Author: Tanya Gervasi, journalist, graduate of the University of Studies in Gastronomic Sciences (www.unisg.it)
Sometimes it is the crisis itself that presents unexpected opportunities for change and growth. This is the case for a small fishing community in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the United States.
"One day we received a call from a broker who is a family friend," fisherwoman Shannon Eldredge, heir to a long fishing tradition, explains to us. "We thought that he would have told us the going price for fish in those days. Instead he called us to tell us that we didn't have enough fish to interest him. And thus ended a working relationship that had lasted 30 years! We were desperate; we didn't know how or where we would have been able to sell our fish. We finally decided that we didn't need him nor the fish auctions and we organized ourselves differently."
After that episode Shannon's family spent six months working with the authorities and local sellers, as well as with the Health Minister to be able to get permission to sell their fish directly from the pier. They were some of the first people to have organized a Community Supported Fishery, where the fishermen and the consumers meet and get to know each other, thus creating a mechanism of risk sharing to adapt to the changing conditions of production.
The chain must work to recognize and respect the needs of the fishermen and workers who are all involved. In the cycle of the sourcing of large scale distribution, today, there is no exchange of information and there can be none as long as the goal is putting the cheapest possible product on the market. The problem is that nature doesn't work with cheapness. "I don't need much money, I love my job...I would just like not to have to pay to do it" are the words of Beau Gillis, a Canadian fisherman. Even so, that which is happening in Canada is not an isolated case; it happens in Italy as well as in South America and Africa : the fishermen are underpaid and production costs are higher than the price that they are forced to sell their fish at to the large scale distributors. The market doesn't take into account the costs but by selling directly from the pier the fishermen can decide their own prices.
The creation of distribution systems that are free from the large structures could be the solution to reduce dependence upon them. In Ecuador the indigenous peoples have opened the Centro Martin Pescador, which is both a collective store and a restaurant. The center works in collaboration with artisans, small scale producers and fishermen in a dialogue on all kinds of problems, from politics to fishing, in order to better inform the people who go there to buy fish or to eat.
It is the food system in general that has created the break between producers and consumers. It is easier to trust brand names instead of people. Consumers must become more responsible in their choices, but they won't be able to do it completely until a dialogue is begun between those who produce the food and those who eat it. It is a long and difficult process that the consumers can not undertake alone, needing somebody to help guide them. But who can take on this role? Everybody who works in this field must take part: all of the small scale producers and intermediaries of all kinds (restaurateurs, chefs, distribution chains). Everybody is asked to contribute to allow that these two worlds, today at the extremes of the chain, to come back into contact.