Slow Food: What Matters More than Efficiency?

The US is in love with speed and productivity. Amazon Prime can get a package to your door in less than a day. Increasing speed of data transfer is the holy grail of technology developers. We even want our food to hurry up, so our country spawned fast food restaurants spreading like tumors around the globe.

Farming has long been on this treadmill too. Fatten livestock more quickly through massive inputs of grain and antibiotics, grow more crops in less time with genetic engineering and synthetic fertilizers, speed up plant growth with heated greenhouses and CO2 technology. Get bigger or get out!

But what are we all rushing toward? The point of efficiency was supposed to be about feeding a growing population and producing more with less: more food from less land, with less labor, at less cost to the consumer. Yet there are millions of pounds of food wasted every day, thousands of people without enough to eat here in the US, hundreds of thousands more with dietary-induced diseases, and rural communities gutted by the loss of small family farms who couldn’t compete with their more efficient neighbors. And we haven’t even touched on the ecological devastation wrought by industrial-scale farms. So at best, we can only call this industrial-scale efficiency experiment a partial success.

Slow food is one antidote. Slow food (according to the organization of the same name) is “food that is produced or prepared in accordance with local culinary traditions, typically using high-quality locally sourced ingredients.” It is food grown by people who value many things in addition to efficiency: flavor, history, community, biodiversity. Slow food also refers to the way this food is consumed: together with other people at a table, over lively conversation. In other words: not in a car, nor at a table surrounded by people staring at screens.

Slow food is generally produced by small family farms. But slow and small aren’t efficient, and efficiency is king. Economics don’t favor slower food, even if it has better flavor or is a better fit with our climate and management system. For years on our farm, we raised batches of Freedom Ranger broiler chickens, rather than the Cornish Rock X that are the industry standard. The Freedom Rangers are much better foragers, getting more of their feed from plants and insects, and we think they’re tastier. But they take 4-6 weeks longer than Cornish Rock X birds to achieve the same weight. In those extra weeks, they eat a lot more feed and require daily care; all extra costs. Ultimately we stopped raising them because we couldn’t charge enough to make up for these costs.

The focus on efficiency and transportability has also led to a dramatic whittling down of the varieties available of all kinds of foods. At the grocery store we may find 5-6 types of apples on a good day, but in the 1800’s there were around 14,000 varieties of apples documented across the US. It’s the same for every vegetable, fruit, and livestock you can think of: when viewed through the lens of efficiency, our industrial agriculture complex has discarded poultry breeds that don’t lay enough, cattle breeds that don’t produce as much milk, and carrots that don’t grow as straight and uniform and orange.

We have forgotten that we are complex beings inhabiting a complex world. A single-minded focus on any one thing causes other things to suffer. In the case of farming, speed and efficiency may have allowed us to produce food on a scale ever seen in the history of humankind, but at the expense of small farmers’ livelihoods, ecosystem health, and the very fabric of communities.

What if we could all just slow down a bit? What would it look like if we grew more of our own food, swapped seeds with neighbors, supported local small farms, or just sat down more often to laugh and break bread with friends over a home-cooked meal?

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