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07 August 2007

Farmers' Markets

"Americans don't eat food. They eat food products".
The brilliant American writer Michael Pollan made that statement,
during the course of a lecture at the Slow Food Terra Madre congress,
in Turin last October.
Even as I scribbled it in my notebook, it gave me a shiver. Here we
all were, tens of thousands of us, at the bi-annual Slow Food bash
which is a celebration of global food bio-diversity, and Mr Pollan
was telling us that, because the United States' food economy is
utterly dependent on corn - and on only 6 cultivars of corn -
something simple happens when you allow a single food to dominate a
food culture: "Corn is making us sick".
I was already familiar with this argument from Pollan's classic book,
"The Omnivore's Dilemma", in my opinion the most important book
written on the politics and business of food in the last decade, but
hearing it expressed so brutally - "Corn is making us sick" - still
came as a shock.
So, I did what every food lover does when confronted with something
shocking: I went to the food market at the Congress, and bought some
northern Indian basmati rice, some Italian bottarga, and some eye-
wipingly strong hootch from a nice man from Peru. Then I had some
fine Irish raw-milk farmhouse cheese, and a glass of English ale. I
felt a whole lot better.
Food and health are not just bedfellows. They are one and the same
thing. Michael Pollan's stark assertion of what happens to the health
element when you get the food element wrong is not just shocking, it
is also blindingly obvious.
I got my own taste of the food-health synthesis way back in the early
1990's, shopping at the Dublin Food Co-Op on Pearse Street. Chatting
to shoppers and stallholders, you quickly realized that some of the
shoppers were there looking for real foods to cure themselves, or a
relative, following illness.
They wanted those freshly dug organic carrots. They wanted
wholefoods. They wanted sourdough breads, and artisan cheeses made
with raw milk. By getting up early on a Saturday morning to get the
best produce, they were saying, simply "We want real food". They
wanted the curative power of good food.
Back in those days, the Food Co-op was one of the very few
alternatives to the blandness of food retailing that has become so
evident in the last ten years. But today it has been joined, with a
rush, by dozens of farmers' markets throughout the country.
Now, anyone interested in food, or economics, should warmly welcome
markets. They are a dynamic force in any economy, because they are a
meshwork of producers and people working together, quickly able to
fulfill the needs of their customers.
At their best, FMs are a one-stop solution shop to many of our food
ills. They have local foods that have travelled very few miles. They
sustain bio-diversity. They retain food spending power within an
area. They are environmentally sustainable. They are mighty fun. This
combination of reasons explains why 10,000 people will turn up at the
People's Park in Dun Laoghaire on a fine Sunday for their local CoCo
Yet, for some reason, FMs draw the ire of very many people, who
denounce both the FMs, and more especially the customers who use
them, as mere baubles for the bourgeoisie. As someone who has written
about FMs from the beginning - I wrote the first articles on major
markets such as Temple Bar and Midleton on the Weekend pages of this
very newspaper - and who uses markets on a weekly basis, I think the
critics are missing the plot.
People don't use markets because they are an opportunity to show off
their spending power. They use them, I would suggest, for health just
as much as pleasure, and they don't differentiate between these two
Farmer's markets are not playgrounds for dilettantes. They are part
of a food counter-culture.
This counter culture has its author heroes, such as Michael Pollan,
Joanna Blythman, Felicity Lawrence or Peter Singer, the philosopher
who has defined the debate on animal rights.
When the writer Jonathan Harvey tells us, in his book "We Want Real
Food", that Western European countries are "fifty years into a mass
experiment in human nutrition. We're all eating basic foods that have
been stripped of the antioxidants, trace elements and minerals and
essential fatty acids that once promoted good health", then we
believe Mr Harvey. And we respond in a simple way: we go to the
market, to get organic foods, local foods, artisan foods, the foods
that we believe will maintain, if not improve, our health.
We don't believe the nutritionists who tell us everything is fine. We
don't trust mass-produced foods, the battery chicken-Corn Flakes-Coca-
Cola culture that assails us, and our children, every day of the
week. BSE and bird flu don't surprise us one bit when they happen,
because we know the commercialized food culture is always working on
the edge of disaster.
And we have our food heroes, the individuals whose produce we snap up
at whatever markets we attend. Dan Ahern for chickens. Jens Krumpe
for dry-aged beef. Fingal Ferguson for pork. Stephane Griesbach for
fish. Sheridan's for cheeses. Jane Russell for sausages. Willie
Scannell for spuds. David Llewellyn for apple juice. Gary Crocker for
eggs. The list could go on and on, and goes on for page after page of
the new Bridgestone Irish Food Guide, which has grown to 536 pages,
largely thank to the growth in markets and producers.
Whilst personal health is a paramount element, it is only one reason
why those 10,000 people are at the People's Park on a Sunday.
Environmental health and agricultural sustainability are other
reasons why we use markets: we want a fit, clean planet for our
children. Far from being dilettantes, shoppers at FMs are highly
They can see the big picture wherein a healthy planet with a healthy
agriculture sustains healthy people. When we read the findings of the
geologist and nutritionist David Thomas, quoted in Jonathan Harvey's
book, that "you'd have needed to eat ten tomatoes in 1991 to get the
amount of copper a single tomato would have supplied in 1940", then
we know that allowing intensive, chemicalised, monoculture
agriculture to dictate what we eat will not sustain us.