living the slow life… one day at a time

On Dancing with the Devil

with 8 comments

stormingEvery revolution has its devils. Just as the French Revolution had Bernard de Launay, Marie Antoinette, and Louis XVI, Slow Food’s revolution has Ronald McDonald, big agriculture, and Monsanto. From the very beginning they’ve served as focal points for our passion and our understanding of what we think is wrong with the food system.

Demonizing them and protesting against them, from the first handful of penne pasta thrown at the Spanish steps, is easy. What is harder, and what Slow Food has not done well, is to think about how to react when those protests actually start to succeed, and conventional food interests start to adopt elements of our program. As Slow Food and related progressive-food movements gain traction, this will become an increasingly critical question.

Some of Slow Food’s “devils” are already incorporating aspects of Slow Food’s agenda, but not in ways that are consistent with Slow Food’s larger philosophy. Monsanto is a perfect example: they don’t make genetically modified seeds just for kicks, or just for profit—many of them are designed specifically to require fewer natural resources or fewer pesticides, both goals that are, on paper, congruent with ours. They can point to these facts when arguing that they are “committed to sustainable agriculture.” The problem is not that they’re lying, necessarily. The problem is that they have not actually succeeded in increasing yield, drought-resistance, insect-resistance, or nutrition. What they have succeeded in doing, aside from creating monoculture vulnerabilities, is creating crops that are more tolerant of herbicides—an outcome that makes crops easier to grow, granted, but promotes more rather than less pesticide use.

In other cases, conventional food giants are starting to incorporate elements of Slow Food’s agenda because, not to put too fine a point on it, they’re in the business of staying in business, and they realize that good, clean and fair food is starting to catch on. When their deeds don’t match their words, they are simply “greenwashing” and should be shamed accordingly. But when they do, we should realize that the incorporation of parts of the progressive-food agenda into the existing food system is actually our goal. Local Crop is an excellent example. Based in northern Ohio (and recently expanded to our area), they connect local, artisanal producers with restaurants, markets, and food institutions. How do they do it? Through a partnership with conventional food giant Sysco.

This is not to say that Slow Food should welcome every partnership with a conventional entity with open arms, of course. The larger point is that, as the movement matures and becomes more mainstream, excoriating devils, however viscerally satisfying, is bad strategy when some of them have realized that it’s in their interests to help us.

What, then, might be some worthwhile general principles for relations with large conventional food interests?

  • First, know your subject, inside and out. Seek a diversity of perspectives: read Peter Pringle as well as Vandana Shiva, and Blake Hurst as well as Michael Pollan—and then keep reading. Don’t just buy food from farmers at the farmers’ markets: talk to them about these sorts of issues, if they can spare the time. Their perspective might surprise you.
  • Second, don’t be afraid to praise some aspects of a company, organization, or practice while criticizing others. Many “devils” turn out to be not so devilish after all: demonizing a whole organization leaves you blind to the parts of it that represent genuine progress. Progress toward an improved food system will be incremental, and it is important to recognize and encourage it when it happens (and to recognize it when it does not).
  • Third, be clear that the essence of the principle in question, not its outward form, is what is important. A good example here is organic produce from large chain supermarkets, which, while it might not have the same romanticized foodie cachet as organic produce from farmers’ markets, is nevertheless organic.
  • Fourth, don’t just point out what’s wrong, but ask what can be done to fix it. Often little to no thought is devoted to this question, and as a result much time and effort are expended to no good end. If you don’t like Monsanto’s practices, fine; but what would you have them do instead? Simply close their doors? If you can’t imagine any other outcome that would satisfy you, then you’re probably not trying very hard. Perhaps a less restrictive form of intellectual property—something like what the software industry has done with Creative Commons licensing, or even a more conventional “branding” model, where the value of the intellectual property comes from consumer loyalty rather than directly from the patent itself (an approach advocated in an essay by E. Richard Gold)?
  • Finally, recognize that the behavior of established food interests is, to steal a line from The Godfather, “nothing personal, just business.” Why have companies worked so hard to make food a little cheaper and a little worse for so long? Because, frankly, it’s good business: consumers notice the price more than the quality. This is why Slow Food’s emphasis on taste education is so important: increasing consumers’ emphasis on the taste of food they eat changes the food industry’s profit motive.

A degree of cooperation with conventional food interests is an idea that won’t come naturally, or easily, to many in the Slow Food movement. (Someone, no doubt, will point out that the “business” in The Godfather was murder.) But a movement that fails to recognize opportunity where it exists does itself no favors; a movement that doesn’t work to understand how its principles can best be applied to a complex world risks irrelevance or, worse, the perversion of its goals into a mockery of their original intent by forces beyond their control.

Just ask the French, who started a revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity but ended up exchanging one tyrant for another.


Written by Bear

August 16, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. I used to be one of those Monsanto/Sysco/all big corporations haters. But the more experience I gain, the more I see the world in shades of grey. Rarely are things 100% evil or good, in food politics and life. Thanks for this article.


    August 16, 2009 at 9:20 pm

  2. The principles you espouse are worthy, but the tone, “dancing with the devil” indicates an unproductive bias.

    Individuals involved with all things local are often considered virtuous (by themselves) and big organizations considered evil. If the individuals interested in all things local continue their bias and only preach to themselves, the movement could fail.

    Personally, with only one kid to tangle with, I applaud Walmart or Giant Eagle when they buy from locals. My daughter hates farmer’s markets because it entails getting some food there and some elsewhere and by the end of a morning of errands, the entire family is irritated in a way that dominates their love and appreciation of food. I sneak out at 5:30 and get my groceries so I can enjoy my family the rest of the day. I should find a way to change this, but many parents find similar challenges.

    I see this bias everywhere: Clintonville Community Market has such poor service, I can’t go there. I wonder if they equate good service with WalMart service? They should adopt the practices of Aldi who has the most efficient, blazing fast checkout procedures I’ve ever experienced.

    Logistics of the monster companies use are underappreciated.

    I’m not being coherent, but I’m trying to say, there should be greater appreciation of the efforts on both sides: the big corporate types and their intellectual resources to do good things and sustainability efforts; they’re not mutually exclusive.


    August 20, 2009 at 11:44 am

  3. Hi Rachel — and thanks.

    Hi Dave — I’m trying to figure out where we disagree? My point was exactly the one you make, that demonization of conventional food entities, now that the movement has started to succeed, is typically counterproductive. Perhaps I didn’t articulate one of the reasons clearly enough, that most so-called “devils” have good points and bad. But the larger issue is, I’m trying to address precisely the bias you mention, and it’s useful to know that the point’s not getting across. I’ll think about how to refocus. Thanks.


    August 20, 2009 at 12:48 pm

  4. No, let me think about it a bit, I’m not always clear headed in the morning, may have been my own knee jerk, biased reaction.


    August 20, 2009 at 1:02 pm

  5. Hey Bear,
    I’m working through this again, you’re points are clear and my reading comprehension and bias are the reason for your confusion. Well written.

    Godfather to Michael “I like to drink wine more than I used to. Anyway, I’m drinking more.”

    Like the Godfather, maybe I’m losing it with age.


    August 20, 2009 at 1:15 pm

  6. No no, I can see exactly how you got there… I’d been writing for someone who started out with the perspective that these organizations were pure evil, and trying to persuade such a notional person that they’re not, necessarily. But although I talked about strategies etc. later on, I never explicitly disavowed the perspective itself, and in one or two places I inadvertently reinforced it. I’ve edited those, and I tried to be more explicit in disavowing it in the second principle. Thanks for taking the time to help me with this!

    (p.s. I’m not sure whether you’re losing it, or whether you read the edited version the second time! But in any case, thanks for your close reading.)


    August 20, 2009 at 1:20 pm

  7. No problem. Bias is a huge problem with anything like this. If I read this piece in Forbes, I’d probably be cheering it on happily and reading it even less mindfully.

    Must’ve tugged my pet peeve C’ville community market. I love what they sell, but my experience is repeatedly frustrating and I often package too many people in that same bundle.

    Probably run into you sometime at Wildgoose Creative. I’ll be there a couple times this Fall.



    August 20, 2009 at 1:26 pm

  8. […] simplest, reasonable concept has to be tainted with bigger agendas of progressive snarkism. Dancing With The Devil is a honest discussion of balancing a reasonable discussion of slow food v. […]

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