The Arc of Taste: the battle for food biodiversity

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Modern food production and consumption present an ever-growing variety of concerns – from environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources, and loss of biodiversity to violation of human rights and social justice, from unequal distribution of foodstuffs, persistent poverty, hunger and malnutrition to an alarming upsurge in diet-induced chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Amidst such arresting challenges, it is easy to lose sight of the less evident but equally disturbing trends such as the eradication of local food cultures, irreversible loss of unique products and flavours, remorseful abandonment of authentic cuisines and long-held culinary customs. Traditional cooking methods and practices fall prey to the standardisation and homogenisation of food production, while our ways of thinking about and relating to cooking and eating are increasingly overpowered by the fast food culture and on-the-go eating trends stemming from the West.  Yet, the unwanted effects of this pervasive global transformations do not get unnoticed, and a number of non-for-profit organisations and consumer movements have emerged in response to the threats posed to traditional dietary cultures by the industrial food system, which values quantity over quality, uniformity over distinctiveness, and predictability over novelty of experience.

One such initiative is the Arc of Taste – a project developed by and run under the umbrella of the Slow Food Movement. Purporting to discover, acknowledge, preserve and promote our global food heritage and biodiversity, it focuses on the unique products considered to be facing a real risk of extinction. The project travels all around the world in search of exceptional foods whose geographical origin, manufacturing methods and small-scale production make them vulnerable to complete displacement from the world food map, increasingly dominated by mass-produced, highly standardised and globally distributed foodstuffs. To prevent the irreversible loss of traditional products that are important elements of cultural heritage, generational knowledge and people’s identities, the Arc of Taste International, along with its National Arc commissions dispersed across 23 countries, works towards raising public awareness about endangered foods, supporting small-scale producers, and educating consumers to become co-partners in preserving and enhancing our planet’s edible biodiversity.  In these ways, the movement aims to create local networks of production and consumption of foods to enable small-scale producers to conserve traditional products and manufacturing methods and protect them from the domination by the global food industry.

At a glance, this seems to be an amazing initiative which conveys important educational messages as well as a promise to offer a refuge to exclusive high quality products whose potential extinction presents serious threats to the cultural legacy as well as livelihoods and self-sufficiency of local communities. As much as I’d like to cheerfully celebrate the undertaking, alternative food movements like Slow Food are being increasingly scrutinised by sociologists, economists, social economists, anthropologists and so on. Arguments abound about the inherently contradictory nature of social movements that claim to subvert the processes of globalisation and commodification (or at least create alternative spaces of operation for those disenchanted with the modern economic and social systems) and yet are themselves bound by the same market logic and subdued by the very same economic and social forces that they purport to fight. Next week, I am going to look at some academic literature analysing and critically evaluating the nature of the Slow Food movement in general and the Arc of Taste project in particular and their real potential for change.

P.S. In the meantime, those interested to learn more about the Arc of Taste can visit the official website where you can find an eye-catching presentation offering a good brief overview of the project, view the list of endangered products by country or even nominate your own.

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