Let's think about the word conservative for a second. True conservatives are interested in "conserving" things right? The caricature of conservatives is that they try to preserve abstract things like traditional culture, the sanctity of the family, morality, and community but are really only interested in moralizing. But where are the conservatives who want to conserve the environment? Where are the church groups unwilling to participate in a system where factory farming of livestock is a reality? Where are the conservatives who want to preserve traditional agriculture, the kind of small scale, local and family based agriculture that Thomas Jefferson dreamed would be the future of the nation? Talk about an Originalist!
As a political conservative who favors limited-government, the authentic over the mass produced, the local over the federal, and small business over corporate, the sustainable food movement seems a perfect fit for me. And yet when I look out over the various constellations that make up the movement, I don't see very many conservatives.
It may be that many of us, accustomed to decades of caricature and derision, simply choose to keep our heads down and soldier on. But as the movement progresses it will be important for advocates of all political stripes to be transparent about their agendas. Transparency is never a bad thing. I also believe that advocates of a local, sustainable food system should be more welcoming and accepting of conservatives that hold the same goals, even if they have different reasons for doing so. It's not that current stakeholders in local foods activism have excluded conservatives, I do not think they have. But what they also have not done is made it a priority to reach out to community members from across the aisle.
I recently read Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture, by the journalist Rod Dreher. Dreher found that the U.S. food system was a target rich environment for him to criticize using his conservative credentials. His criticisms, while well known to local foods advocates, are enlightening for conservatives.
Conservatives value small businesses over corporations because they keep people empowered. The local and sustainable food movement elevates small farmers, artisans and restaurateurs, almost to a heroic level. Just look at how Alice Waters and Joel Salatin are regarded.
The traditional conservative will want to take a stand for the mom-and-pop cheese maker over the pasteurized processed food disgorged by the factory and sold cheaply.
Dreher also recognizes and exposes how big business has purposely manipulated the free market to make it less free and competitive, by shutting out the small producers:
I started looking into how the government regulates the meat industry. It was shocking to see how agribusiness has gamed the system to keep small meat producers marginalized. Our regulatory system is designed to favor industrialized meat production, with its factory farms, its cattle jacked up with antibiotics and growth hormones, and its chickens in cages filled with their own feces. As a conservative, I am angry about this, not only on behalf of the small businesspeople slapped around by the deep-pocketed agribusiness behemoths, but because of how industrialized agriculture has made a traditional agrarian way of life difficult, if not impossible....
To participate in a system and a way of thinking in which the act of eating is merely a commercial transaction is to sell out our spiritual and cultural patrimony. I understand the free-market reasons why Americans do this. But I don't understand why it is called conservative.
Dreher nails this important point home by talking with economist Edward Hudgins. "Hudgins told me that it's often the case that big companies willingly absorb the cost of extra regulation because those rules 'have the effect of killing off the competition.'"
Is Slow Food Conservative?
Rod is fortunate to discover Slow Food and immediately finds parallels between Slow Food and conservative impulses.
As the Slow Food movement grew beyond the bounds of Italy, its proponents realized that they could never succeed by trying to stop McDonald's and its ilk. Rather, they had to show people why the Slow attitude toward life--esteeming tradition, celebrating the particularity in the face of mass culture, and taking time to enjoy life--is more sensible, more fun, more human.
Dreher further establishes Slow Food's conservative credentials by recalling Russell Kirk's Six Canons of Conservative Thought, the second of which is "affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life." Dreher notices how well Kirk's principle fits in with one of Slow Food's primary missions, to educate, save and esteem plant and animal variety with the Ark of Taste.
It's truly notable when Italian Marxists and American Conservatives mirror each others thinking. Politics really does make strange bedfellows.
For decades now, conservatism has been in bed with big business Republican and Democratic interests. This marriage of convenience has proven itself hopelessly corrupt. As the conservative movement reconnects with its principles, something that liberals and democrats should desire, we can expect to see more conservatives opting out of these political arrangements and shifting their gaze in our direction.
It behooves the local sustainable movement to encourage political conservatives to remove themselves from under the yoke of a dominant food culture that disrespects their core beliefs and traditions. When problems in our society become so blatant that factions who normally would have nothing to do with each other begin to cooperate in order to find solutions, we know we are at a turning point. Let's grow the movement from all sides.