Perhaps this isn’t the best image to use for what I am about to write about here. The snail, enemy of the humble gardener since the dawn of time. But they represent something more than just their penchant for allotment veg. Here, they represent an approach to food, or life even. They represent an appropriate pace to which we should engage with our food, right from the farm, to the fork, and beyond.
The concept of slow is a response to global capitalism’s logic of fast, that everything must be done with increasing speed. In keeping with this, The Slow Food movement, originating in Italy, was born out of an opposition to the degradation of culture and environment brought about by the rise of fast food and industrial agriculture. It seeks to redefine gastronomy by celebrating the loving preparation and consumption of food in harmony with those around us and the environment.
This is a concept in keeping with Permaculture, an approach to growing food that I have referred to many times in my writing and which I continue to be passionate about. Slowness is an integral element of Permaculture due to its observational components. In order to observe and understand the natural processes around us, and be able to reflect on and be inspired by these, we need to slow down. Permaculture also values slower processes and varieties of produce that require more time to mature, such as valuing slower growing, longer-living perennials. Its nature to hold inter-generational sustainability and productivity in high esteem means that rather than favouring low-hanging fruit and quick yields, Permaculture instead is interested in creating self-maintaining systems of producing food which often tend to be slower than conventional approaches.
For Holmgren, modern society tends to focus on immediate returns rather than long term gains. He calls this the culture of adolescence, one which values fast, flashy, and novel over durability, permanence and the evolved. There is an adolescent belief that we are immortal and we can continue this fast forever, ignorant of the inevitable energy peak and descent.
The ‘fast’ food system is driven to cultivate plants and reer livestock faster ad faster in the name of competitive advantage. This has a plethora of adverse effects on produce, the environment, and ourselves. These include unbalanced mineral content and therefore poorer taste, longevity and nutrition, diluted taste and the possibility of containing unmetabolised nitrates which have been shown to be carcinogenic. In livestock, the hormones used to increase growth rates often remain in their meat. The water and fat content is often higher, affecting the taste of the meat, and the animals are more likely to suffer degenerative diseases.
As Holmgren states, our mantra of ‘fast’ drowns out the subtle and the quiet. By slowing down, we can take the time to enjoy our food- to engage with it and to engage with those we are sharing it with. We can learn to appreciate the full flavours of each harvest and produce the best quality. We can have the peace of mind that the food we are eating is healthy, safe and truly nutritious, and that our own eating enjoyment has not come at the cost of unnecessary suffering of animals. We can rediscover the pleasure of eating good food in good company.
It is not all about selfish hedonism though. As Holmgren points out in his 2002 book ‘Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability’, a reduction of speed in a movement or process means that there is more energy available for the system’s self-reliance and autonomy. There is only ever a limited amount of energy in a system, and the more and more we harness this to produce bigger faster crops, the less there is to support the system itself and its ability to be productive in the future. By slowing down, we can ensure that the environment is able to regain that energy and channel it back into its own support systems.
It is difficult to slow down when everything around you seems to be happening so fast, when the people around you start tapping their feet and looking at their watches. Society’s mantra of ‘fast’ is so well engrained that we often don’t even realise we’re doing it. I notice when I am walking behind someone who is maybe ambling a little, or pausing occassionally to look at something. I can feel the need to go faster bubbling up inside of me and daring me to give them an angry glance as I pass them, or sigh in annoyance. And where am I trying to get? Why am I hurrying?
Ofcourse I am not suggesting that we need to slow down in every sense of the word. The emphasis here on slow is merely due to the fact that the rationale of ‘faster’ is so well embedded in modern life and modern food systems. I am not implying that every action in the process of growing, harvesting, preparing and consuming food needs to be performed in slow motion. After all, Permaculture is not some return to times when food production was all about labour and time-intensive processes. It is about producing the best quality of food possible with minimum input through intelligent design.
So with this in mind, we need to create an optimum pace at which to perform tasks, rather than automatically striving to do it faster.