On the third and final day of Slow Food Nations, I attended a panel on “Food and Freedom” with Carlo Petrini, Corby Kummer and Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation Open Markets Program (see NOTE below). With Slow Food USA Executive Director Richard McCarthy and Alice Waters in attendance, Petrini and Lynn focused on the questions “how, in an age of globalization and transnational capital flows, people all over the world are taking ownership over their local food systems? How are we balancing food with freedom?”

Carlo Pertini opened the conversation stating that concentration of power, how it affects wealth, opportunity, and quality of life actually kills people, and it’s worse today and growing, with food choices in the hands of a few. He illustrated the point noting that companies realized they could affect the price of products by manipulating supply and availability. Treating food as a commodity, they withhold grain and stockpile it until the price rises, and actually the smaller the group doing the withholding, the larger their power. He pointed out this practice of investor speculation in food beginning in the 2007/2008 period was one of the causes of the Arab Spring, more so than political or philosophical causes – people were hungry and desparate.

But in a situation of concentration, keeping food prices low still favors this small group of large firms because it devalues food produced by small suppliers. When food stops being food and becomes a commodity, with speculation at each step on the way to market, we have lost track of where food comes from. Petrini said this is an international problem – production and distribution costs are no longer as important as the gross accumulation of the product. He gave examples of tomatoes and tuna (saying we will not have a sustainable supply of tuna in ten years).

Barry Lynn continued with a little history lesson about the original Tea Party. Despite the stories we have been told, it was not because of high taxes but a protest against an international monopoly called the East India Tea Company as a threat to the colonists’ liberty by interfering with the ability of farmers and consumers to interact freely. It was a foundational ethic in this country that fighting monopoly protects democracy from monopolists and allows communities to decide how to interact with each other, thus also protecting families by enabling them to have enough to live.

What happened to that ethic? According to Lynn, the Chicago School of “free market” capitalists and “command and control” socialists actually came together in the 1970’s to get rid of anti-monopoly law and reinterpreted it to apply to consumers instead of citizens. This change to the anti-monopoly law has led us to today – looming autocracy.

His example of a chicken farm: labor laws protect workers but not in farming because farming is supposed to be controlled by open and free markets. That  used to work when there were many small buyers; now there usually is only one large buyer and the “tournament system” allows the buyer to pit the farmers against each other (instead of relying on collective action) by paying each different prices – none of this is audited or tracked; the company has all the information and power. For an entertaining but ultimately depressing explanation, he referred us to this John Oliver Last Week Tonight Episode.

Mr. Petrini added that the European Union built a barrier against GMOs, even creating a DO (denomination of origin) for food products (in an effort to guarantee authenticity) but has been getting pushback from the U.S. and others to allow GMOs in. He repeated the problem began when we became consumers rather than citizens. Then we became complicit.

So what can we do? he asked. How do we construct an opposition to this? “What we need is fellowship among Italian and American farmers.” I think Mr. Petrini would agree with me asserting that he also means farmers from all over the world should find ways to collaborate to decrease reliance on central governments and multinational corporations. He added that the vision is simultaneously local (focused on the farmers and the community) and international (to share knowledge and resources).

An illustration: Mr. Petrini said we (the developed countries) consume too much, especially meat, while others don’t have enough. We must favor both “contraction” (for those who have too much) and “convergence” (for those who have too little). [I thought: sharing resources-what a concept?] He pointed out the World Health Organization in October 2015 said too much meat increases the risk of cancer (especially processed meat).

Then, he asserted, “we all make policy by eating” and revisited this famous wisdom from Wendell Berry in the essay “The Pleasures of Eating” where he says “eating is an agricultural act.” And, Petrini continued, therefore “eating is a political act,” an insight also offered by Michael Pollan in this interview in The Atlantic. I believe he even made the statement, at least that’s what my notes show: “eat local, the rest is slavery.” He urged further study of this policy but emphasized beginning at the grassroots, pointing out we are political subjects and must take action to cultivate our own food system.

Barry Lynn jumped in pointing out what Louis Brandeis wrote in 1913 that this is especially important as we have seen throughout our history: “Far-seeing organized capital secures by this means [price cutting] the co-operation of the short-sighted unorganized consumer to his own undoing. Thoughtless or weak, he yields to the temptation of trifling immediate gain, and, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage, becomes himself an instrument of monopoly.”

He argued again this nation’s first revolution was against monopoly and a second revolution also was against monopoly control – the Progressive era, when farmers and others rose up, and in the election of 1912 when Woodrow Wilson (who wanted to break up the monopolies) defeated Howard Taft (who wanted to let monopolies have control), and Theodore Roosevelt (who believed monopolies were inevitable but government should oversee them).

And Lynn then said we are now called upon to create a third revolution against monopolies – and he said it is beginning to happen – in the way people responded in the last election to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren) because both political parties have been offenders. Responding to Brandeis’ critique, he said we are going to have to save ourselves by spending our money more self consciously and socially consciously.

Mr. Petrini praised efforts to reduce food waste and also reiterated his earlier statement that we must be willing to pay more for food (he said his food costs in 1975 were about 30% and today are about 12%, so he actually could afford to spend more on food). He said we will need to change our thinking about food calling it an anthropological challenge to move away from the fear of hunger, which leads to hoarding food and then throwing much of it away. He concluded praising “marginalized communities” that have been subjected to power but are beginning to respond by strengthening community and working together to help each other in open markets [without a corporate middle man]. Ultimately, “liberty will come from our individual behavior and our relations.” No corporation (even Wal-Mart, Amazon or Whole Foods) will solve the food desert problem – it will be communities acting with mutual aid. Of course, he acknowledged, this is hard work and it takes strength to be a co-producer. But this is the work that must be done.

And, as Richard McCarthy put it in this post-festival snapshot: “Change is not easy. It can be clumsy, but there is no alternative. We do not have all the answers or all of the people. Not yet.”


NOTE: Mr. Lynn and his team at Open Markets “were let go [by New America Foundation effective September 1] because the leaders of my think tank chose not to stand up to Google’s threats.” This is a charge Google and the New America Foundation disputes. For his part, Lynn and the Open Markets team have established a new organization, Citizens Against Monopoly to continue the fight.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.