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Endangered Species: Slow Food 

An interview with Carlo Petrini

AMANDA HESSER / NY Times 26jul03

 

Carlo Petrini founded the International Slow Food Movement in 1986.

When McDonald's planned to build a restaurant near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome in 1986, Carlo Petrini organized a demonstration in which he and his followers brandished bowls of penne as weapons of protest. Soon after, he founded the International Slow Food Movement and issued a manifesto, a response to fast food, fast life, nonsustainable farming and the eroding of local economies. By the mid-1990's, Slow Food had grown phenomenally, becoming politically active, lobbying the European Union on trade and agricultural policy and working to save endangered foods. This month, Mr. Petrini's book "Slow Food: The Case for Taste," was published by Columbia University Press. Amanda Hesser spoke with him through an interpreter.

Q. Have you ever eaten at McDonald's?

No. It doesn't interest me. I went there for curiosity once.

In your book, you underline the importance of eating as a social event. But many people eat on the run, and many families don't sit down together at the dinner table anymore. If it is no longer a social event, then what happens — what is the political and civil fallout?

Conviviality is one of the most fundamental aspects of eating together, and I'm hard pressed to think of something sadder than eating alone, without that social rite. Breaking bread is an enrichment, and it's very important to keep alive the social aspects. When people don't eat together, they lose that element of the event. They lose an important aspect of the eating process.

Eating together and drinking together at the end of the day is a kind of sign of friendship or communion, and when that doesn't exist, it's a sadder, less cohesive society. And that can be seen perhaps here in America.

From your book, Slow Food doesn't seem as political as people might think. I mean, you're not like the Sierra Club or Greenpeace, out making trouble with what you are protesting. In fact, you don't even seem to ally yourself with José Bové, France's anti-globalization hero. Why is this?

The book is more about the experience of Slow Food. My book is more a personal reflection of our experiences within Slow Food. We have cultural politics that we defend, and you don't need to be pro or against globalization to be involved in the politics. We're independent of that. For instance, the defense of farmers, no matter where they are in the world, that's political. We're not pro or against. We create our own stance and discourse.

I'm very into the development of communities of producers and farmers, and it's only if we develop and enforce these communities that we can overcome an industrial logic.

Let's talk about agribusiness. Is there a place for it, say, in a third world country, where shipping in mass-produced grain can feed an undernourished population?

The application of industry to agriculture has had massive damages. I don't think there is any virtue in industrial agriculture. But in a "contadino" agriculture — which means small farm, artisan, you could say — what they're working for is there to be a relearning of this entity, this market.

Agribusinesses work for their own interests, and what you'd need to do in India or a third world country is to defend biodiversity. What farmers need to be taught is how to protect their biodiversity. I have two projects I'm working on. One is the presidia, which help small communities organize small projects. The second one is to organize a global meeting of small farmers so they can talk about their challenges and their work and their destinies.

There's a small community of women in Morocco who make oil from a plant called argon. It tastes a lot like almonds. We are encouraging the women to keep producing the oil. There are 500 projects like this around the world.

The presidia and the Slow Food network are growing together. Where we have a network, we will also have presidia. And we have committee members for these projects around the world.

Slow Food has formed a foundation for biodiversity that helps sustain presidia around the world, and they can be sustained in many ways. Some need help in marketing, and we help them create a network of sales. Others need structures to be built. Others involve the imparting of knowledge of old farmers to young farmers. Every presidia has its own story, its own needs.

If you are opposed to agribusiness, does this mean you're opposed to globalization?

I'm for virtuous globalization, where there's a just and true commerce to help small farmers. It's important to have a commerce that's organic and sane and against genetically modified organisms and processes that poison the land with chemicals. For example, there is coffee in Chiappas, amaranth in Argentina. Slow Food is able to provide them with more money and better offers than big business would be able to.

But if the products cost more, is it making the Slow Food that's available just a luxury for the wealthy?

It wouldn't end up costing that much more, because we avoid the middle man. Food can't cost so little. You need to be prepared to pay more for quality. We're too used to cheap food. And we need to be eating better-quality food but less of it. There are problems of obesity because people don't understand that.

Slow Food believes you should eat less, eat more in moderation. And that would help solve this elitist critique, and it would also improve the food that we do eat.

Food is not expensive, and I don't see down the line that it will cost less. I see that down the line we need to be eating more moderately. Twelve percent of Italians' income is spent on food, and 10 percent is spent on cellphone-related costs. It's right there. So the goal is not to make it cost less. The goal is to eat less.

How do you feel about cuisine, as opposed to the raw materials? Here in New York, for instance, top chefs are melding all sorts of cuisines. There is no local cooking.

As long as the products are genuine, you can do whatever. I've never seen a good fusion restaurant in Italy, but it is possible that I've tasted good fusion food in other places. The primary materials, that's what's most important. And if you have a talented chef who can create new and interesting things, that's great.

You're in Naples, so what did you eat for lunch?

Pasta and tomato sauce.

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