Acceleration of Slow Food: Reflections on the First 30 Years

Ellen Messer
Tufts University


Carlo Petrini’s Food & Freedom. How the Slow Food Movement is Changing the World Through Gastronomy (John Irving, trans. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2015).


This is an insightful and engaging read (with some redundancies near the end), which describes the chronology of Slow Food as a social movement and related institutional dimensions.  The chronology, clear outline of conceptual and organizational issues, numerous illustrative national and community case studies, and linkages to other food movements (agricultural and environmental sustainability, right-to-food, anti-hunger, anti-globalization and anti-free trade) makes it a valuable addition to any food-policy or sustainable food systems syllabus or professional background readings.

In this lyrically written and adequately-referenced volume, Petrini constructs chronologies and links local, sustainable, and fair food movements in new ways.  He is particularly sharp when critiquing the “wasteconomy”, his overarching term for conventional, globalizing food systems and commodification processes that judge food only by price without considering other (labor, environmental, biodiversity) characteristics and more humane, “right to food” dimensions of value: “It is incredible how a system designed to reduce diversity, increase productivity, and distribute efficiently from centralized structures manages to “lose food” at every turn…all this while a billion people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition” (p.89).  His opening historical chapters remind the reader that the origins of the Slow Food movement, in 1986, coincided with and were motivated by three Italian-area environmental and food-system disasters that wreaked havoc on small farmers and their local products: (1) the case of the adulteration of Italian Piedmont wine with methanol that killed 23 and blinded many others; (2) the Chernobyl disaster, which raised the dangers of radioactive pollution in neighboring regions, and (3) multiple cases of atrazine (pesticide) poisoning in the Italian Po Valley.  All raised questions about safety of farmers, consumers, and food systems, and the need for more reliable, “good, clean, fair” food chains that would make it uneconomic to engage in scandalous food-system activities.

There followed a series of historic slow food events accompanied by networking—In 1994, four food-festival days in Milan; in 2001, the celebration of emergent “Ecogastromes,” which one journalist termed “a gastronomic version of Greenpeace”, energizing defiant protests against globalism, and organizing alternative time- and human labor intensive forms of food chains designed to preserve and value flavor, human investment in food that is justly produced, moved, processed, and consumed.  In 2004, these values coalesced in the first Terra Madre gathering in Turin, which thereafter happened every two years.  This world meeting was the outcome of prior Turin-based food events, which included The Ark of Taste (1996), whose mission was to save the universe of flavors; the 1997 Manifesto of Slow Food; the 1998 Presidio, which was the implementation of the Manifesto; the 1999 Ark Scientific Commission which established the Slow Food categories and specifics to be emphasized, first in Italy and Europe, then, in 2002, internationally. In 2005, the alternative Slow Food “good, clean, fair” valuation as alternative characteristics to “price” was complete.

Slow Food as a tool that merged into and with the Terra Madre movement continued to scale up—geographically, numerically, politically, and functionally. Petrini analyzes this organic process, by which the call for more food biodiversity and placing value on cultural diversity elicits more preservation of local food artistry and biodiversity.  A granaries memory project, as a case in point, makes the collections and recollections to retain diverse grain heritages and communicate a passion for bio-cultural culinary diversity to younger generations.  The language of “liberating” gastronomy, diversity, and trade pervade the historical structures and contents, as Petrini and his colleagues and friends visit and share multiple case studies covering Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Haiti, which showcase how involved chefs transition to local foods and suppliers, and extend the reach of these local networks into farm-to-school foods and farmer-assisted school gardens.  In the Middle East and North Africa, Turkey and Morocco are featured case studies. In sub-Saharan Africa, Kenyan and Ugandan farmers are on board, as are other African communities of interest in Slow Foods Thousand Gardens in Africa Project.  In Indonesia, those valuing preservation of distinctive rice varieties have been involved in saving and disseminating seeds right from the beginning, along with Petrini’s original Italian supporters, French and German, and other European and North American colleagues and enthusiasts.  These are numerical and geographic dimensions of scaling up.  The political scaling up involved joining with other food focused social-concern movements, including Italians fighting “land consumption” i.e., those organizing to change the European Commission’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the direction of biodiversity, with greater support for policies friendlier to smaller, regional and local farmers. Petrini and his politically-astute colleagues became major lobbyists drafting legislative positions on these issues.  They also weighed in on agricultural production and trade issues in BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and CIVETS nations (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Thailand, S. Africa—note he puts South Africa here, not with the BRIC(S).)  In another historic watershed showing their political reach, FAO in 2013 signed an agreement with Slow Foods that pledged to support local, affordable, small-scale ventures.  Progressively, Slow Food also networks with food-security, anti-hunger, healthier and locally sourced school-meals campaigns, and opponents to damaging land and food grabs orchestrated by dominant global speculators and market players.  Land and food, from beginning to end, are at the heart of democratic demands for a free and fully inclusive society and sustainable development.  As an estimated 10,000 nodes network around these food and food-related issues, Slow Food helps connect the communities who are the Terra Madre, and make them vibrant and significant players in global and national food politics.


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