Inspired by the vision of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered, published in 2009, the Slow Money Alliance is bringing people together around a new conversation about money that is too fast, about finance that is disconnected from people and place, about how we can begin fixing our economy from the ground up… starting with food.
Since mid-2010, local Slow Money chapters have emerged in roughly a dozen locales around the country. Some are hosting local entrepreneur showcases. Many have begun investing. In Portland, a Slow Money founding member has made a $40,000 loan and is seeking to develop an 80-acre agricultural parcel into a new farm incubator.
Slow Money by Robin Fladebo
Would you use a factory to raise a pig?
Would you design a system that nets only nine cents of every food dollar to the farmer?
Would you allow topsoil to wash down the Mississippi River, replete with pesticides and fertilizer residue, creating a dead zone the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf of Mexico?
Would you use 57 calories of petroleum-energy to produce one calorie of food energy?
Of course not! But all of these statements describe our current food system. No one sat down to consciously design this system. Yet this is the technology-heavy, extractive food system we now have, and that many people feel we need to remediate and reform.
In 2008, venture capital investor and entrepreneur Woody Tasch authored a book called, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered. The Slow Money Alliance is a network of organizations that have created a vision around the ideas included in Tasch’s book. Members of the Slow Money Alliance are trying out new ways of thinking about the relationship between food, money and soil.
How does “Slow Money” relate to “Slow Food”? “Slow Food” is a global, grassroots organization with the goal of linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to local communities and the environment. The Slow Food philosophy is that everyone has a fundamental right to the pleasure of good food and consequently, the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, and the tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible. The “Slow Money movement” seeks to create capital flows to support “slow food” enterprises. That is, Slow Money’s mission is to find ways to raise and allocate capital to support diverse, small scale agriculture. Only 0.01% of investment in agriculture goes to anything other than industrial agriculture—and Slow Money advocates wants to change that. It takes hundreds of years to build an inch of soil, but less than 40 years to strip an inch of soil by farming in ways that are focused on maximizing current yield, as we currently do.
Technologically advanced nations have been “mining” the soil by removing its organic content without replacing it, compromising future productivity for the sake of enormous harvests today. Some people refer to this as the “Peak Soil” crisis, which suggests the exhaustion of a resource – soil fertility– that is ultimately more vital to civilization than oil. Slow Money is built around the idea of organizing food markets from the ground up, based on the long term health of the soil.
Small food enterprises that are dedicated to using sustainable agricultural practices are too big for micro-finance, much too small for venture capital, and not easy candidates for equity capital. It’s very difficult for small food enterprises to get the capital they need to grow their businesses. Tasch, the “slow money” advocate, says we must connect investors to the places where they live, creating vital relationships and new sources of capital for small food enterprises. He thinks we can do this by devising a new form of financial intermediation that favors a large number of small, independent local-first food enterprises. The audacious goal of the Slow Money Alliance is to get one million people to invest 1% of their money in local food enterprises, within a decade.
The challenge of reintegrating social and environmental concerns into the financing of our food system is a mirror of the challenge we face in broader capital markets. There has been a thousands-fold increase in the number of shares traded since the 1960s, and a proliferation of increasingly complex financial instruments. Trillions of dollars a day zoom around planet. Is it any wonder that we don’t know what our money is doing if it’s moving so fast and complexity is out of control? Slow money is the opposite of this very fast money. The speed of financial markets and the short term thinking that fast money breeds in CEOs and investors is both a reflection of and a cause of dislocation in our culture at large.
Suppose we could catalyze the emergence of the nurture capital industry? Nurture capital would finance entrepreneurs who are doing things that support soil fertility, that honor carrying capacity, have a sense of place, honor cultural and ecological diversity, and are nonviolent. Suppose we could create an economy that does less harm than our current one, based on fair trade, with a living wage and basic benefits for everyone? Suppose we set about rebuilding trust and reconnecting to one another and the places where we live? Suppose we pulled some of our money out of fast-moving financial markets, with their complexity and abstraction, and put it to work near where we live, in things that we understand, starting with food? We could create a “Main Street Exchange”, populated by small, independent, locally-rooted companies that are reimagining business as a tool for rebuilding communities and bioregions. The companies participating in the Main Street Exchange will develop around appropriate corporate scale – they won’t be too big or too fast! These are the ideas behind “slow money”.
Will you take a few minutes today to reflect on three questions from the Slow Money Alliance?
– What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?
– What if there was a new generation of companies that gave away 50% of their profits?
– What if there were 50% more organic matter in our soil 50 years from now?
 Adapted from Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered by Woody Tasch (2008).