Food and Class

Slow Food economics aren't yet egalitarian

| October 27, 2005

By championing the environmental, cultural, and gastronomic superiority of small-scale farming, the Slow Food movement offers a flavorful alternative to the bland, nutritionless fare of America's agribusiness giants. The movement seeks to narrow the chasm between food's consumption and production, preserving biological and cultural diversity along with taste. Unfortunately, the equally wide chasm between America's rich and poor has limited the model's reach: while locally grown food is available throughout the country, it is significantly more expensive than its imported, industrial competitors.

Things weren't always this way, Tom Philpott writes in Grist. For the bulk of human history, people have lived on locally grown food; only the wealthy few could afford to import exotic delicacies. Then cheap labor, massive subsidies, and large-scale operations of modern agribusiness pushed the price of food hauled long distances to unprecedented lows. America is now hooked on industrial food, and the consumption of small-scale agricultural products lands primarily on the tables of well-heeled urbanites. Rural America, caught in a long-term economic decline, consumes an overwhelmingly industrial foods diet, and even people involved in the production, preparation, and presentation of locally grown grub can scarcely afford to purchase their own products.

The economic wedge between local and long-distance lies not in inflated profit margins or deliberate snobbery, but in the high cost of land near urban areas, Philpott writes. The demand for Slow Food is concentrated in cities, but farmers setting up shop near urban markets have to vie with suburban developers for farmland. High demand for this land means high prices that are passed on to the consumer. The Slow Food industry is caught in a self-perpetuating paradox of inflated price: the urban market is simultaneously its greatest asset and its greatest weakness.

Though the growth of the industry has the potential to lower prices slightly, the solution to perpetual price disparity lies in the reform of America's land-use policy, both urban and rural. As long as suburban developers and the agribusiness giants are allowed to bully small farmers out of existence, the pleasures of sustainable agriculture will be just another privilege of the economic elite.
-- Brendan Themes

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