November 12, 2013

Compare and contrast the Slow Food and Transition movements

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Sustainability — by xrematon @ 1:55 pm
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Over the past year. I have been doing a lot of research and thinking about sustainability in food behaviours. This is an area that has long fascinated me. What was particularly interesting about my exploration into the space this time round was looking beyond the small-scale, tactical changes that people might make to instead thinking about bigger shifts in behaviours and lifestyles. This led me to spend some time reviewing two movements: Slow Food and the Transition Network. What I would like to share here are a couple of thoughts in how these movements have similarities and differences.

The Transition Network is based on the principle that we need to move beyond our reliance on oil. It aims ‘to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions.’ It is a self-consciously apolitical organisation, which some have argued forces it to remain always a low level player in changing the state of play. It is insufficiently radical and too polite, as observed by Ted Trainer of Feasta.

‘…the “leaders” of the movement are very anxious to avoid imposing their views. They seem to see their role as facilitating the movement, spreading information, enabling people to communicate and share, publicising and encouraging the spread of the movement. The style and tone of the documents is admirably polite and quite unlikely to offend anyone’s sensibilities or ideology.’

In another piece, Alex Steffen of the World Changing website, describes a similar frustration: those who are part of the Transition Network content themselves with almost parochial occupations.

‘The Transition movement seems saturated with what Michael Lerner called “surplus powerlessness” disguised as practicality. All over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse… and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap.’

The Slow Food Movement, on the other hand, appears to have increasingly loft ambitions. It was initially founded ‘to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food.’ However, now, through their Terra Madre project, the movement is concerning itself with ‘the injustices of a global food system that depletes the planet’s resources and compromises the future for the generations to come.’

As they go on to state in a policy document, the Slow Food concept can become a truly comprehensive ideal. ‘In the course of time, what first appeared simply as a clever insight—the central role of food as a point of departure for a new form of politics,  for a new economy and for new social relations—has become a shared certainty.’

Some UK members have become frustrated with the stretch of taking Slow Food projects to benefit those in poorer countries – a challenge for the organisation’s funding model. This has inspired interesting commentary, which suggests, that unlike the inoffensive Transition Network, the Slow Food Movement is more likely to be charged with arrogance and excessive idealism.

‘…there are ‘convivia’, ‘presidia’, ‘arks’ and ‘terra madre’ – an apparent lexical cross between Stalinism and religion, though in fact, I think it reflects the Italian anarcho-syndicalist origins of the movement.’

However, there are ways in which these two movements are comparable. They are both subject to the criticism of being too niche – limited in their ability to become mainstream.

For the Transition Network, this is possibly due to this focus on resilience, which often also leads to a preference for the local and low tech, which has restricted the model to those who can afford to change their lifestyles in this way. One expression of this sentiment can be found on the blog of Simon Cooke, a Conservative Councillor in Yorkshire (the Transition Network’s heartland beats in south west England).

 ‘this resilience is all about excluding the regional, national and international – thus the lower prices and distribution resilience of the large supermarket is denied in favour of local growing initiatives, jolly little town currencies and campaigns to defend independent shops. All of which, of course, make it more difficult and more expensive for the less well off.’

As for the Slow Food Movement, it is only fair to first note that it is actually a household name in the place of its birth. In Italy, it has published guides to food and wine and enabled ‘good food’ to be enshrined in regional health department guides and Ministry of Health programmes. However, in the UK, some have argued  that Slow Food has had its day now that ‘eating local’, supporting small suppliers, buying quality, fresh ingredients from markets and buying fair trade foods have become more popular.

Another reason why Slow Food’s appeal might be limited in the UK is more subtle. Slow Food requires followers to invest significant amounts of time and effort in food purchasing and preparation (because you don’t go to the supermarket but support specialist suppliers, prepare things in the traditional manner etc). This might work in a country where female participation in the workforce is low, which is another issue in itself, but where a larger proportion of women work – as is the case in the UK – it is unrealistic and impractical.

However, I would like to finish on a less critical note. Another similarity between the two movements is their positive push. The Transition Network does not focus on doom-mongering but encourages communities to take action together; the Slow Food Movement emphasises the pleasure of food above the idea of doing good through making the right food choices.

Time to go off and make that sandwich from local cheese – admittedly bought from Waitrose!

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