Loving food is the most personal and least abstract way to be an environmentalist. – Alice Waters
The 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino brought together athletes from around the world in the spirit of good, clean, fun competition. 6 months later the Olympic venue was host to Slow Food’s Terra Madre 2006- A World Meeting of Food Communities. In the spirit of cooperation rather than competition, 4800 small-scale farmers, breeders and artisan food producers, 1000 chefs, and 400 academics, writers and policy makers from every continent worked toward a common goal of good, clean, and fair food.
I have always thought I was born a generation too late and believed the 60’s were the last great chance for political activism. Nothing since has ever grabbed me and made me feel like it was worth fighting for with all my heart. After being in a room full of 6000 people and listening the Slow Food’s founder Carlo Petrini speak at the opening ceremonies (attended by Italy’s President and various other governors, mayors, and policy makers), I finally know what it must have felt like to listen to Martin Luther King or Che Guevara. The power of being in a room with so many people who think the same way and are united under a leader whose every word resonates with vision, kindness, justice, passion and common sense is what fuels revolutions.
Equally inspiring were Persian spice producers, Israeli olive oil producers from Galilee, and Lebanese herb gatherers from the Adonis shaking hands under the Olympic flags. Peruvian women wearing pin-covered hats and fucia woven ponchos shared trials and tribulations with Sengalese cereal farmers dressed in purple satin. Next door in the Salone del Gusto (the worlds largest food fair held concurrently) I strolled the isles and chatted with Colonata Lard (salted fat with aromatic herbs and spices) producers, savored bleu-pecorino cheese, hesitantly tasted curried chocolate, artisan mescal, and beer as warm and creamy as coñac. The buzz from our common passion to save diversity, culture, and good food made us all believe we were touching the one weapon powerful enough to bridge political differences and create a thriving global sustainable food network.
I believe that the “food movement” is at the heart of the counter culture movements and is a commanding global force in combating the omnipotent powers of the false democracy of the industrialized nations and the power of money that allows corporations to run the world. The Slow Food movement encompasses other counter culture movements- environmental, peace, social justice, and education reform- but it has a secret weapon: it is motivated by pleasure and taste. A quote from Alice Waters printed on the walls of the Olympic ice skating rink sums it up perfectly: “Loving food is the most personal and least abstract way to be an environmentalist.”
Through workshops, farm stays, shared meals, and opportunities to attend Salone del Gusto, participants had ample opportunities to discuss methods of production, marketing, and processing and share their traditional wisdom and knowledge.
The themes of Terra Madre are many and I’m almost paralyzed where to start. Below is a quick summary- each topic deserves its own article. Watch for future blogs and magazine articles that will go into these ideas in more detail:
The Paradox of Plenty: Why 1/6 of the world is starving and 1/3 of the world is suffering from the effects of too much deplorable food.
Agribusiness has not solved the problems of world poverty, and in many cases has only increased the gap between those who have and have not. This gap is directly related to problems of immigration, crime and terrorism. Many people have lost land that once fed their community to monocultures that feed and clothe the rich. Meanwhile, the obesity epidemic, diabetes, cancers, eating disorders and an endless list of other maladies affect the “developed world” who, in my opinion, make up for food empty of nutrition, taste, tradition, and LOVE their bodies crave by eating in quantity. Add to this many people’s disconnect with the natural world and cycles of life an it’s easy to see we are in a desperate situation. Only by re-developing viable local economies and reviving tradition can these problems begin to be addressed. Science, technology, and the marketplace are not the answer.
The Power of the Producer
As holders of traditional knowledge and connection with the earth, producers at Terra Madre were the stars of the show. Never in history have small-scale producers been celebrated in such a way. Participants were empowered with self-esteem to protect their rights and inspired to continue their work. Where famous artists, musicians, and architects were once thought to be the holders of “culture,” at Terra Madre we affirmed that culture lies also in the food traditions of the world. By acknowledging producers and giving them the power of self-esteem, ancient traditions and territories have a chance to survive.
Woven into the Paradox of Plenty, the many absurdities of the industrialized food systems were discussed including: genetic engineering and ownership of seeds and knowledge; absurd food safety laws that put producers out of business and control consumers with fear; and economics of the “free trade” market like government subsidies and “dumping” policies that make the market anything but free.
Manifesto on the Future of Seeds
Today the future of seed is under threat. Of 80,000 edible plants used for food, only about 150 are being cultivated, and eight are traded globally. The erosion of diversity has been propelled by the drive for homogenization. New property rights and technologies that favor corporations threaten the freedom of seeds, and thus farmers. Indian Activist Vandana Shiva presented the Manifesto on the Future of Seeds prepared by the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture at Terra Madre. The Manifesto outlines concepts and lays out practical steps toward ensuring that food and agriculture become more socially and ecologically sustainable. A call to communities, governments, and world leaders was made to adopt the Manifesto and use it to counter the threat to seed and biodiversity imposed by industrial agriculture and multinational corporate interests.
Eco-chefs: True Pillars of the Earth
The collaboration between cooks and farmers is a pillar of the Slow Food Movement. Chefs were encouraged to bridge the gap between consumers and the local food movement by studying the traditions and foods of their local area and incorporating them with pride into everything they do.
Terra Madre itself is a good example of defending diversity by coming together and supporting local communities through a global alliance. The story of yak cheese production in the Sem Long Valley in Quinghai province, China, to support Ladja Monastery’s traditional Tibetan school is a concrete example of these ideals. With assistance from the TRACE Foundation and Swiss and Italian artisan cheese makers, traditional nomadic peoples were taught to use yak milk to make a pecorino- like cheese for export. Nomads who used to make $880 a year now make $16-$18 per day selling their milk to the cheese factory, and the profits from the cheese keep 400 Tibetan children in school at the monastery. In this way Tibetan nomads maintain their way of life in spite of Chinese oppression.
Planting Seeds of Change: Education
The fact that academics from 250 universities attended Terra Madre attests to the importance teachers have in creating change. But it’s not just school gardens anymore; teacher training programs, full university degrees in sustainable agriculture, university farm programs that provide all the campus food, and student organized village feasts are also on the menu these days.
You can’t get a true sense of place without experiencing the local food. Responsible tourism respects the local people and protects the environment and traditional customs. Beyond observing, though, there were a number of models of farm stays where families learn hands-on how make cheese, herd animals, cook, and share meals with local producers. This provides both memorable experiences for the traveler and the extra income the host needs to maintain their lifestyle.
Slow Food has moved a long way from its image as a “supper club.” It was significant that the US had the second largest delegation of participants (500 +/-); Italy, of course, had the most. Because we are the largest consumers, in both body and wallet, turning things around here at home could have the biggest global impact on good, clean and fair food. Based on Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto, Slow Food USA is planning our own traveling event to showcase local food and ideals called Slow Food Nation. The first event will be held in San Francisco in May of 2008. Through this event and the many other Slow Food programs perhaps one day soon people will realize that success is NOT to be the fastest one out-consume others. Meanwhile, eat well, be well, and live slow.