Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Slowing down food, Slowing down money


Yesterday, EcoAction hosted a lecture by Woody Tasch, the Founder of the Slow Money Alliance. He has a long background in venture capital and philanthropy, having served as the Chairman of Investor's Circle for ten years before coming to Slow Money.

First and foremost, what is Slow Money? Many of you have probably heard of the slow food movement, which began in Italy (growing out of a protest against the construction of a McDonald's)--a movement aimed against the widespread fast food culture in which we exist. A movement designed to slow down that process so that we pay more attention to what we eat and, most importantly of all, from whom and from where it came. Slow Money works out of that same ethos, applying it to the financial system. The Slow Money Alliance (with the apt acronym SMALL--hearkening back to E. F. Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered") is positioning itself to revolutionize the financing of sustainable agriculture. As it stands, of the $500 billion given out by private foundations each year, only 1/100 of 1% goes to sustainable food enterprises (only $50 million--I'll do the math for you). The Slow Money Alliance is aiming at getting 1 million investors to donate 1% of their assets to what sounds like an Americanized version of microfinance. This would create a whole new stream of money devoted solely to changing the food system.

Woody Tasch's lecture was very interactive--he enjoyed quizzing the audience about the statistics he was about to throw at us, many of which were alarming. Take a moment to consider these:

  • Out of every $1 spent on food, only 9 cents goes back to the farmer.
  • 70% of all grains end up in cars and livestock.
  • 70% of antiobiotics go to animals (mainly via factory farming), not humans.
  • China built more roads in 2008 than it did in the past 50 years
The list could go on and on, but just these alone help show that we need to put our money where our mouth is and fix the actual systemic problems in the way the investment world works. To put this issue bluntly, Woody cited Nobel Laureate Joseph Stigilitz: "We aren't fixing the structual parts of the economy because we don't know what they are."

He brought up many good points throughout the talk (I would recommend checking out his recent book, "Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered"--which is now in the bookstore-- or checking out the Slow Money principles). However, I want to quickly address one of them.

The 2nd statistic: Where does our food really end up? This is an important issue with which to grapple when one is going to defend organic farming. Critics will cite that the industrial system with pesticides and GMOs produces much more and that we could not possibly feed our population with organic farming. However, so much of the production, as is, is not going to feed our population. The corn that is heavily subsidized by the government is being fed to cows that can't digest it or transformed into the chemicals that you can't pronounce on the ingedient lists of processed foods. Imagine if all of that corn (grown organically) went from the farm to our plates.

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