No Time to Go Slow

Carlo Petrini is no dummy.

He knows his way around food, and he knows how to work a crowd – even with a slight language barrier. For his visit to Yale on Friday, Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, was not there to simply say, “Eat better food. Eat local. Enjoy your meal.” He did say some of that, but the heart of his talk was worthy of some PhD teaching a graduate seminar.

Must be Italian-the hands moved like lightning


Petrini talked about Benedict of Umbria, founder of the Benedictines, and claimed he and his followers revitalized agriculture in medieval Europe. He talked about Trust and Reciprocity, a book co-edited by a Nobel Prize-winning economist (Elinor Ostrom) whom no one in the august Ivy League crowd could name. He threw out “entropic” and “dialectic” like they were cooking terms everyone used in their family kitchen. He corrected his translator once or twice, indicating he was a little bit more savvy with his English than he might have first let on. Most of all, Petrini talked about the wasteland that is today’s industrial farming, which he called “unsustainable madness,” and the root of a great environmental disaster unfolding around us.

Industrial farming, through the introduction of chemicals, robs the soil of nutrients. And the world’s farmers have used more chemicals in the past 20 years than in the preceding 120. Along with the chemical use has come water pollution, of aquifers, streams, and rivers. Not to mention the loss of biodiversity, as hundreds of “less productive” varieties and species have been allowed to die off.

Petrini also sees industrial farming as the source of a spiritual pollution of a kind. As the number of farms and farmers shrink, people lose their connection to nature. We have cut the umbilical cord, he said, that once tied us to the earth. In the past, when almost everyone farmed, humans were attuned to the rhythms of nature; with the rise of industrialization and agribusiness, profit, not hearing the rhythm, is the only goal.

Petrini noted that modern farming has led to great abundance. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates we produce enough food to feed up to 12 billion people – almost twice the world’s population. Yet, about 1/6 of us face hunger. Petrini didn’t say it, but it’s mostly a problem of politics and logistics; wars contribute to much of the problem, and other factors keep food from getting to all the people that need it.

In the West, the abundance has led to a careless attitude toward food. Americans waste 22,000 tons of edible food each day. We have lost sight of what Petrini called the sacredness of food. He recounted how his grandfather would scrape the crumbs off the table, rather than let them go to waste (an image that stirred memories of my grandparents – like Petrini natives of one of Italy’s great agriculture regions, Piedmont – and their vegetable garden and fruit trees in the back yard. Although I never talked about it with them, I’ve always felt my interest in food and agriculture came from their example).

Seeing food, or most anything else, as sacred is difficult in a culture that treats everything as a commodity. Before his talk, Petrini showed a short film about a biennial event held in Turin called Terra Madre (Mother Earth). Founded by Petrini, it brings together food producers from six continents. They range from farmers to fishers, from ranchers to beekeepers. They meet to learn from each other, to promote sustainable food production, and to protest what Petrini called the commodification of food.

Growing your own food, even on a small level, is one way to return to the sacred side of food. If that’s not doable, you can become what Petrini calls a “co-producer” of food by avoiding the supermarkets and seeking out local sources for what you eat. Getting to know the farmers and their fields is part of that, and helps us become something more than mere consumers of another packaged product.

Though he did not mention Lewis Hyde by name, Petrini conjured his spirit when he said one of the new paradigms for a better food system is the idea of “the gift,” of passing on what we create and what we are given. Petrini tied this to trust and reciprocity as a new form of exchange, rather than paying a fixed price for a food item. Food is devalued, he said, when we pay attention only to its price. He gave CSAs as an example of trust and reciprocity at work. When members buy shares, they don’t know exactly what produce, or how much, they will get in a given season. But they trust the farmers will do their best to maximize the production (in a sustainable way). And the farmers know that they’ll have customers for everything they produce; some of their financial insecurity is gone, and they dedicate themselves to growing the best food they can.

Cost was sometimes an unspoken element in the discussion about building a better food system. Eating sustainably can seem like a rich person’s pursuit, since getting organic produce (or grass-fed meat, for you carnivores) from local sources is, most times, not cheap. Petrini noted the irony that the healthy “peasant food” of the past is now the expensive “health” food of the rich, while for today’s poor, often the cheapest food available is the heavily subsidized corn/soy/sugar/fat-based crap peddled by agribusiness.

The key to changing the food system, of offering better food for everyone, comes down to choices we make. Avoid the mass-produced foodlike products sold at supermarkets and support local farms. Of course, that’s still easier said than done, even with programs that, say, let people use WIC coupons at farmer’s markets. Agribusiness, in tandem with government, still supports policies that leads to too much cheap and unhealthy food being eaten by too many people. The film about Terra Madre offered a paraphrase of a quote from Gandhi: The earth can provide for everyone’s needs, but not for their greed.

Petrini paints a somewhat grim view of where we are now, with the environmental and health crises we have created from our current food – and value – system. “We’ve lost the meaning of things,“ he claims. Certainly, too often, of the value of real, nutritious food. But Petrini believes we can shift the paradigm and reconnect to nature, and each other, by making better food choices.

From my perspective, that means going vegan, probably the best thing we can do for the health of the planet and the well-being of millions of animals. Knowing most people aren’t quite ready for that step, at least make the effort to buy the healthiest food you can, from local sources. And take time to enjoy your meals with the people you love. That’s part of the sacredness of food too.


~ by mburgan on October 10, 2010.

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