In 1986, an opening of a McDonald’s franchise in Italy prompted a group of enthusiasts for local food culture and tradition preservation to take action; they resisted it mightily and subsequently, in 1989, formed a movement called ‘Slow Food‘. The movement was aimed at teaching and preaching the importance of developing an understanding of why food is prepared the way it is, what the meanings behind certain methods of food preparation and consumption are, and why the rush towards fast food (as one example) and fast life were evils which would eradicate culture; a homogenophobia argument from a slightly different perspective.
This movement has its Epicurean merits, and describes maintenance of a love of pleasure which many philosophers throughout the ages would deem an acceptable goal. Development of the tastebuds to enjoy different foods through nurture rather than nature has been demonstrated before. We grow to like and love certain tastes and dislike and hate others based on a number of cultural factors.
Case in point: Australians prefer stronger tasting wines. Why might this be? I would posit that our brief time on this island has yielded a lack of culture. The majority of our earliest settlers were convicts (generally a class of people not known for their appreciation for the ‘finer’ things), and we’ve had merely 200 years to grow and foster a new set of traditions and customs. As usual, food is amongst them. When one thinks of what it means to be an Australian, shrimp and vegemite are prominent recurring suggestions.
So when it comes to wine, Australia is ‘new country’, meaning we, along with many other non-European (generally) nations have forgone traditional viticultural methods, abandon things as needed to create more wine faster. Australians haven’t regulated a stringent methodology to our wine production, and have consumed our wine from metal vats which are full of preservatives without a care in the world.
As a country borne of a ‘lower’ class of people, we were a society of people who were not indoctrinated into the wine snobbery the ‘upper’ classes so appreciated. The person lacking ‘culture’ and ‘breeding’ always seeks the most garish and flamboyant examples of their newfound wealth. Ed Byrne describes this phenomenon in his latest stand-up comedy routine ‘Different Class’, where he boasts about his new, utterly gargantuan flat-screen television to his rich upper-class friends, only to be rebuked as tacky by people who truly know the meaning of elegance.
‘Taste’, it would seem, must be developed over time. The nouveau riche have never understood notions of understated grace, and why should they? Without longstanding examples from their grandparents and parents of how to act the part, they stick out like a sore thumb amongst the old-school wealthy elites. Does Mark Zuckerberg suddenly have an appreciation for Cuban cigars as a result of making his first billion? These things do not come with the territory of wealth, indeed they are seldom developed by one person. They require time, generations of time and passed-down notions of the ‘fine’ and the desirable elements.
So to return to our lovely little wine-making country, it makes sense that our tastes are for the sweetest Chardonnays and most gut-wrenchingly bitter (in this humble blogger’s opinion) Sauvignon Blancs. After all, if our country hasn’t been raised on a palette of being able to detect the subtler difference between capsicum and cinnamon aromas (which apparently there is), why should we take pleasure in such distinctions? Few Australian wine enthusiasts really know their own palettes well enough to be able to make such distinctions at all, much less stake a preferred nose. As such, we fail to recognise the subtlety of finely produced wines from old country regions and continue to produce wine which doesn’t uphold the important traditions necessary to produce those deliciously unobtainable differences. However, as an Australian, I certainly can’t taste the difference and neither can most of the world (as the middle classes earn more and more and are able to indulge in such fanciful delicacies); as such old country wine continues to compete with more efficient production methods production supposedly inferior wines my humble palette fails to recognise.
And so we return to Slow Food and their relentless pursuit of similar appreciations in regional foodstuffs. In Italy, it began with the threat of lardo di colonnata (an animal fat integral to a regional delicacy which had been passed down from generation to generation) being removed from the Italian diet. The industry’s sustainability was being threatened from a number of sources (both real and imagined), including genetically modified (GM) foods, fast-food franchises, cultural homogenisation from the United States and European Union and a lack of appreciation for the education of today’s youth in a society fuelled by instant gratification and internet-based relationships.
The world was doomed.
This issue is divisive along similar lines to one of Slow Food’s core tenets: their anti-GM stance. The battlegrounds for this war are being fought in public minds, with the manic anti-GM campaign of the late nineties now being observed with more scrutiny. Frankenfood headlines tore across the West, and products which were produced with a higher yield in more efficient methods were yanked from store shelves, starting with Flavr Savr tomatoes. No one wanted their tomato to have a fish brain inside it, nor their
pineapples to grow underground alongside their potatoes. Of course, most of this was nonsensical rubbish borne largely of a technophobia common of most new entries from science, especially when borders of ‘playing God’ were being danced upon.
The argument against GM foods has slowly started to become less reactionary, and more rational and level-headed approaches are currently being undertaken. Some initial proponents of the anti-GM movement are now reconsidering their stance. An article in The Independent makes mention of Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, admitting they acted in haste regarding the issue, and also goes on to note that the GM ‘scare’ came about during an era of uproar surrounding doubt of our foods, particularly in Europe…
Antifreeze was pollution your wine! Mad cow disease lay dormant in your every slice of beef! Hazardous dioxins were inert, waiting to strike from within your nearest chicken wing!
So of course it was an apposite time to strike. The anti-GM campaigns were overly successful, yet now even the pope has agreed to a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the matter.
The issue confuses ethics and morals, as most issues concerning our propensity to ‘play God’ tend to do. Nascent laws, a fledgling understanding of the process of genetic modification (at best) by the general public and opportunistic corporations led to several examples of organic farmers being able to play the victim card. As nature tends to do, crops blended and spread, and examples of alfalfa sprouts in the United States and rice crops in India were flowing into one another. This caused far larger and graver concerns for both parties than would be imagined by the humble blowing of a seed through the breeze. The GM farm’s seeds ‘infecting’ the seeds of the organic farm meant that their entire harvest was ruined (indeed their entire farm was ruined until they could purge the genetic menace) as they could no longer claim their foods were ‘organic’. To add insult to injury, even though the organic farmers had no involvement in the GM crops spreading into their fields (and why would they), they were now illegally harvesting crops which had been patented by their neighbours. Genetically modified organism can be trademarked, and as such these farmers were producing crops which were either less resistant to certain natural elements or had lower yields than their GM counterparts, while still not being able to claim organic status, AND they were being sued for the privilege.
But does this amount to GM food being evil? Hardly. Evil is a matter of morality, and the concerns here are legal, political and ethical. This, however, doesn’t stop organisations from dragging such examples of clear organic victimisation into the realms of the morally wrong. Anything which furthers their cause is employed, as is typical when people become fanatics about a particular thing.
Finally, we come back to the class system. While some people claim overpopulation is the real concern, the fact of the matter is that enough food isn’t reaching enough people to feed the planet’s hungry at this point. Preventing new methods of harvesting crops in a more efficient manner is a first-world luxury which patently ignores the needs of the many. Some may argue that we have ‘enough’ food already and we’re simply unable to distribute it effectively, but these are usually the same people who poo-poo this solution without actively engaging with their preferred other.
Meanwhile, organic purists claim to be able to taste the difference. Penn and Teller’s Bullshit ran a little candid camera stunt once where they had such people taste organic and GM tomatoes next to one another and had to guess as to which one was organic. The results: people favoured the tomato on the left, regardless of whether it was the organic one or not.
The Slow Food movement has a lot to say which I agree with. It’s call for an appreciation of culture and an earnest desire to see people really know true enjoyment of food is one I can get behind. But let’s demand that anti-GM activists not actively hamper our ability to increase food production for the sake of such a pursuit. I heartily recommend we all eat our next meal more slowly. Savour each and every flavour and sensation the morsels press upon your eager tongues.After all, if we in the privileged West aren’t thoroughly enjoying the lifestyle we’re blessed with, what’s it all for? I’ll end with a link to an anti-GM speech by an eleven-year-old. Children this young spouting one side of an ongoing debate frighten me. Enjoy.