What Clean Energy Can Learn From Slow Food

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Originally published on Energy Post.
By Sonja van Renssen

The food and energy sectors are alike in many ways: security, waste, local production, labeling, environmental impact and access are key issues for both. In each case, there is a movement underway taking a holistic value chain approach to create a more secure, sustainable, affordable system. Sonja van Renssen takes away four lessons from the recently held Slow Food Fair in Turin, Italy for the energy sector.

Slow Food has come a long way since its creation in 1986 by Carlo Petrini after a demonstration on the intended site of a McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps in Rome. From its humble Italian origins, it has expanded into a global movement that involves thousands of food producers and millions of people in 160 countries. The biennial Slow Food fair in Turin has become so big that a first-time delegate this year said it felt “almost commercial”.

Visiting the fair (23-27 October), I was struck by the many similarities between the slow food movement and the clean energy movement. Here are four lessons I took away from Turin.

1. Tell a story: try narrative labels

The concept is simple: a product’s label should tell a story. This idea was first presented at the last Slow Food fair in Turin in 2012 and has gathered steam since, attracting a noticeably larger audience this time round.

“It’s very difficult based on current standards to understand what as a user you are buying. A narrative label tells about the product, those who made it and the whole supply chain. We need to tell that story to rebuild the relationship and trust between farmers and users.” – Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

The key difference with current labels is that the whole value chain and social, environmental and production costs of the product are taken into account. If the consumer doesn’t pay these costs, someone else will, says Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. Slow Food has partnered with Indaco2, a spin-off company from the University of Siena, to measure the carbon footprint – taken as a proxy for environmental impact – of a series of Slow Food products to put on this label. Compared to conventional products, the Slow Food versions show savings of up to 60% greenhouse gas emissions.

Narrative labels are compatible with EU labelling laws. These already define what may be called a “juice” or “spread” and will in future require more information on the place of origin and allergens, and on the nutritional content of food products, said expert Paola Rebufatti from Turin’s Chamber of Commerce. “A label is a further guarantee for consumers,” farmer Bruno Sodano believes.

This thinking can easily be transferred to the energy sector, where a debate over how to extend the A to G scale label for energy-related products is currently underway in Brussels, but more generally where there is a growing belief that consumers need to understand where energy comes from and how it is brought to them to support the changes – and investment – required in the energy system. People need information about where and how energy is generated (place of origin), its environmental and societal impact (allergens) and how best to use it (nutritional information).

But if narrative labels are a beguiling idea in this regard, there are two problems that come to mind: 1) enforcement and 2) getting consumers to read them. Only just over half of the energy efficiency labels on over 67,000 electrical devices checked in shops and online were found to be fully compliant with European rules, a recent EU project found. Non-European companies market aggressively, with few checks, Michele Galatola from the European Commission’s environment department said. He also suggested that market research shows consumers prefer simple labels, like the A to G scale. New technologies like QR codes to offer different levels of detail – “a multilayer system” – could be one away to marry the narrative label with simplicity, he suggested. In energy, as in the retail sector, service providers may in future also pre-select sustainable suppliers as Walmart does.

2. Involve people: instill ownership

“We have been imprisoned by a fast food culture. It’s this market which is really changing our lives. Everything is fast, cheap and easy.” – Alice Waters, Vice-President of Slow Food International

No time for the old and young, no seasons, no need to eat around a table – these are some of the hallmarks of today’s food culture for Vice President of Slow Food International Alice Waters. The same could be said of energy, which we take for granted around the clock almost as a natural service provided without human intervention. Just as Slow Food seeks to reconnect people to food production – and with it, nature – the renewables and efficiency lobbies are tapping into a latent desire to be self-sufficient, responsible and in charge.

“People hate change – until the pain of change is worse than change itself,” says Jamie Oliver. In his work with schools, the dinner ladies he met were overwhelmingly underpaid, under-supported women who technically were doing an amazing job but “the food was just not right”. To change this, he had to spend time with them, work with them and create a new narrative – that lunch at school was the most important meal of the day (especially for kids from poor backgrounds).  Alice Waters found that the best way to win over teachers was to “invite them to the restaurant for a free meal”.

A more decentralised energy system gives people the chance to showcase their local identity and be proud of where they come from. In energy, as in the food debate, it’s important to be clear on what the ultimate goals are: if social cohesion and local development are one, this is not the same as simply aiming to supply the cheapest possible energy. One of the goals of Slow Food for example, is to save rare, endangered products. Often these have no economic return, but that’s not the point, at least not in the beginning.

Slow Food hosted all 28 EU agriculture and fisheries ministers at a recent informal ministerial at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, on 30 September. Here, explains Carlo Petrini, founder and leader of the slow food movement, he confronted each minister with an endangered product from his or her country, complete with local producer, rather than the array of Italian produce ministers were expecting. And guess what? They loved it (even if some of them were at a loss as to what their product was). The Spanish minister started serving his national anchovies. This, concludes Petrini, is what a “united, diverse Europe” could look like. Why not for energy?

One way to instill ownership in the energy sector is through cooperatives – there are already some 2500 renewable energy cooperatives across 16 European countries, led by Germany, then Austria and Denmark. But not a single one in Eastern Europe for example.

3. Partner up: look for allies

“We can no longer work alone – we have to join forces, even take a step backward sometimes to be in step with others.” – Carlo Petrini, Founder of Slow Food

The biggest change in Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini’s rhetoric this year, compared to previous years, was a new emphasis on the need to partner up – even if this means holding back at times – and to listen to others. “Sometimes maybe we should not be the main protagonist,” he told the conference. This was unprecedented from a man used to being at the heart of the action and hype around it. He mentioned Greenpeace, ActionAid, WWF and Via Campesina as potential partners for Slow Food. “We must find a way to join forces, create synergies.”

Slow Food is growing up and the same is true for the new, green, clean parts of the energy sector. As policymakers react by tightening up subsidies and priority grid access for example, campaigners will have to look for alliances across the environmental, social and economic dimension to make their case.

To show how far Petrini has come, note that the big new partnership that Slow Food just announced on 25 October is with none other than quite the representative of mass culture and consumption: Google. The two have paired up to create an online database of Slow Food’s endangered products. These are collected in its “Ark of Taste”, a project launched in 1996 to save products at risk of extinction from globalisation. Today the Ark counts 1,600 products, with a goal to bulk this up to some 10,000.

In Turin, Petrini tells the story of how the collaboration with Google came about. Many of the Ark’s products come from Africa. But Google hasn’t mapped most of Africa. “Ok, [Google CEO Eric] Schmidt said, it will be done in six months from now,” Petrini recounts. Despite his pleasure at harnessing the power of ICT for Slow Food in a way that smart grids and meters are intended to do for energy – Petrini emphasised that the virtual would never replace flesh and blood (for energy: cables). He also warned about privacy. Slow Food and Google have agreed that the data put up about Ark products will remain the property of farmers and producers.

4. Use the law: force policymakers to act

“The way I did it was to fight, hard,” superstar chef Jamie Oliver tells a packed audience in Turin. “This is not an argument, this is a fight.” In food, as in energy, the status quo is “very rich, very strategic and very well dug in”. The food and drink industry spends some US$4.6 billion a year on advertising junk food to children in the US alone, Oliver says – multiply this up and you’re looking at a US$25 billion enemy. “We’re kind of throwing stones.”

Yet Oliver managed to get the law changed in England to stipulate what children should be fed at school. Before that, there were no such requirements – and the UK spent more money on food for prisoners than for children. The standards today specify that meals must be nutritious and balanced, what proportion of meat they should contain, and where that may be sourced from for example. On top of this, two months ago, the UK enacted a law for every child to learn about food at school. On the ground, Oliver’s working with mayors to restrict the licensing of junk food outlets close to school gates. And why not mandate retailers to match discounts on junk food with those on fresh food, he suggests?

“More people died of obesity than hunger for the first time ever last year.” – Jamie Oliver, English chef and leader of a global campaign for better food education

Jamie Oliver says he’s come as far as he has because the bombshell food at schools documentary he made ten years ago came out in the run-up to an election. “It became a voting issue,” he says. “Governments only change if they feel they will lose the vote.” He adds: businesses are concerned about short-term profits and families about convenience. Sound familiar? These are the obstacles those trying to change the energy sector also face. Social media may take the place of a documentary today, but the fundamentals about timing and influence remain unchanged.

It’s not just in the UK that laws are being put to use to change the food system – soda taxes are a hot topic in the US and in Italy, local agricultural counselors from all Italian municipalities have agreed no more snacks or soft drinks should be sold to Italian schools from next year, Petrini told delegates in Turin. He and Oliver are now taking their fight from schools to hospitals and old people’s homes – Oliver said he tackled children first in part because “the dagger to the government was child’s health”.

Further into the future, there is work to be done on “how we buy food and get it into cities and buying as one”. Will there be a food dimension to Smart Cities?

“You’re unlucky enough to be hospitalized and then you also need to eat their stuff – how unlucky can you get?” – Carlo Petrini, Founder of Slow Food

Only a few weeks ago, Marie Donnelly, Director for Renewables, Research and Innovation and Energy Efficiency at the European Commission, suggested the Commission saw great potential in cross-border public procurement and a more regional approach to developing and financing renewable energies.

Scotland, which recently became the first region in the world to set up a target for locally produced energy, is also seeking to make good food a policy objective. “We want to make food a strategic objective rather than something that just happens,” explained Robin Gourlay from the Scottish Government’s Food and Drink Division. Since Scotland introduced its first food and drink policy in 2008, the sector and its exports have grown by double digit figures. Plus there are 150 new local food initiatives. Scotland hopes to replicate this success on the energy front, where it has set a target for 500 megawatts of community- and locally-owned energy by 2020 backed by a £20 million fund.

A more local economy is a more resilient economy. But for food – as for energy – the more local it is, the greater the challenge to steady supplies too. One of the biggest limitations to Slow Food today is supply – there is just not that much of it available. For energy, a regional approach can help overcome some of the limitations of variable renewables for example. Both sectors require infrastructure investments e.g. in storage and smart supply chain. Slow Food’s first and foremost objective is putting consumers back at the heart of food and its production, however – and here is a lesson in itself for energy.

Reprinted with permission.

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