Slow Food Nation, San Francisco

2 09 2008

My notes and photos from attending the conference.


Panel: Re-Localizing Food (1pm, Saturday, 29 August 2008, San Francisco)

  • Gary Nabhan, Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT)
  • Dan Barber, Chef Bluehill Restaurant NYC
  • Michael Pollan, Author
  • Winona LaDuke, Native American Activist, former VP candidate Green Party (w/ R. Nadar)
  • James Oseland, moderator, editor of Saveur.


M. Pollan.

There are 5 million less farms than there were in the 1930s. There are only 2 million farms left. Fifty percent are corporations.


It has been the infrastructure that has created the current agribusiness food sector namely:

  • Cheap Fossil Fuel
  • Interstate Highway and Road System
  • Refrigeration


The costs of this infrastructure are rising fast. To ship a box of broccoli from California to New York has risen from $3/box to $10/box in the last year.


W. LaDuke.

Re-localizing food is about ‘recovering relatives’ including those with fins, paws, hooves and roots. Recovering these are animal relatives will help us recover our humanity.


M. Pollan.

It is hard to do local for a store. Such high transaction costs. It is easier for the store to deal with one big supplier rather than 100 small, local suppliers.


How can large institutions talk to small ones? This is the big challenge to overcome in order to re-localize food.


In the agribusiness economy, Big likes to talk with Big. Witness: Whole Foods, Sysco, Wal Mart, others. We can’t dismiss these players and their efforts (to go local, go green, etc.).


This issue of big talking to small is important for the environment and for food security. We want not just efficiency but resilience. Resilience comes from having diversity and adaptability.


The CEO of Sysco ($26 billion in sales last year), Rich Needers, sees more change in the food marketplace in the last 10 years than the last 300 years. Chefs are asking for names of specific varieties of produce. There is a growing awareness in chefs and consumers about food quality.


How is the government helping or hindering the re-localization of food? What is the effect of the Farm Bill on localizing food?


M. Pollan.


There are three drivers of food change:

  • Energy
  • Water
  • Consumer Demand


Must develop new infrastructure. For example, make local slaughterhouses. Four companies in the US process 84% of the beef.


[cf. Anna Lappe’s remarks in Day II about the denial of global warming and environmentalism by the Beef industry as indicated at a recent trade show.]


The government has limited resources (limited budgets and manpower). It must put its resources on the big companies. E.g. putting inspectors at the big processing plants makes more sense than many inspectors spread out to smaller plants.


A solution: Federal agencies should allocate a certain portion of their budgets to be specifically applied to local initiatives. Such agencies include: Forestry Service, BLM, USDA, etc.


A GAO (Government accounting Office) post-911 study found that the food system in the USA is very vulnerable to terrorism due to its centralization.


How are the presidential candidates addressing the reform of food?


Each candidate has a specific program for:

  • Energy independence
  • Climate change
  • Healthcare


While they don’t explicitly address the food system, in order to change any of the above three, you must reform the food system. Food system reform is implicit in those programs.


How to make local and organic food more affordable to low income people?


M. Pollan

Local food is not necessarily expensive. It is that industrial food is artificially cheap.


Members of the panel spoke of the “false accounting of the price system.”  (due to subsidies and externalities)


What should local exclude?



It is not all or nothing. (either all local, or all global-centralization). There is trade that supports diversity and then there is trade that supports homogenization. We know the difference.


Keep justice local. Have fair trade between foodsheds.


There is the concept of “Virtuous globalization,” a term coined by Carlo Petrini. You can support local foods at a distance.


Specific solutions:


Have kids deliver local produce and pick up compost on the return trip.


Through grants, enhance the value of food stamps that are used at farmers’ markets.


Farmers should get carbon credits when they put charcoal and other nutrients into the soil. These credits then are tradabable/sellable on the carbon-offsets market.


Features of a better food system:


  1. Systems optimization. The actual farm is highly optimized and in a self contained system. E.g. all energy is created at the local level. The system is very ecological.


  1. Land use policy. Must save the farm land near cities. Have policies like those in recent years that have protected wetlands. We will need more farms near cities but they won’t be able to afford the land. Must deal with this.


A vegetable garden was set up on the square in front of City Hall.

A vegetable garden was set up on the square in front of City Hall.






Slow Food Nation. Day II.

Panel: Climate Change and Food. (12pm, Saturday, 30 August 2008, San Francisco)

  • Wes Jackson, author
  • Anna Lappe (daughter of Frances Moore), co-leader, Small Planet Institute
  • Carl Pope, Executive Director, Sierra Club
  • Ari Bernstein, Pediatrician
  • Patrick Holden, Director of Soil Association (UK) and farmer (Wales)
  • Mark Hertsgaard, Moderator, author.


Is there awareness among agribusiness companies and politicians that climate change is important?


A. Lappe.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) had its first “Climate Change Summit” earlier this year. This shows awareness that even the corporate players recognize that there is a problem with the current food system.  But, in contrast, ….


The Meat Association of America at its conference this year had NO MENTION of climate change even though meat production contributes 18% of climate change.


So, the awareness is mixed.


La Via Compesina, a worldwide association of small farmers.


C. Pope.

There is a profound denial and unconsciousness among American politicians about food.


What are some game-changing solutions for climate change and food?



First of all, we have to bust the myths of agribusiness. Biotech does not: increase yields, increase diversity, nor increase democracy.   Monsanto, Syngenta are trying to suggest otherwise.


It is the emergence of civil society initiatives regarding climate change and food that is helping change the world. E.g. Greenpeace, Forest Action Network, and others campaigns against agribusiness.



The silos among activist groups are breaking down around the environment. Especially in the last year, groups are really coming together and coordinating. E.g. scientists and evangelical Christians. This will make it easier for the new president to engage the international community.


Everyone cares about their children and the planet perhaps for different reasons.


New generations (of humans) will see health as inseparable from the health of the environment.



We should develop “transition plans.”  Set goals: by 2020 we will use fossil fuels 75% less than today.


In the UK we are developing a “national strategic food plan based on resilience in the face of depletion of fossil fuel.”


Plan to create foodsheds.


Rob Hopkins has a great resource on the web: Transition Handbook.


Each of us has three selves:

  • Household
  • Community
  • Society



It is the uncertainty of global climate change that is catastrophic. You cannot adapt under uncertain conditions. In earlier epochs, the climate was constant. Not now.


We’ve always thought of a place’s climate as given. In earlier times it was true. Now, this is not true. Furthermore, agribusiness cooked the books (i.e. produce its product on subsidized inputs and externalized costs). The result of these two factors is that it is very obvious now that we are out of balance. It is good, in a way, because it makes us take action. When you are up against a big challenge staring you in the face (like food) it makes you get smart.


It is a crisis because millions of people are affected. But it is an opportunity too. There are solutions. For example…


         i.      A village in India has solar fed LED lights in the small huts of the villagers. The whole village pooled their moneys to create the solar generator. Each household buys its own lights. The savings of pooling the costs of the generator allowed greater income to each household, which allowed greater purchasing (of lights and other things). It created a virtuous cycle. It is a whole business model that mixes collectivist and individualist ethos in one.


       ii.      We will witness a dramatic shrinking of global supply chains.


      iii.      Water. Traditionally, 2/3 of our drinking water was stored in ice and snow, and 1/3 stored in reservoirs. This may no longer be possible. We need to start storing water in the soil. Nobody in California is thinking of using land to store water. Los Angeles is designed around a “roof and gutter” metaphor. All the cement flood control channels route rain water into the ocean. It is a big waste. Los Angeles should be designed around the metaphor of a ‘sponge.’



“Cattle and pig welfare program”  – referring to the subsidies for raising and processing meat.


As you study the supply chains to the farming and agricultural sector, and try to calculate how much energy-use is built into the system, you realize that energy costs are much higher than you can anticipate. (We were even linking back to the iron mines used to make the steel that went into tractors.)


Economic growth is proceeding at an incredible pace. Today, the 20-year old has in his/her lifetime, experienced 50% of the oil that has ever been burned. Today’s 10-year old has experienced 20% of the oil that has ever been burned.



At the beginning of the industrial revolution, three major assumptions:

  • Natural resources were cheap.
  • Knowledge was expensive.
  • And ____________.


These assumptions are no longer true.


Forest, prairies, fisheries, topsoil all getting used up.


We must embrace economic growth that is based on knowledge, not resources. For example, how to have economic growth based on prairie grass?



As my mother said 30 years ago, the food crisis is not a crisis of scarcity, but a crisis of democracy.


It takes 16 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of meat.



30% of global warming is due to food production and distribution. And this is split 50/50 between farm and post-farm activities.


Must develop a strategy on carbon-neutral farming. E.g. use crop rotation.


We have to start where we are (the developed world) rather than preach to the developing world. We are such a major part of the problem.



We must develop a consciousness that is rooted in the soil and earth.


If you eat, then you are interested in agriculture.



There is a fundamental disconnect of humans with the natural world.



Empathy with farmers is crucial. City folks should adopt a farm, like a CSA. Develop co-dependency. “If we commit to you farmers now, you will help us when it gets tough.”


The most productive food system in the world is the small Japanese farm. Yes it is labor intensive, but it is a full systems, self contained system.


Closing Suggestions:



Developing a 50-year farm bill (and each five years the legislated farm bill can tap into this). It addresses: agriculture, forestry and ranching.



  1. Make connection with food.
  2. Develop your empathy with farmers.
  3. Recognize the three people inside you: family/householder, community, global society.
  4. Tap your passion (whatever, wherever it is)
  5. Remember that we all are media makers.
  6. Bust the myths (of agribusiness)
  7. Support and live by sustainable agriculture!


Food stalls and eating areas.

Food stalls and eating areas.




Your intrepid reporter.

Shorts and flip flops in San Francisco in August?!! Yes, climate change is real!





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