Is it possible to organize effectively and politically around the notion of pleasure? How does a social movement deal with success? These were some of the questions facing the Italian-originated Slow Food Movement as it held its biennial Salone del Gusto ('Salon of Taste') in Turin late this October.
It has reached a point where you cannot get a hotel room in this large industrial city during the festivities. Tens of thousands of Turinos and their out-of-town guests stream into the massive Lingotto Fiere convention centre to taste the wares of artisanal food producers. While most of them come from Italy, there is a growing international presence from the further reaches of Europe (Macedonia had some excellent wild fig jam), Africa and Latin America. A tasting from Iceland provided samples of smoked fish and a bracing history of how, over the centuries, isolated Icelanders created a unique cuisine from some very harsh conditions. From strife-torn Afghanistan came the largest and juiciest raisins that ever popped into your mouth. Among the open-air purveyors of street food, members of an exclusive club (all men) sat shrouded in billowing clouds of cigar smoke, solemnly sipping brandy while being lectured by a man in a beret who looked close to death.
The Salon prides itself on diversity. But there's more to Slow Food than this. By implication, and explicitly, it is a critique of fast food and the monocultural corporate world that produces it. The world of the supermarket, the chain restaurant, large-scale chemical agriculture and the drab sameness of their production is everything that Slow Food challenges. Their critique is not just by example but in the myriad workshops and conferences held throughout the five-day event. This is why the Terra Madre (Mother Earth) section is hived off in a separate building, with events for thousands of activists and regional or local organizers - to make sure that the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of the trade fair does not swamp the political edge of the movement.
Current Slow Food campaigns oppose genetically modified organisms and support sustainable Slow Fish. Most recently, they have launched a campaign to stop millions of acres of land – particularly in Africa – being gobbled up by private companies and public sovereign wealth funds based everywhere from the oil-rich Gulf sates to India and China. Such veteran food activists as Vandana Shiva and Raj Patel were on hand to rally the troops against the multi-headed hydra that is the corporate food system.
There were, in addition, many attempts to bring the message home to eager eco-consumers, drawn in by the desire to find that special cheese or forest jam. Several well-attended conferences were held in the main part of the Salon on such subjects as urban gardening or land-grabbing. In the latter, hundreds of people gathered to hear a panel of advocates revealing the latest news from the fight against a process rooted in the 2008 food crisis. Countries such as Japan, China, South Korea and the Gulf States, fearful of the looming possibility of domestic food shortages, have begun to cast abroad for solutions. So far, some 50 million hectares of land (roughly equal to the size of Spain) have been taken over to satisfy this ravenous appetite. Much of the land is in Africa, where cash-starved governments are easy prey. But the grab also extends into Latin America and parts of Asia and Eastern Europe.
The Slow Food campaigners worry that this will lead to the expulsion of efficient small producers from their plots, in favour of the monocultural production of just four main crops – rice, corn, wheat and soya. This will have the effect of increasing poverty and hunger while reducing crop diversity and more ecologically friendly methods of farming. It will also mean more production for bio-fuels, animal feed and non-food luxury crops like flowers, while poor countries lose the ability to feed themselves.
The conference featured a number of Italian experts who presented cases like the giant Korean Chaebol (corporate monopoly) Daewoo, which has brought up thousands of hectares of Madagascar. The biggest audience reaction came with the intervention of Slow Food founder and firebrand Carlo Petrini, a staunch advocate of 'food sovereignty', who denounced those who would build their gardens elsewhere, rather than tend them at home. For Petrini, the best way to stop land-grabbing in, say, the Sudan, is to support small farmers at home. The movement is strongest in Europe, but with growing sections from the Global South. It is weakest, perhaps, in the English-speaking world, with limited participation from the UK, North America and Australasia.
At the Africa regional meetings the chair claimed a growing individual membership that now tops 2,000, with some 162 self-identified 'food communities' across the continent. A Senegalese woman activist in the movement of local cooks explained the need to replace expensive rice imports with traditional foodstuffs. She is part of a group in Dakar that runs inexpensive 'street restaurants' to feed those who exist on the margins of urban life. The cooks aspire not just to feed the hungry but to feed them 'in the right way'. Africa has become a focus for the fight for food sovereignty - organizations like the Malian farmer's association oppose the corporate land grab with the slogan 'we are the solution'.
Still, Slow Food and the Salone del Gusto presented an odd mixture of motives and images: African farmers standing up to call for armed resistance in a tasting workshop on the finest cigars; a veteran New Orleans bartender, Chris Macmilian, recounting a history of the cocktail accompanied by samples of Gin Fizz and his world famous Mint Julep. Social justice activists mixed with vintners producing some of the best (and most expensive) wines in Europe.
But tolerance has become a feature of Slow Food. Issues of quality and pleasure fuse with justice and the fight against hunger. This was all too much for a group of anti-meat campaigners, who set themselves up outside the Lingotto with graphic images of animal cruelty, denouncing the Salon and its meat-friendly ways. Inside, a freelance English intruder offered copies of a graphic DVD, Pig Business – the true cost of cheap meat. In the spirit of the event, they might have made more headway by extolling the virtues of fresh vegetables, otherwise notable for their relative absence.
Slow Food raises a lot of questions about what a social movement actually is. It undoubtedly has had a wider impact in Italy, where it has spun off a number of other slow movements (Slow Cities, Slow Money). But also beyond, there are now tens of thousands of adherents all around the globe, who identify with an analysis that merges issues of quality with those of justice and sustainability. The movement is, by and large, entrepreneurial, championing smallholders' rights to produce and sell their goods to eco-conscious consumers, in a market setting not dominated by corporate agriculture. This separates Slow Food from the conventional left. So does its enthusiastic embrace of the pleasure principle.
Much of left thinking has been based on denial – don't eat this, believe that or behave like the other. Slow Food provides a healthy antidote of inclusion, rather than exclusion. If social movements are to grow and become major challengers to corporate domination, involving hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, it is hard to imagine this happening without tolerance for difference and a vision of a more pleasurable world.