Food for thought

Grand plans for World Food Day's Telefood in Seattle sputter.

BACK IN OCTOBER 2000, Northwest advocates of sustainable agriculture, organic farming, and environmental protection worldwide got some great news: The organizers of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's annual Telefood event had selected Seattle as the host city for its internationally televised 2001 consciousness-raising event in celebration of World Food Day (Oct. 16).

Local activists were encouraged to get the word out to their members to ensure that the event would be a milestone in bringing together diverse Northwest communities with similar agendas: everybody from gourmet foodies concerned about the survival of artisanal farmers and endangered species to antiglobalization protesters determined to reverse the march of corporate monoculture across the family farmsteads of the Third World.

This time, the locals were told, they had some powerful allies in the uphill struggle for credibility. Adobe Systems had tentatively agreed to put up $1.5 million to help cover costs; Paul Allen's Experience Music Project was also involved. Political leaders were enthusiastic. Negotiations were already under way to reserve venues for two all-star concerts bookending the six day event. Through the winter, leaders of over a hundred community organizations were contacted, alerted to the opportunity before them, and told to wait for the signal to start drumming up broad support for the event.

They are still waiting. Week by week, month by month, the clock ticking, a public announcement of the project has been delayed. The recruitment of the public-service PR firm Pyramid Communications early this month roused hopes that, with less than four months remaining before the event, the campaign might soon be allowed to begin. Instead, Pyramid representatives clamped an even tighter lid on information, citing a need to coordinate the announcement of news already known to thousands.

Information that continues to leak from under the cone of silence suggests that planning, however delayed, continues. Andy Frankel, a longtime world-music and populist event producer, has been retained to organize local programs under the rubric "Exposition." There are ambitious plans to air the two concerts, set for Oct. 14 and 20, as a worldwide fund-raising telethon around Thanksgiving day, though where they'll take place still seems uncertain (Benaroya Hall? Key Arena?). At least one PSA has been shot to promote the event, featuring everybody's favorite alternative entertainer Artis the Spoonman, but when it's going to air is anybody's guess.

What's the problem? People familiar with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) say that getting anything approved by its bureaucracy is a Herculean task in itself. But that didn't stop promotion of the first four Telefood events, beginning in 1997 in Italy's Vatican City. The dot-com crash, too, has no doubt had its effect on fund-raising, but Adobe continues to be a major sponsor, and telethon organizers from the FAO are working out of offices in Fremont. And it's always tricky nailing down big-name talent, however willing to donate their services, to keep a day open in their touring schedule to play a free gig in a transportation backwater like Seattle.

If "Groundwork 2001," as the project is called, actually does manage to kick off its campaign by next week as now promised, it won't be a moment too soon: Only 10 weeks remain before the event is set to take place. Presumably, the delay is unimportant in achieving the international PR and fund-raising goals of the event, but if it results in a half-baked local program, the consequences will be more serious. There has never been, and may well never be, a better opportunity here to mobilize the anger and frustration that made the WTO meeting in Seattle a byword in world politics. Food—sufficient food, healthy food, sustainable food, good food—is something everyone understands: the militants of the good life who come together under the banner of Slow Food (see related article on p. 27), campaigners for the environment and against its degradation, advocates of social justice, and opponents of the multinational-monopoly-monoculture-agribusiness complex.

For the better part of 50 years, proponents of "free trade" and promoters of an industrial approach to agriculture have marched together, condemning anyone resisting their relentless campaign to rationalize, consolidate, and commodify the stuff of life as reactionary, sentimental, even pro-poverty. Still, despite Green Revolutions galore, more than a third of the people of the world are hungry, and at any one time, hundreds of thousands if not millions are literally starving. The multinational agribusiness equation has turned everybody, producer and consumer, into cogs in a machine.

With any luck, the organizers of Groundwork 2001 will get their various acts together soon enough to make it something more than another exploitation of grassroots energy for someone else's purposes.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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