Food is said to be a universal language. But for gourmets seeking haute cuisine in their favourite café or bistro, sampling hors d'oeuvres prepared by the sous-chef before the entrée by the cordon bleu chef, the lingua franca of food is French.
So when one of the senior figures of French agriculture policy over the past 60 years admits he "badly evaluated the consequences" of the efficiency revolution he engineered across Europe, it's like Julia Child swearing off butter and cream: an authoritative blow from the centre against global food habits and institutions.
Edgard Pisani is in Toronto for the launch of the English editions of his two latest books and the first leg of a North American tour designed to promote debate on the future of food and a new brand of utopian politics.
At 86, with a bold style and a 6-foot-4 frame, he still cuts a dashing figure. The man who modernized French agriculture and industrialized European farming during the 1960s, transforming an import-dependent region into the world's second-biggest food exporter, was no ordinary government bureaucrat.
Pisani has always been a rebel against institutional authority. His exploits as a Resistance fighter during the liberation of Paris in 1945, when he single-handedly defended a police station from Nazi attack, are depicted in the film Is Paris Burning? and earned him the Legion of Honour at the age of 27. At the peak of his career, during the 1968 May-June revolt of students and workers, he stood alone in the French parliament to resign after making a thundering denunciation of the crackdown on civil liberties.
His persona is still felt in France and throughout Europe after his return to senior government positions during the 1980s and 90s. His latest books, A Personal View Of The World and above all An Old Man And The Land, caused such a stir in France last year that Le Monde hosted an Internet debate that went on for three months.
Behind the Brie Curtain and the joie de vivre cherished by North American tourists, it seems rural France is in a deep funk. Its children depart for better jobs in the city even as advocates for the world's poor hammer the French over subsidies that destroy Third World peasant agriculture. Pisani's book raised hope for a bold renewal of rural fortunes buoyed by income schemes directed to the home market, leaving others to supply their home markets.
"I am a man from Europe asking questions and trying to see if these questions are shared by others," he tells a workshop of southern Ontario food activists at U of T's Croft Chapter House on April 29. "I have to write two more books and fight five more years," he tells me. "Maybe my next book will be called An Old Man And The Policy."
When Pisani was named prefect for two agricultural areas during the 40s and 50s, most farmers lived in homes with dirt floors. Only a tiny minority had electricity, phones, running water or motorized equipment. Farmers were a third of the workforce, and an average French farmer had surplus to feed two and a half people. When he left the agriculture ministry in the late 60s, after a period of subsidizing mechanization and economies of scale, an average farmer fed 15 people.
That's when he wanted to call it quits on productivity change. But the juggernaut didn't stop. Today's highly productive farmers make up less than one-20th of the workforce and each feeds 70 people, but farmers still rely on huge government subsidies to boost production. Instead of the subsidies going to poor farmers and being withdrawn as food becomes more plentiful, subsidies and production "prosper together," he writes. Eighty per cent go to the 20 per cent of farms who are already high producers.
Aside from his rebel streak, Pisani credits the helicopter for helping him be the first to see the need to change the direction of policies he'd started. Escorted by helicopter in the 60s to his many meetings with farmers and diplomats negotiating the European Community's common agriculture program, he got a view from high enough to see the changing countryside yet low enough to see the people doing their chores. From this perch, he was able to perceive what warring bureaucrats in his ministry couldn't.
He concluded that farming could not live on bread alone, since it was also responsible for the lives of rural people - 4 billion strong on the planet, and with no place to go if productivity continued to increase and farmers lost their land - and the well-being of nature. In charge of three-quarters of the world's space, farmers must "carry out tasks for the common good that affect the natural environment," he writes.
"Protection of the humus gives agriculture a character of quasi-public service," which should be paid for. This doesn't square with the supremacy of free trade and the market, where low prices are the only law. It is precisely the role of a new generation of politics to address this dilemma. Otherwise, the simplistic egotism of the market will destroy the world, he writes.
But when Pisani announced during the 60s that farm modernization had succeeded in overcoming food shortages and that new social and environmental goals should be adopted, bureaucrats seized by the vision of endless productivity marginalized him. This taught him that institutions imprison us "because of hierarchical traditions, private preserves and specializations that ossify" them.
Their genius, he told the Friday workshop, "is to remain the same while giving the impression of change." As a result, "the world today knows only bureaucracy and systems and facts."
Thus, his call for "a politic" and "utopian method' that bring balance and imagination to a world "dying of mediocrity." Demand the impossible, Parisians used to say in 1968. But it's about respect, not defiance.
Pisani, who has repeated "humus and humility" as his personal mantra since he first walked through stately forests amidst farmstead fields, opens his book for me and points to a passage he has highlighted from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "The land teaches us more than all books: because it resists us."