Posts Tagged ‘Terra Madre Ireland’

So it’s official, after 2 quarters of negative growth we’re in a recession. A lot of the businesses we are dealing with at West Cork LEADER Co-op are getting very worried. Yet amidst the anxiety there is a noticeable sense of relief too, a sense of getting back to reality and a sense that perhaps we have at last a chance to catch breath, to look at a new direction, a direction that’s about more than the housing market, overseas property shows, releasing equity and tax-lead foreign investment. With the US economy in severe trouble we can expect that the IDA have perhaps run out of road for a while and we’re largely going to have to get out of this one ourselves. So where do we look for new growth in our economy and a sustainable future? I’m convinced that the values we place in food and food production as expressed in our food culture can be strong contributors to that future.

Earlier in September, when the recession was still unofficial but clearly emerging, I had a chance to listen to Prof Kieran Byrne, the director of Waterford IT, address this topic of “Where to now?” He was speaking at the Slowfood Terra Madre conference and delivered a message of his Institute’s firm belief in a positive future for Irish food, food as a product but also food as part of the hospitality sector, and food as part of our culture. He talked about a return to what we are good at, valuing our own culture and from that deriving a wellspring of confidence. He spoke of the role of education in culturing young people, not just teaching them the raw facts or skills but instilling “confidence in our rising generations in our culture, our way of living”. This he argued offers the secure grounding for a new direction. “Perhaps now,” he said, “is the time when we have to transition and it is a challenge to transition. To transition from that era which marked the recent past, that era of the indigent. Perhaps we can turn now from that period in the lifecycle of the country, turn from it to something that is more gradual, more considered, that’s more reflective and surely that’s more healthy.”

Later this month, we will be launching the new LEADER programme for the region, which runs to 2013. In drafting a plan for the next 5 years we’ve had to take a hard look at the region and try to make sense of what works in West Cork and where the region is going. As part of the process we’ve undertaken an extensive review of the Fuchsia Brand, which we’ve published in the form of an e-book called Perspectives on the West Cork Regional Brand (you can have a look by visiting www.fuchsiabrands.com). It is now 10 years since the brand was launched and in that time we’ve learned a lot about branding and communication, but more importantly we’ve come to appreciate the value and input to economic development from West Cork’s society, its communities, culture and environment. We’ve joined the dots in thought and practice between a vibrant enterprise culture and a rich cultural and natural environment ,where there is a strong ethos of working together and a sense of responsibility for the world around us. At the time of writing I am in eastern Poland, preparing to present at a seminar where my main task is to expand on the LEADER approach, which is still fairly new here. I have been invited as an Irish representative, because all around Europe Ireland is held up as a real success story for LEADER. There are serious concerns in Poland about how well the LEADER approach fits with the Polish culture, in particular the notion of social capital, working together for a common purpose, has been seriously damaged here by 50 years of communism. Although there is a whole new generation that has not known communism, the generation that is now in power is very deeply affected by that period. Development workers here tell me that rural Poland really lacks an enterprise culture, a culture of doing and innovating. People here do not start businesses in anything other than retail or trading. There is huge interest in how LEADER groups can encourage the establishment of small rural businesses, particularly in food and tourism, which are so connected to the natural resources of the area, more embedded, more sustainable. My impression is that the biggest challenges are cultural and in particular that aspect of culture which is about values, and valuing what we know and do. As much as anything the successes that we’ve had in West Cork LEADER Co-Op have come from valuing – Fuchsia is all about communicating values – quality, tradition, pride and passion, but equally the projects we support at community level are about valuing – local heritage and the natural environment.

This thread was also picked up on in the Irish Times last week by Finbarr Bradley, a former economics professor at DCU and NUI Maynooth, when he set out an argument that national identity and traditions, and not solely academic research, provide the conditions for a society of innovation and entrepreneurship. He too has launched a book, it’s called Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference and has a lot to say about the role of culture in innovation. He argues that knowledge is constructed from experience not received through education or research. We can innovate only when we understand the meaning and value of information through our life experience. He says that “While knowledge is global, innovation is emphatically local. Countries and regions that successfully combine the benefits of global markets with local relationships based on quality and sense of place are likely to prosper.” I think that West Cork is very much a place where people learn by doing, certainly we would not have learned very much about regional branding without having put it into practice. The LEADER programme supports innovation by assisting people to learn by doing. We are taking this to a new level in the next programme by broadening the learning space to learning from doing with others. We are seeking to promote the emergence of a cluster of innovation among our food, tourism and craft enterprises.

The food culture that I have sought to document in this column over the last year is emphatically a culture of learning by doing. If you take a look at Perspectives you will read that the Fuchsia members between them have a combined turnover each year of over €106M, they are providing direct employment for almost 1000 people and are responsible for the creation of another 250 jobs in supporting sectors. Formal education and research play very little part in the success of the producers I have talked to. A major investment in science and advanced research is not I believe the way forward now for Ireland, as Finbarr Bradley and others have pointed out the return in terms of national prosperity is poor. As we look for responses to the recession, let’s look first to ourselves, what we know, value and can put into practice. Let’s look to learn from each other and how we can turn that learning into innovation and may other third level institutions follow WITs lead in culturing and valuing not merely producing recruits for jobs that may not be there or research that never gets off the shelf.

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With a bit more time to reflect on the Terra Madre experience, I’m starting to appreciate it’s more subtle effects. Something has taken root in my head, every now and then I catch myself coninuing conversations that I took part in weeks ago on a wet day at Waterford WIT. I guess it’s one of the symptoms of being listened to that one starts to talk more even when there’s no-one around. If you’re suffering similarly I would remind you that the online forum is sill open and active and will remain so until the world summit – Terra Madre in Turin in October. Looking through the various threads that have developed around each workshop it is clear that most found it very hard to capture the complexity of the discussions and often contrary positionsfrom the participants. The divide seems unbridgeable between large commercial export oriented farming and quality oriented producers developing local markets. There’s no doubt where the money is going though – I’m just looking at the Money & Jobs section in de paper and see that Enterprise Irelnad, Teagasc and 3 of the universties have just set up a National Functional Foods Research Centre and created 30 jobs – maybe I’m just naive or uncaring but I find it hard to get excited about Ireland’s plans to build core competency in functional foods targetting early infant development, metabolic syndrome and colorectal cancer. It just looks to me like inventing ways to offload powdered milk – it’s hardly going to put anymore money in farmers pockets given that they don’t own the processing companies anymore (with the exception of Carbery).

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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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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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