The slow revolution

Geoff Andrews
25 October 2006

In the centre of Cleveland, Ohio, Maurice Small runs a city farm for 15-18 year-olds who come from the roughest parts of the city, itself one of the poorest in the United States. His farm, he told me, "gets them off the streets and out of trouble". Many want to be farmers or start their own businesses; working on the farm takes them away from fast-food culture and provides them with the skills and knowledge to change direction. After five minutes talking to Small, a 30-something idealist with dreadlocks and an easy-going smile, it is easy to be convinced by his belief that here, in the heartlands of the fast-food nation, "society needs a new idea."

The turning-point for Small - a "life-changing experience" - came in October 2004 when he attended the Slow Food movement's inaugural Terra Madre event in Italy. This "world meeting of food communities" brings together hundreds of farmers, small producers, cooks, foodies, political activists and academics to celebrate an enormous range of food traditions and to exchange ideas on agriculture.

This first Terra Madre left many of the participants - some of whom had left their villages in Africa and Latin America for the first time - convinced that people needed educating about food and that an alternative idea of living was possible. The 2006 Terra Madre on 26-30 October in Turin is designed to build on this understanding and continue the effort to make Slow Food part of the enlightened common sense of the age.

The scale is enormous. 1,600 food communities from five continents are represented in Turin, and those from Africa and Latin America are much more numerous than at the previous event two years ago. Bread, cheese and honey producers from different continents will discuss production techniques; food traditions and coffee-producers from Ethiopia will sit alongside Belhaven beer producers from Scotland. There will be meetings on biodiversity, water consumption and the effects of war on farming as well as many more informal gatherings.

One of the main objectives of this year's event is to strengthen the connections between food communities and restaurants. The public Salone del Gusto (Hall of Taste) is the focal-point for the 1,000-plus cooks who will be present. A Terra Promessa (Promised Land) features collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli chefs from the Chefs For Peace association, which aims to improve dialogue and understanding through the language of food.

Terra Madre has turned Slow Food from an association of gourmets into one of the fastest growing social movements of the contemporary age. It has given Slow Food a global profile, with an ambitious message around which to organise its agenda: "good, clean and fair".

"Good" refers to quality produce (often certificated by a rigorous criterion of taste); "clean" to the environmentally friendly and sustainable ways food ought to be produced; and "fair" to the protection of small producers from exploitation and to respect for their skills and traditional ways of working.

Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005)

Also by Geoff Andrews on openDemocracy:

"Days of hope, rage and tragedy: from the summit foothills" (August 2001)

"Bossi's – and Berlusconi's – last shout? " (August 2003)

"Bologna's lesson for London" (August 2005)

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (March 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (April 2006)

"Sicily’s other story" (May 2006)

"The Azzurri's message to Italy" (July 2006)

A new social movement?

In many ways Slow Food mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of other social movements. Its official foundation in 1989 - on the bicentenary of the French revolution - drew on the Italian political and cultural movement Arci, which was originally attached to the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Arci's food group Arcigola held a demonstration against a planned McDonald's site near Rome's Spanish steps in 1986. There, protesters armed with bowls of penne vented their anger. It was the first demonstration against fast food and in defence of local food traditions.

Slow Food now has over 100,000 members in more than eighty countries. Its offices are in Bra, a small town in the Langhe region of Piedmont. This area is renowned for its red wine and white truffles. More than 100 employees work at Slow Food's offices, helping to sustain an extraordinary network of convivia (the equivalent of local branches). Each convivium organises events and education classes, under the guidance of grassroots leaders who - like those of other movements - devote large parts of their life to the cause. It is the convivia also which send delegates to Terra Madre and nominate representatives to Slow Food's international council and congress.

It sounds idyllic, and it often is - even though the rapid growth of Slow Food has raised familiar organisational and democratic issues of how to manage expansion and ensure the leadership is accountable to the members.

Employees at Slow Food's offices share the same experience as those who work for other social movements: long hours for low pay, sustained by their belief in the wider cause. Part of the centre's work involves training national organisers. (The United States, Germany, Japan, France, Britain (from December 2006) as well as Italy have their own headquarters.) In 2004, Slow Food even opened the University of Gastronomic Sciences, and the movement is partnered by a cittaslow (slow town) network of small towns committed to preserving local food traditions, environmentally sustainable policies on traffic and pollution, and educational initiatives.

But Slow Food is more than a gastronomic equivalent of traditional social movements, where austere meetings, programmatic agendas and self-sacrificial behaviour by members can come to appear obligatory. A founding idea of the convivium, as its name implies, is precisely to celebrate the simple pleasures of life.

Slow Food is also a transnational movement whose expanding network of supporters and activists embrace particular national and regional interpretations within a universal set of principles. Slow Food members in eastern Europe, for example, have quite different priorities in attempting to excavate food traditions lost under communism while resisting the rapid escalation of westernised fast food, often in areas not noted for tourism.

Moreover, Slow Food's holistic worldview distinguishes it from the narrower interests of consumer-rights organisations and single-issue campaigns. In this sense, while it is very critical of the role of multinational companies and the power of global capital, it is not an "anti-globalisation" movement per se. Yet its critique of a particular kind of globalisation - what its president Carlo Petrini calls "negative" globalisation, connoting the exploitation of producers and the standardisation of taste - does align it in a significant way with the anti-global-capitalism movement.

Slow Food has participated in European and other social-forum events, and a key speaker at the 2006 Terra Madre is Aminata Traoré, founder of the African Social Forum. At the same time, it avoids the confrontational strategy followed by José Bové and others. Petrini says the movement should concentrate on "saving things headed for extinction instead of hounding the new ones we dislike".

Slow Food's growing public profile owes much to the organisational skills, imagination and charisma of Carlo Petrini himself (Carlin to his band of loyal followers). The native of Bra was shaped by the innovative political-cultural movements of the 1970s, but he was able to extend his influence beyond the parameters of the conventional left of which they were still broadly part.

Petrini's network ranges from his friend Fausto Bertinotti (of the Rifondazione Comunista / Refounded Communists, and currently speaker of the chamber of deputies) to former Juventus coach (and prosciutto expert) Fabio Capello. This year he persuaded Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's president, to attend Slow Food's opening ceremony. He has also engaged in international negotiations and facilitated an agreement with the Brazilian ministry of agriculture (actions which some critics see as evidence of Slow Food's exaggerated sense of its importance).

Slow Food's ambition

Slow Food's philosophy is both simple and sophisticated. Simple in the sense that it seeks to defend traditional foods and projects a more fulfilled, easy-paced lifestyle in response to the frenetic chaos of the "fast life" it denounced in its founding manifesto. In this respect its presidia sustains a series of projects aimed at developing quality artisan foods by working with local producers; to date there are 270 such projects across all five continents.

Yet it is sophisticated in the way that its critique of contemporary life avoids an easy conservatism or simplistic contrasts between "traditional" and "modern". In the spirit of the northern European search for a rustic Tuscan idyll, it would be easy to caricature Slow Food as a glorified wine-tasting club. However, as Wendy Parkins and Geoffrey Craig have argued, the search for "slow living" amounts to an interrogation of contemporary social behaviour, whose negative aspects include the "live-to-work" rat-race, the rise of obesity, environmental degradation, the standardisation of food and above all the illusion that greater speed means progress and greater efficiency.

It is a large claim, matched by Slow Food's ambition to build a new worldwide network of producers, consumers, cooks, retailers and intellectuals. All the while, of course, taking time to prepare and enjoy good food.

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