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Archive for September 10th, 2008

I got to the Terra Madre conference in Waterford on Friday last to offer my tuppence worth to the debate. Before I get on to talking about our workshop, I must congratulate the organisers, particularly Donal Lehane and Darina Allen, who really stuck their necks out in driving this and who also really pulled it off. Aside from the excellent conference, I have heard that the banquet and farmers market were also superb.

Our workshop was called Food and the Future of Rural Communities and was an amalgam of two that had been proposed on the Ark of Taste and Rural Development. There was a good number at it, some 20 or so, quite healthy considering that there were nearly 40 other workshops running concurrently. Aveen Henry from UCC and the Commissioner of the Ark made a fine job of steering the debate towards a few tightly defined recommendations. I think it was a pity that the Ark itself was sidelined as the discussion threaded its way through bigger picture issues  – particularly difficulties that small artisan food producers face in dealing with regulators and the problems for farmers in getting a decent price for their produce. To my mind we never quite bridged the gap between these two. My own hobby horse of strengthening our food culture, particularly through education and local initiatives, seemed a hard sell to farmers who realistically are getting the same price for milk now as they got 20 years ago and have faced massive cost increases in the meantime and anyway 90% of their produce is exported. Likewise, as one contributor from Midleton pointed out, people don’t just switch over to paying more for quality local produce once they’ve been enlightened on the subject. She pointed out that between the high profile farmers market and the strong profile of the Allens in the area, awareness of quality food is high in Midleton. Yet since the farmers market has opened the town has seen the arrival of a huge 24 hour Tesco, Lidl, McDonalds and Aldi, all of which are flying. We came up with 3 requests – firstly, a national database, secondly, funding for local iniatives, patricularly to build relationships and educate each other and finally, dedicated agency staff trained to deal with and understand the small food sector. I’d like to have seen something about below cost selling and some balance to the power of retailers but couldn’t articulate any solution.

After lunch we all assembled in the large conference hall, which really felt like a piece of the Turin event – huge, colourful, bedecked with nice photos and graphics and full of an amazing array of people from all elements of food and agriculture. It was only when I got into the hall that I realised the scale of the event – there were close to 1000 people assembled. Prof Kieran Byrne, director of Waterford Institute gave an inspiring speech about getting back to what we do well in the years ahead. Then each workshop got to present their conclusions to the two ministers – Trevor Sargent and Michelle Gildernew, from the North. These 2 in turn then responded – both speaking very positively and indeed reassuringly – Min Sargent gave a firm guarantee that Ireland will be safeguarded from GM crops and animals. Then President McAleese arrived and then warmth of her relationship with Darina Allen was very evident – she actually has her own vegetable garden and hens at the Aras – excellent! Unfortuately, we didn’t get to hear from Carlo Petrini, he was clearly not feeling the best.

Then it was over and we dispersed and if I’m honest I feel a little dissatisfied. Yes, it was a superb event and yes, we all got listened to. But I’m not convinced that talking to the Green Party Minister for Food about the problems in food and agriculture is going to fix it. So many of the problems we discussed about food and rural development are enmeshed in other issues and the solutions are incredibly complex. Most of all they are hard to articulate and require the co-operation of many different parties – it’s not all about food culture.

If you’d looking for a  fuller picture Caroline Hennessy at bibliocook has compiled all of the recent posts about Terra Madre Ireland here.

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