Archive for August 3rd, 2008


Farmers around the country are breathing a collective sigh of relief with the news that the World Trade talks in Geneva have broken down after 7 years of on-again, off-again negotiations. One hopes that a win-win solution will eventually be found but it is encouraging to see that the deal breaker was a refusal on the part of developing countries, particularly India and China, and also the US to sell-out their farmers by implementing full free trade without subsidies. Irish farmers were under no illusion about how high they ranked on the scale of priorities for the EU, as represented by Peter Mandelson, but in poorer countries there is simply no alternative but to keep people working productively on the land. At a global level it is clear that free trade is potentially the enemy of sustainability when industrialized agriculture looks to make a killing rather than helping families make a living. In trying to exploit distant, often turbulent global markets, industrial agriculture artificially boosts production beyond nature’s restorative capacity, focuses on cash rather than food, consumes vast quantities of fossil fuels and petrochemicals and removes people from farming.

Perhaps in backing off temporarily from the free trade ideal we have an opportunity to take a serious look at how we want food to be produced so that as many people as possible can make a reasonable living from farming. And so that they can make that living without polluting the water, degrading the soil, wiping out threatened species or warming the planet. A new consensus is needed about what constitutes sustainable food production. So it is timely indeed that all stake-holders in food production across the entire island of Ireland, be they farmers, food producers or distributors are being encouraged to have their voice heard at a major, one-day conference this September. Terra Madre Ireland, which will be held in Waterford on September 5, will bring together a host of international experts, state bodies, retailers, growers and food producers to listen, learn and contribute to debate and policy-making on the future of Irish food.

Terra Madre Ireland, literally Mother Earth, is being facilitated by the Slow Food movement and is based on a model developed in Italy, where two world congresses of food communities have been held, the first in 2004 and then again in 2006. I was fortunate enough to attend both and found the experience at once humbling and inspiring. The concept of a food community recognizes the interconnections and vital roles played by farmers, processors, distributors, retailers, academics, food writers and consumers in getting food from the soil or the sea to the table. Slowfood tracked down and brought together 1,600 communities from every corner of the planet: from the reindeer breeders of Magadan in Siberia to the hatahata fishermen of the port of Kitaura in Japan, from the raisin producers of Herat in Afghanistan to the cheesemakers of West Cork, from North American farmers markets to daddawala communities in India, who every day get on their bikes and deliver about 100,000 packed meals to the office workers of Mumbai. In a series of themed workshops each community was invited to tell their story and listen to others. My first impression was the beauty, ingenuity and simplicity of traditional systems the world over that for generations, sometimes millennia, have balanced the needs of farmers, consumers and the environment. My second was the speed with which these are being lost.

West Cork is certainly not immune from threats to its traditional foods. We have all but lost wild smoked salmon, raw milk cheese makers are having to fight hard to keep ahead of the regulators, almost all of the abbatoirs have been shut down, beef and lamb are subsidised beyond their sales value and as far as I am aware there are only 2 makers of traditional black pudding, i.e. using fresh blood, a product that once enjoyed tremendous variations in style from local butchers throughout the region. One of the responses by Slowfood Ireland to this threat has been the creation of the Ark of Taste. The Irish Slow Food Ark collects information about food that is important to Ireland’s history, culture, economy and physical environment but is experiencing some kind of threat. The threat could come, for example, from loss of species, loss of traditional skills, neglect or high cost compared to industrially produced foods. The impact of such threats can be on taste, nutritional value or the environment in which the food grows. Products made in West Cork that have been put into the Ark to date include edible seaweeds, kiln-toasted oatmeal from Macroom and fresh blood puddings. Aveen Henry from Church Cross, Skibbereen and UCC, is the Commissioner for the Irish Ark and is convening one of the dozens of workshops at the Terra Madre conference in Waterford. “The workshop will be a chance to point out to the Ministers and policy makers present the many ways in which these important foods contribute to the economic and social well being of the region. We’re going to debate a motion that there should be a minimum quota of local foods in every retail outlet. We’d like to see supports for these foods and to help mark out regional distinctiveness on the basis of particular foods.”

Meanwhile Colin Sage, who lives near Kilbrittan and also works at UCC is convening a workshop on developing a strategy for sustainable food production. “It is vital that we begin a process of reducing the energy intensity of our food, and especially decouple food supply from fossil fuel use. We also have to tackle the logistics of food supply chains that deliver increasing quantities of food over greater distances adding significantly to the problem of food miles and carbon footprints. Yet the power to improve this situation lies in the hands of consumers and reflect the decisions that we make about what food we buy, how we eat, and what we throw away. We believe the Minister can stimulate a national debate that would help move us toward a more sustainable food production strategy.”

The conference is being backed by all of the major farming organisations. Catherine Buckley from Rylane and current National President of Macra na Feirme is keen to emphasise role of the farming community in the process. ‘Macra na Feirme welcomes the Terra Madre initiative to Ireland and believes that it will provide an opportunity to emphasise the sheer importance of encouraging young people into agriculture and the food industry. We need more educated young people to see farming and the food industry as a viable and attractive career choice. For this to happen the industry needs to move away from focusing upon commodity production to focusing upon offering quality foods to discerning consumers in Ireland and abroad.’

Other plans during the four-day festival include a monster barbecue for 1,000 people in Waterford City, a major Farmers Market, a Gala Dinner and Awards ceremony, culinary demonstrations, tours to artisan food manufacturers, visits to speciality producers and best practice farms, as well tastings, picnics and competitions – all arranged in a convivial atmosphere around the celebration and sharing of local food. If you are interested in finding out more about the conference or attending any of the events have a look at http://www.terramadreireland.com .

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