Nurturing the Earth and Ourselves
The Slow Food Movement – Revaluing What We Eat
by Paul Chaffee
For those who would love to find some middle ground between the strictures of a vegetarian or vegan diet, on one hand, and the sometime travesties of big agriculture, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), packaged food, and fast food, on the other, the slow food movement may be a satisfying alternative in reflecting on and choosing what you eat and how you eat. The ‘movement’ was found by an Italian named Carlo Petrini in 1986, responding to plans to build a fast-food restaurant in Rome. The slow food perspective urges us to return to the land, to cultivate and consume locally grown plants, seeds, and livestock with practices supporting sustainable crops and local businesses.
Three years later, in 1989 delegates from 15 countries signed a Slow Food Manifesto, which states:
Born and nurtured under the sign of Industrialization, this century first invented the machine and then modeled its lifestyle after it. Speed became our shackles. We fell prey to the same virus: ‘the fast life’ that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest “fast-food.” Homo sapiens must regain wisdom and liberate itself from the ‘velocity’ that is propelling it on the road to extinction. Let us defend ourselves against the universal madness of ‘the fast life’ with tranquil material pleasure.
Against those – or, rather, the vast majority – who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of an adequate portion of sensual gourmandize pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment. Appropriately, we will start in the kitchen, with Slow Food. To escape the tediousness of “fast-food,” let us rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines. In the name of productivity, the ‘fast life’ has changed our lifestyle and now threatens our environment and our land (and city) scapes.
Slow Food is the alternative, the avant-garde’s riposte. Real culture is here to be found. First of all, we can begin by cultivating taste, rather than impoverishing it, by stimulating progress, by encouraging international exchange programs, by endorsing worthwhile projects, by advocating historical food culture and by defending old-fashioned food traditions. Slow Food assures us of a better quality lifestyle. With a snail purposely chosen as its patron and symbol, it is an idea and a way of life that needs much sure but steady support.
Today Slow Food International has 35,000 active participants in Italy, more than 100,000 globally, and 450 chapters in 150 countries, all organized around slow food principles. In 2004 Petrini founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences, with several campuses across Italy.
But the influence of ‘slow food’ reaches far beyond the organized movement. The values and practices it advocates reach into kitchens of restaurants and homes around the world. Essentially, the movement opposes agricultural globalization, industrial production, and fast food; while supporting local foods and traditional food production and gastronomy, which is how you select, prepare, and eat what you eat.
Wikipedia has conveniently listed a more detailed slow food agenda, including:
- developing an “Ark of Taste” for each ecoregion, where local culinary traditions and foods are celebrated,
- forming and sustaining seed banks to preserve heirloom varieties in cooperation with local food systems,
- preserving and promoting local and traditional food products, along with their lore and preparation,
- organizing small-scale processing (including facilities for slaughtering and short run products),
- organizing celebrations of local cuisine within regions,
- promoting “taste education,”
- educating consumers about the risks of fast food,
- educating citizens about the drawbacks of commercial agribusiness and factory farms,
- educating citizens about the risks of monoculture and reliance on too few genomes or varieties,
- developing various political programs to preserve family farms,
- lobbying for the inclusion of organic farming concerns within agricultural policy, and
- lobbying against government funding of genetic engineering.
Acknowledging Indigenous Origins
From an interfaith perspective, and taking nothing away from the remarkable achievements of Carlo Petrini and his Italian colleagues, the ancient origins of slow food clearly come from Indigenous cultures everywhere. The same communities which recently cried “water is life” at Standing Rock have always treated food ‘slowly.’
No wonder, then, that a major division of Slow Food International is the Indigenous Terra Madre network, covering 370 communities in 60 countries. Their website makes the case:
Slow Food believes that it is senseless to defend biodiversity without also defending the cultural diversity of Indigenous Peoples. The right of peoples to have control over their land, to grow food, to hunt, fish and gather according to their own needs and decisions, is fundamental to protect their livelihoods and defend the biodiversity of indigenous breeds and varieties.
As the original inhabitants of a land, they possess unique cultures, languages and customs, but throughout history this has been eroded through the confiscation of their lands, the displacement of communities, cultural suppression and even genocide. Today this continues through land grabbing. The survival of indigenous peoples is proof of the resilience of these traditional societies, held together by their identity – their culture, language, and traditions linked to a geographical area and the historical links with the environment that they have inhabited and depended on.
Phrang Roy, coordinator of the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, and Slow Food International Councilor for Indigenous Peoples, puts it concisely: “If you look at a map of global agrobiodiversity hotspots, you soon realize that they are identical with indigenous people’s habitats.”
What may distinguish indigenous slow food with the contemporary movement is that the ancient ways always emerge from a deeply spiritual context, something not always acknowledged in our secular times. To be fair, Slow Food International has spoken out about vegetarianism and spirituality, but spirituality, much less religion, is not a major theme in the movement. Spirituality and food for Indigenous peoples, on the other hand, are inextricably related, adding a whole new layer of richness and complexity in understanding the food we eat.
The first international gathering of Indigenous leaders to talk about slow food took place in 2011 in Denmark. The following year, Slow Food president Carlo Petrini spoke at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, the first guest speaker to be invited in its ten-year history.
Then in 2015 a second Indigenous Terra Madre gathered in Shillong, Meghalaya, in northeast India. As Slow Food International reported, “It involved over 600 representatives from 140 international Indigenous communities and over 60 countries. Three days of conferences addressed the rights of Indigenous Peoples to have control over their land to grow food, hunt, fish and gather according to their own needs, to protect their livelihoods and to defend the biodiversity of indigenous breeds and crop varieties.”
The two videos embedded above say more than any analysis or argument. They were both filmed at Shillong and give a sense of what slow food means and why it is important. The first video, narrated by a child, makes the point poetically, powerfully. The second tells more of the Terra Madre story and explores why people attended. Both are beautiful and worth seeing.