Opinion

‘Slow food’ movement seems sort of ‘half-baked’

The “slow food” movement has come to Kitsap County with the county commissioners’ proclamation of Terra Madre Day to be celebrated today.

If a snail came to mind when first reading the term “slow food,” you have lots of company.

It’s in the logo of the organization that’s pushing the idea.

The concept seems to be a mixture of nostalgia, mercantilism, sustainability and health improvement.

Before the ability to haul goods to markets over globe-spanning distances and still sell at a competitive price arose, small farms and industries in local areas provided much of the things people needed and wanted.

Nostalgia for the small farm has been with us for almost a century. The idea of a self-sustaining family farm is appealing, especially for people who’ve never done the hard work for low pay that is often required.

The number of small farms dwindled almost to extinction in the last century as transportation and modern farming methods put them out of business.

The world changed with the coming of greater productivity through mechanized farming and bigger market areas reachable with better transportation.

Unless local producers could compete with those in other areas who benefited from economies of scale that allowed them to make the most of growing conditions, they found some other way to earn a living.

Subsistence farming, with no significant source of income to buy things not produced on the small farm, is something few would choose over a higher standard of living doing almost anything else.

Nostalgia for the small local farm and local market days doesn’t include scraping by on little or nothing, and neither does the “slow food” movement.

It appears to be an effort to persuade people to buy locally produced items based on beliefs that the food may be more healthful, the local economy would benefit, and “Mother Earth” would be harmed less by reducing the impact of transporting goods over long distances.

The perceived benefit to the economy is a sort of mercantilist view in the sense that the benefit is thought to come from keeping money moving around the local area rather than going off to wherever an item was produced.

All else being equal — that is, price, variety and quality are essentially the same — buying local goods makes sense.

But of course, if all else were equal we would still be buying local items just as our great-grandparents did.

Buying a locally produced item rather than one from elsewhere that is cheaper and of the same quality would lower the standard of living of the buyers, since they would have less to spend on other items they need or want.

This rational desire to get the most for one’s money is probably the biggest obstacle faced by anyone wanting to encourage people to “buy local.”

Perhaps this obstacle is the reason why one of the goals of the “slow food” movement is to create market conditions that result in what they consider to be “fair” compensation to the local producers.

In a relatively unfettered market economy, the price willing buyers voluntarily pay and willing sellers voluntarily accept is, in fact, the fair price.

Since the fair price has not been enough to cause many people to produce primarily for a local market from a small farm, there has to be some other motivation.

People tend to buy what they want, so the goal is to persuade them to want locally produced goods.

If people want some feature that is associated with the locally produced item but not with the same item from far away, they may pay more — one part of the price is for the item and the other is for the feature.

The desirable feature isn’t necessarily part of the item, since it could be associated with the experience of obtaining the item.

If it’s more enjoyable to consume locally produced goods, the producers will have created the market conditions that may get them a price they can live with.

It should be interesting to see if combining appeals to ecology, health, economic growth, and nostalgia can help create the needed market conditions.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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