I’m a firm believer in the power of the marketplace, that every dollar we spend on food is a binary vote: either FOR an agriculture system that makes our bodies, our communities, and our environment healthier, or AGAINST it.
But what about our investments? For instance, how much thought have most of us given to our IRAs or 401Ks? Do we know which companies they are supporting and whether or not they are aligned with our values? For instance, until recently, I didn’t realize that my investment in Vanguard’s Index 500 funnels money to Monsanto, ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, ExxonMobil, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Altria (the cigarette manufacturer formerly known as Phillip Morris).
This way of thinking, or to put it more accurately, this way of not thinking when it comes to our investments, is not uncommon, according to Woody Tasch, the founder of Slow Money Alliance. “Too many of us have our money invested in the XYZ mutual fund and then go to local advocacy meetings to keep something out of our neighborhoods,” he said when I talked to him by phone last week. The former chairman of Investor’s Circle and author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. Tasch said that he founded Slow Money to make it easier for people to invest in accordance with their values, because, as he said, “money is not a game.”
During our conversation, he asserted several times that our current financial system is broken. The latest symptom of that brokenness, he said, is the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. “This is what happens in an economy that’s built on industrialization and consumerism, both relics of an old way of thinking that emphasizes maximum growth at all costs.”
Then he added: “But we’re too afraid to take our foot off the gas pedal, even though we’re about to drive over a cliff.”
I asked Tasch how Slow Money would change things. He said that comparing the current financial marketplace to Slow Money is like comparing a supermarket to a CSA.
“We have to ask people to think differently and behave differently,” he explained. The first step, according to the Slow Money web site, is to “obtain signatories to six Slow Money Principles, such as #4: We must learn to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered;” and #5: “Let us celebrate the new generation of entrepreneurs, consumers and investors who are showing the way from Making A Killing to Making a Living.”
The second step, Tasch said, is to create a network of a million Americans who are willing to invest one percent of their assets in local food systems within the next decade.
“There is nothing to stop a group of neighbors or friends from getting together and pooling their money to invest in a local farm,” he said. “We will do the same thing, but we make it easier.”
Tasch speaks quickly and passionately. I had a hard time keeping up with him as he described his vision for a new financial system that honored “nurture capital,” the collective term he uses for “soil fertility, carrying capacity, sense of place, care of the commons, cultural, ecological and economic health and diversity, and nonviolence.”
His favorite phrase seems to be “what if,” as in, “What if our investment dollars -- even if it’s only one percent of our investment dollars, for starters -- go to something we know? Something that’s good for the community. Something that’s good for us. What if we started with food? Food is the most immediate thing because it affects the local economy and local communities. We believe that healthy local economies translate to a healthy global economy.”
Slow Money is still a couple of years away from funding anything; the organization is not yet two years old. But Tasch and his team are beginning to draw together money and resources to fund sustainable agriculture and local food systems in new, innovative ways, such as:
1. Slow Muni’s – Municipal bonds that invest in local, sustainable food on a city-wide basis. Tasch said that the Slow Money team is currently designing a pilot project for one U.S. city. Details to come later.
2. City-based Slow Money investment groups – Currently, there are groups forming in Austin, Madison, Boston, Seattle, Santa Barbara, Raleigh/Durham plus several other cities to develop local investment funds. Tasch said a good example of this is what Judy Wicks is doing in Philadelphia.
3. A partnership with Calvert Foundation, which has an apparatus already in place for investing in micro-financing and community investing.
Though much of its work is still in the preliminary stages, Slow Money is beginning to draw some national media attention. It’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, NPR and MSNBC. And it’s two weeks away from hosting its second “national gathering,” a Woodstock of sorts for the “emerging network of investors, donors, entrepreneurs, farmers, and activists who are giving birth to the nurture capital industry.” The line-up of speakers will include celebrity farmer Joel Salatin, Gardener’s Supply founder Will Raap, urban farming activist Erika Allen, and CEO of Stonyfield Farms Gary Hirshberg.
I asked him about including Hirschberg, on the program. On the one hand, I said, your mission is supporting local, small-scale purveyors, yet one of your speakers heads up a multi-national food company with $330 million in annual sales.
Tasch was quick to respond:
“Gary is dedicated to getting as many containers of organic yogurt on as many shelves in as many stores as he can – at a price point that makes it more affordable to more consumers. There is nothing wrong with that. What makes some people concerned is that as the price keeps going down, smaller yogurt manufacturers have a hard time competing. I understand that. But Stonyfield Farm will be in Vermont because we’re all part of the same movement. And no one is perfect. But we all have to stay under the same tent.”
Most of Slow Money’s investment strategies are at least a year or two away. I asked Tasch how we should invest our money in the meantime. He recited a list of four action items:
1. Join a CSA. “This is micro-financing that brings together social capital, natural capital and financial capital,” explained Tasch. “I see CSA participation expanding tremendously in the next few years. This year, about 200,000 will participate. That could easily be 2 million.”
2. Put your money in a local credit union or a local savings and loan. “You’ve heard of Move Your Money?” asked Tasch. “That’s what I’m talking about." [He’s referring to the campaign, launched on The Huffington Post, to move money away from Wall Street banks and into community banks.] Then he added: “And look for institutions that are not only locally owned, but invest locally.”
3. Shop at Farmer’s Markets. “This eliminates the intermediaries and gets your money directly into the hands of the producers,” said Tasch.
4. Join Slow Money Alliance – “We’re creating the strength of a national network to support these local processes.” You can become a member for as little as $25.
Shari Danielson is editorial director at Simple, Good and Tasty. Her last piece for SGT was Environmental Working Group and Dr. Andrew Weil Announce 2010 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides. You can write to her at email@example.com.