Terra Madre, Waterford, September 2008

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Terra Madre – Mother Earth – comes to Ireland this Thursday, when four days of eventing, celebrating, eating and debating on the subject of food takes place in and around Waterford city.
The term “Mother Earth” seems a quite hippyish and holistic way to talk about food today, in an age dominated by FAO, WTO, GM and CAP, a global food world where men in suits meet interminably in large conference rooms, and where what is on the menu for lunch never seems to be a priority.
Hippyish and anachronistic it may be, but Mother Earth seems to me the perfect name for a festival held just at that time when we should be doing the most important food celebrating of the year: The Harvest Festival.
Traditionally, the harvest festival praised the rain and the sun that made the crops grow, the photosynthesis that miraculously gave us food to put on the table through the winter.
It celebrated Mother Earth as a figure who is benign, comforting, a provider, the one who feeds us, the nurturer. Before Gaia, Mother Earth gave us the harvest to bring in, and to store and to enjoy, and gave us a figure to venerate. We thanked that figure in celebration.
Cycling through a muddy and rain-soaked Burgundy in northern France many years ago, my wife and I happened upon the harvest celebrations in Gevrey-Chambertin, a small village famed for its mercurial red wines, and their equally mercurial prices.
But what struck us about the fete was that it was nothing more than a local celebration, the villagers giving thanks that the harvest of grapes had been brought in for another year.
Yes, in a few days time the wine merchants from all over the world would arrive, and the nitty-gritty of prices and profits would begin. But what we saw was something much simpler, and more profound: a gasp of thanks that the rains had held off long enough for the grapes to ripen and be harvested. The celebration was also a collective sigh of relief: the wine was in the barrel, and therefore the money was in the bank for another year.
Robbie Robertson expressed the bitter-sweet tension perfectly in The Band’s great song, “King Harvest”:

“Dry summer, then comes fall,
Which I depend on most of all
Hey, rainmaker can’t you hear my call?
Please let these crops grow tall.

Corn in the fields
Listen to the rice when the wind blows ‘cross the water
King harvest has surely come”

But today, we hear less and less about King Harvest than we did in the past. Who needs rain and sunshine when a fix of GM seed and a blast of 10-10-20 will grow your crop? 20th century science has led us to believe that we are in control, to think that we have the necessary solutions, of which genetic modification is simply the latest in a long line of promises that feeding the world is a matter of business, rather than a question of diversity, agricultural culture, and sustainability.
Terre Madre intends to address the question of “The future of sustainable food production in Ireland”, and the centrepiece of this will be a bumper’s farmer’s market on Sunday 7th.
This is not just a fine metaphor for Terre Madre, it is the quintessential example of food sustainability, and human and agricultural health, at work. Markets are a meshwork of people and producers, but one where everyone is equal, and where a sense of the community and communality – and indeed the fragility – of food is paramount.
The food arrives at market after its harvesting, ripe and ready to be enjoyed, and then the farmer puts the fields to bed for the winter, letting them rest and recharge.
Compare this process, with its rhythms and reasons and rhetoric, with the junkie-agriculture that 20th century science argues can feed the world, a greedy science that the Prince of Wales has recently argued would be “guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”
“If they think it’s going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another, then again count me out”, said the prince.
Tellingly, he concluded with a message that we might Call Terra Madre – Mother Earth, a message that encapsulates what the meetings and eatings in Waterford will be all about:
“It is actually recognizing that we are with nature, not against it. We have gone working against nature for too long”.
See you in Waterford.