terra-madreThe Terra Madre (Mother Earth) is a network of food communities, each committed to producing quality food in a  sustainable way. Terra Madre also refers to a major bi-annual conference held in Torino, Italy intended to foster discussion and introduce innovative concepts in the field of food, gastronomy, globalization, economics. Terra Madre is coordinated by the Slow Food organization. Iain McKinnon from the crofting township of Camuscross , Sleat, Skye travelled to Torino and gives us a crofters take on the Slow Food Movement…

Last year I was part of a delegation of eight people from the crofting counties who travelled to Turin in northern Italy to attend ‘Terra Madre’ an international gathering of food producers, local communities, cooks, academics and young people.

The crofting system of land tenure was set up at the end of the 19th century after a long period of civil unrest in the Highlands and Islands because agricultural communities were being cleared from the land to make way for large sheep farms.

Similar processes of clearance had occurred throughout the United Kingdom over several centuries but in the Highlands and Islands it was never completed. Those crofters who had survived on the land until 1886 were given security of tenure on their holdings in perpetuity, with the right to assign it to their chosen successor.

Crofters are agriculturalists on a small scale and in a UK context crofting is an anomoly. It was in part for this reason that I found Terra Madre such an extraordinary experience and in many ways a heartening one, because it told me that internationally crofting is not an anomoly.

Terra Madre spoke to many of the values I find in the crofting system. It spoke to the essential importance of localities; to each place and its communities; and to the customs that have evolved from the peoples’ connection with their place in order that they can continue to live there.

Although there was much richness in the formal debate and instruction, some of the most meaningful experiences to be had at Terra Madre were in discussion with ‘exotic’ people who, for all their superficially different outward appearance, turned out to be crofters in disguise.

I remember listening to the chair of the Scottish Crofting Foundation, Neil MacLeod from Lewis, telling me about the similarities and differences he had discovered between agricultural and fishing communities in Iceland and in the west Highlands.

Throughout Terra Madre the former SCF chair Norman Leask from Shetland looked resplendant in the kilt – and at no point more so than when I saw him deep in conversation with Peter Locker, an Austrian farmer from the Alps who keeps his animals for much of the year at an altitude higher than the highest of the Cuillin. They were talking about their respective native breed cattle (Norman keeps Shetland cattle himself) and with Norman in the kilt and Peter wearing Lederhosen, it was clear they were a couple of native breeds themselves.

The Terra Madre gathering gave crofters, smallholders, peasant farmers and indigenous people the world over the chance to take pride in the richness and diversity of their culture and traditions – and provided them with a strong, lucid critique of the unsustainable and destructive nature of the industrial agricultural system that threatens their ways of life.

Sometimes communication had to struggle across linguistic boundaries. The folk band I was playing in had a great conversation with a farmer from the French Pyrennes who played the button box and keeps fifteen cows on a common grazing in the summer. He spoke no English; we spoke very little French. Yet slowly and patiently, and with the aid of a notebook, we drew out from one another the common themes of our lives in traditional agricultural communities that exist on the natural peripheries of an industrial system of food production.

I spoke to a Turkish musician who asked me where he could find someone to make bellows for his bagpipes. Some of our group received an invitation to visit pastoralists in Chad in Africa.

Terra Madre is the Italian for ‘Mother Earth’, and it gathers a huge diversity of people who work the land and the waters – nearly 10,000 folk including herdsmen from Siberia and Kenya, fruit growers from California and Peru, fisherfolk from the Netherlands and Korea. The gathering is organised by Slow Food, a broad alliance of people dedicated to a food economy that nourishes communities, supports the planet’s ecosystems and produces food that is good, clean and fair. Slow Food was founded by Carlo Petrini, a veteran Italian social activist, in the 1980s in reaction to arrival of ‘Fast Food’ culture in Italy and has since then blossomed into a global movement.

The food communities come together to discuss issues of common interest. Delegates heard presentations on practical elements of their agriculture, including the importance of retaining local seeds and native breeds.

They also looked at the bigger picture, looking at industrial agriculture’s contribution to global warming, the commoditisation of food in financial markets and the resultant speculation that has led to steep price rises for many foodstuffs.

Crucially they also looked at the interconnected nature of these problems.

This time – at the third Terra Madre – crofters from the Highlands and Islands joined the discussion and their presence is perhaps a timely one for Slow Food in the UK.

In Italy and in many parts of continental Europe Terra Madre has considerable weight behind it now – several Italian government ministers spoke at the event and the Italian foreign minister announced that when Italy takes the chair of the G8 – the group of the world’s eight largest economies – the Slow Food movement has been invited to address them.

Yet Slow Food is taking a special interest in the UK. When the secretary general of Slow Food, Paulo Di Croce, spoke at the organisation’s UK regional meeting, which took place during Terra Madre, he said it was because the UK is a country where industrial agriculture and the power of supermarket chains were causing particular challenges for food producers and for the general health of the population.

Terra Madre speakers routinely described the state of the UK food economy as disastrous. Time and again they cited statistics showing Britain to be the dirty, obese, wasteful man of Europe and of the world.

Aside from a series of recent disease epidemics associated with industrial agriculture in the UK (such as BSE and foot and mouth) that were lucidly described by the food writer and scientist Colin Tudge, one Italian politician told the gathering that UK citizens are by far and away the most wasteful of food in the world. She said that in the United States one-quarter of all purchased food is wasted, but in the UK an astonishing one third of all food is thrown away uneaten.

Italian delegates criticised the dominance of a handful of supermarket giants in the UK. They believe this weakens the link between food purchasers and producers and puts pressure on producers to lower their costs as far as possible.

They also noted that there were fewer but larger farm holdings in the UK compared with other areas of Europe. The Italian lady who chaired a discussion on food security said that in Italy food producers “by definition means small producers, because in Italy we do not have large farms”.

Colin Tudge put his positive alternative to industrial agriculture in eight words: “I have a very simple mantra for the argument I am putting forward and it is one that is practiced by traditional food cultures around the world: ‘Not much meat. Plenty of vegetables. Maximum variety.'”

Mr Tudge added that around 60 per cent of the population of India works on the land.

He added: “Our international institutions describe countries like India as backward and urge them to follow our development models. In the UK less than one per cent of the population works on the land. If India follows that model it will have to find work for around 500 million unemployed people. Where on earth is all that work going to come from?”

Mr Tudge said that agriculture in the UK had developed to be highly mechanised and required high levels of fuel and chemical fertiliser, the price and availability of both being dependent on the price and availability of oil.

In the longer term, he added, this makes industrial agriculture unsustainable and that the UK is among the foremost practicioners of this kind of agriculture. He claimed this made it essential that the country finds ways to help keen potential young farmers get access to the land.

He reckoned that when around 20 per cent of the UK population is employed on the land the country would be closer to sustainability.

But while the general tone of the global gathering was about the need for radical, urgent change, at the meeting of the UK Slow Food group during Terra Madre, the UK seemed to be, well, in the Slow Food Slow Lane.

After the UK meeting I asked Norman Leask and Neil MacLeod who had been at the meeting where they thought Slow Food movement stood in respect to crofting.

Both men said they felt divided on the issue. Throughout the gathering they had discovered many similarities beteen crofting and other food cultures represented. They also felt there was resonance between Slow Food’s criticisms of industrial agriculture and the SCF’s criticisms of how support structures are set up in the UK to favour industrial, ecologically unfriendly producers.

In this wider sense they felt the Slow Food movement could be a useful ally for the crofters. However, when I asked Norman for an assessment of the UK Slow Food group he replied: “They’re miles behind – they need someone to give them a good shaking up.”

He was not alone in this assessment.

Much of the focus of the UK meeting was on food consumption. Phrases highlighting the ‘pleasure’ and ‘seduction’ of food were projected onto screens in big letters and a section of the meeting was given over to a panel of eminent chefs – including one ‘Michelin Award’ winner – who described their experiences sharing knowledge at Terra Madre with chefs from other countries.

However, during a question and answer session several of the audience – including one of the youth delegates – said the UK group lacked inspiration and two questioners said that SlowFood often seemed to be little more than “an older person’s dining club” or “a middle class dining club”.

The criticism of the youth delegate was particularly pertinent. Younger folk are growing up with an awareness of the interconnected nature of the multiple global crises – including climate change; species extinction and loss of ecosystem resilience; an obesity epidemic in the developed world, and malnutrition elsewhere; the failure of free market capitalism – in a way that some of the older generation sometimes seem unable to understand.

Their attitude seems to be that they are not going to be fobbed off by a few fancy dinners in a Michelin Restaurant.

At the meeting, inspiration was in short supply. How the UK group could contribute to Slow Food’s radical critique of industrial agriculture was hardly touched on. Although Pam Rodway of the Soil Association highlighted the Highlands and Islands’ ‘planting to plate’ project that is helping to get schoolchildren growing and cooking their own food, when Colin Tudge raised the question of how to get more young farmers onto the land, it remained unanswered.

Carlo Petrini described Terra Madre as being like a great underground river that, once each two years, bursts through the surface and shows its energy and power. The regional smallholders and producers, whose traditional practices work lightly on the earth, form the majority of Terra Madre and are the force that drive the movement.

But with its focus on consumption, the UK Slow Food group seems more like a fish in a small pool that is slowly evaporating. Below it flows the great underground Terra Madre river and some of the power and energy of that river percolates upwards to the small pool.

However the water in the pool is evaporating faster than the percolation can replenish it. To survive and to thrive the UK fish needs to break through the ground to the river below – and that requires finding a way to reform UK landownership so that many more crofters can produce food that is good, clean and fair.

Rights reserved. If you want to republish this piece contact the Editors at [email protected]