Power To The People
A conversation with the new President of Slow Food
First, A Word of Thanks
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“We should all be part of the solution”
If we want to slash global hunger levels and boost food production without wrecking the planet, what we need to do is to “give back the power of feeding this world to the communities”, Edward Mukiibi, the new President of Slow Food, told me this week.
“The whole debate (on food security) needs to go back to the notion or the narrative that we need to let communities feed themselves. We need to support the communities with all the resources, all the the support, to build their own food systems.”
For more than three decades, Carlo Petrini, the founding father of Slow Food, was at the helm of a movement that started as a counterweight to fast food and to promote and preserve local production and food cultures. Its philosophy has gone global and its adherents are now found in almost every corner of the world.
He is now handing over the reins to a 36-year-old son of small-scale farmer from central Uganda. Edie was born on the northern shores of Lake Victoria the same year Petrini set up Arcigola, which later became Slow Food.
Despite his age, Edie, as he is better known, has hands-on experience making degraded land productive again as well as a deep understanding of food sovereignty. He is also just as committed to the Slow Food’s ethos of “Good, Clean and Fair” food as his predecessor.
I spoke to Edie - who calls himself “a small scale farmer, an agronomist, and also an activist and educator” - about his passions, his plans for Slow Food and what we can expect from this year’s Terra Madre event which is being held later this month. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
THIN: Thanks Edie for agreeing to talk to me. It would be great if you can start off by telling us about how you got interested in agriculture?
EDIE: My journey with agriculture started many years ago, since I was a very young child because I was born in a family of small farmers. I started going into the farm with my mom when I was very, very young. And as I grew up, I knew farming is our livelihood, a source of income and a source of food. We had coffee, we had bananas, we had vegetables, we had almost everything that we needed on this farm.
When I started going to school, there was a school garden but I didn't know it was reserved for (students) who committed small offences like speaking any other language apart from English at school… as a form of punishment. But me, I always wanted to go there and I wanted to change it from the punishing ground to a place where we go with love, with interest. I always asked teachers if I can go and take care of some crops after school.
Then I studied agricultural land use and management at university. Because I had this interest and this passion, I became a leader in the Faculty of Agriculture, and I also wanted to open up (other students’) minds about doing farming as an interest-oriented economic activity and a social activity. That's when I started this agriculture educational project, in 2006, when I was in my second year of the university. I recruited some fellow students and went to schools to teach children about farming, biodiversity, and taking care of the soil, the land, the crops and the seeds.
THIN: How big was your parents’ farm?
EDIE: It was half an acre, a fifth of what I have now. It was in a farming community one kilometre away from my house. But since I started working in the field of organic agriculture and as a consultant, I started earning some money and bought degraded pieces of land.
Our land is very close to a research station, where there used to be a lot of trials for chemicals… so the land was degraded and it was not very productive anymore. But I had this knowledge of regenerating the land using agroecology - part of my thesis at the university was about using compost to improve the hydro-physical properties of soil - and said, “It’s OK if the land is cheap, degraded and no one wants it. We can bring it back to life.”
This is how we acquire these small, scattered plots. Now we have 2.5 acres so it’s a hectare and we have a lot of things on it. Because of the traditional farming system we are following, we grow a lot of seasonal vegetables. We are growing 25 different varieties of bananas and plantains on the farm. We have cacao, vanilla, coffee, fruit trees like mangoes, avocados and others and also shade trees for improving the micro-climate.
THIN: How long did it take you to sort of make them become more productive again.
EDIE: The first time I paid for a piece of land adjacent to our farm was in 2014 and this was the most degraded piece of land. So we started working on the compost pits and it's now where we have coffee and fruit trees, some of which are still young. Another piece which was not so much degraded. It's where we now have bananas and three compost piles.
But there are also pieces of land where we have not done anything. Very small patches of land which were like almost bare and very little life remaining. So we are letting them grow back into grassland. It’s a work in progress.
THIN: How did you get involved with slow food? You’ve been Vice President before this, right?
EDIE: That dates back in 2008. I was finishing my degree at the University and we were learning in a very conventional way. Everything was about hybrid seeds and chemical agriculture and agribusiness. In 2007, as one of the leaders and best students in the Faculty, I was selected to participate in this new project to promote a new hybrid maize seed. Part of my job was to work with the farmers to convince them to adopt this seed. It was marketed as drought resistant, high yielding, new maize variety. So we tested this in a district.
Towards the end of 2007, Uganda was hit by a long drought, like the one which we are having this year. The maize fields all collapsed. I went back to the district and (the farmers) took me through the fields where all the maize that died at knee height. With all the loans they had, all the investment they had made, all the land they dedicated to this maze, it never delivered the promise.
I didn’t have many words to say to say to the farmers. I also felt so disappointed. I felt like I was part of this big problem and something needs to be done. I made the decision to quit this project, apologised to the farmers and talked to them about rebuilding their traditional farming systems which is based on diversity where a farmer cannot have 100% loss.
So I started working with two communities. I also had to think about our family farm back home where we never had such an incident like losing all of the crops. It was heavy work on me and I started seeking people who are working in the same direction because after quitting the project, I felt alone. Everybody was talking about conventional farming.
In the beginning of 2008, I found the Slow Food Foundation and they were talking about biodiversity and traditional food systems. I wrote and I got a quick response. I was invited to Terra Madre. I came… and I was overwhelmed. And I felt like my worries have ended because I met so many people talking about good things, about rebuilding their food systems, about landscapes and agroecological systems. I met people talking about education and gardens. I shared my experiences and I never felt alone again.
I found a family that is truly working to change the food system. People were interested in the impact at the grassroots level, not only reporting the results. This is my story with Slow Food. I became a member of the executive committee in 2012 and I was appointed Vice President in 2014.
THIN: Do you think the Slow Food’s philosophy and ethos of “Good, Clean and Fair Food” are still relevant today? If so, how and why?
EDIE: When the planet is faced with all these challenges, when people are striving to find solutions of how will we can eat in a more responsible way, when the justice gap between the rich and the poor is becoming wider and wider, I think we need the ethos of Slow Food much more than before.
The number of hungry people on the planet vis-a-vis the number of other groups of malnourished people like the obese are growing rapidly. So we need to think about good food - food that does not harm our health, that respects traditions and the human dignity.
We need a food system that is clean because the climate crisis is becoming more and more evident. In Uganda today we are struggling with a long drought. Many farmers could not get anything out of their extensive monocultural cornfields even with new varieties. It's evident in the communities where we work, the farmers who are practicing agroecology are less affected by the climate disasters.
We also need fairness. There are some people who think since the number of hungry people in Africa is growing day by day, we just need to give them anything. But we need Africans to be able to decide what they want to eat, how they want to produce this food, and how they want to use the African resources to sustain themselves. Everybody is looking at the Global South now as the future production engine of food, leading to land grabbing and resource grabbing like water.
So the ethos and the values of Slow Food are actually more valid today. That is why it's important to renew our efforts, renew our commitment, renew our message and also renew our actions with all the communities, even in the places where we have not reached before. There is no more time. We need to renew our commitment to changing the food system and also rejuvenate and re-energise ourselves.
THIN: There's this perception that slow food is against technology and modern food production. Is that an accurate perception?
EDIE: It depends on how the proponents of this assumption define technology. We know that the tradition of today is the innovation of yesterday, or innovation of of the past. Slow Food is actually a very innovative organisation. It works with innovative people who are promoting local technologies which do not harm the environment, which do not take away the dignity of people, and which do not destroy the biodiversity, the soils, the fragile ecosystems. We are pro good technology.
I want to state categorically that not all technologies are bad. Communities have a lot of appropriate technologies which they use, even in the Slow Food gardens. Children in schools innovate new ways of irrigating their crops without using fossil fuels, without wasting water. This is technology. Communities find ways of preserving traditional seeds and the seeds can go on and on for many seasons. This is technology.
We cannot stay in line with technologies which are destructive to humankind, destructive to the planet, destructive to the health and the well being of animals. We need technology which is pro-people, controlled by the people, and do not centre all the power in the food system to a few large investments or corporations.
Communities have developed hybrids from natural systems for so long. This is real technology. Not the technology like engineering the genetics of traditional crops and companies patenting these genes and the resulting products. We don't need technological advancements in soil science which actually destroys soil biology, which causes salinity.
THIN: What about this argument that things like organic agriculture and the concept of Slow Food can be elitist, that it is only for people who can afford it?
EDIE: It's actually the opposite. Slow Food is super inclusive. Organic agriculture is inclusive. We are looking at the smallest family in Southeast Asia, producing food in a good, clean and fair way. Food that is healthy for the producer, healthy for the producers’ family, and is also healthy and affordable to those who cannot grow their own food.
However, when it comes to the industrial, intensive agricultural systems, it's very clear they can only be afforded by large investments, some of whom are funded by corporations and some surviving on government subsidies, from the taxpayers’ money.
On the contrary, agroecology uses local resources. Slow Food philosophy also involves bringing everyone together to participate and be an active part of the food system, which makes the chain shorter, builds local economies and also brings people more knowledge on what they eat and how they choose what they eat.
THIN: Tell us what we can expect at this year’s Terra Madre. Can people who cannot make it to Turin still experience some of it?
EDIE: This year's Terra Madre is very unique. It's a hybrid event. We have the physical part of the event in Turin and the online part is going to employ highly interactive methods such that those who are remaining back home can enjoy a Terra Madre in front of their screens. They can follow everything in real time, participate in discussions and interact with the delegates in Turin.
Another unique thing about this event is the theme of regeneration. This event comes at a time when we are all puzzled with what's coming next on this planet with all the crises we are facing. There will be a display of thousands of initiatives Slow Food communities are doing to regenerate this planet.
I'm happy to preside over my first Terra Madre as the president of Slow Food and I'm happy it's addressing the theme of regeneration which is very close to my heart, but which also is very close to our political vision - to regenerate the movement, regenerate the planet, regenerate our activities and also to rebuild what has been destroyed by the system that has made the planet a place so hard to live for so many people.
THIN: Which leads us to the last question I have. You talked about the crises we’re facing. Suddenly so many news outlets are finally writing about hunger and food security. But what do you think is missing from the mainstream discussions on this topic?
EDIE: I'm following them and I'm also part of many of these discussions, but my stance remains the same. One thing which is missing, which I always talk about and also Slow Food has been working on this for many years, is to give back the power of feeding this planet, this world, to the communities.
Corporations cannot feed us. They have created more problems to be point blank. Monoculture in Africa has led to more agony. Thousands of families have been evicted to grow sugarcane, soy, other food crops destined for animal feeds, biofuel or for export, but they're not feeding the local communities.
Many governments and corporations are on the same page - investing more in industrial agriculture, direct foreign investment, taking more and more land and giving it to large scale producers. The number of people migrating from rural to urban areas is increasing because people are losing access to land, productive resources and heir sovereignty to feed themselves.
The whole debate (on food security) needs to go back to the notion, or the narrative, that we need to let communities feed themselves. We need to support the communities with all the resources, all the the support, to build their own food systems.
When we talk about food sovereignty, we don't mean the community can be self contained and produce everything they need. But they need to have the right to choose how they produce their food, which resources they want to use, and which seeds they want. Instead of signing under-the-counter deals with the industrial fishing companies from elsewhere, governments need to give the rights back to the communities. The ecosystems will be managed better if communities take charge and also the food situation will greatly improve.
So the whole discussion of feeding the world, food security, climate is missing the role of the grassroots communities. That is why Slow Food has been building a strong grassroots network of communities to show the alternative way of managing food system.
THIN: Anything else you'd like to add?
EDIE: We are all part of this mess. So we should also be part of the solution. We need to stop destroying the planet and take actions that regenerate the planet.
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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