Carlo Petrini founded Slow Food, an organization dedicated to celebrating and supporting food traditions, in Italy in 1986. Today, Slow Food is an international movement with more than 80,000 members, including 12,000 in the United States. Local chapters, called convivia, honor regional production and flavors, promote biodiversity and sustainability in food and farming, and educate consumers about the risks of an increasingly industrialized "fast food" system and the pleasures of the Slow Food aesthetic.
The Natural Foods Merchandiser spoke with Carlo Petrini after his keynote speech to the Investor's Circle conference in San Francisco in May. With translation by Erika Lesser, the executive director of Slow Food USA, Petrini spoke of the worldwide movement that has grown out of his vision.
NFM: You call yourself a citizen of the Earth. Can you say more about what that means to you?
CP: All of these issues we face—political, cultural, economic—are being played out on a planetary level. This necessitates new planetary-based citizenship. The old concept of being a citizen of a territory or nation has been superseded. This new citizen of the Earth must be someone who respects the local culture and puts it into a context of other local cultures.
NFM: Food activist Vandana Shiva called Slow Food and Terra Madre "the quietest revolution." Did you set out to create a revolution?
CP: Yes, but it's important to understand that we are applying a revolutionary idea, but in a way that is harmonious, sustainable and brings pleasure. [It's different from] themes of creating political tension, of one vision of the world against another based on the act of protesting. Slow Food has an instructive approach in the sense that we are defending local communities and food producers and their right to be citizens of the Earth as well.
NFM: What has surprised you most about the way Slow Food has grown?
CP: The fact that this idea has been able to translate and take on life in many different parts of the world, in countries that are hungry and countries that suffer from obesity.
NFM: What has been most rewarding and satisfying for you in the Slow Food movement?
CP: The same idea, that the idea translates, is not just a proposition, but flourishes in different cultures. And that gastronomy is no longer an elitist exercise, but is becoming a right of all in a complex and multidisciplinary vision, through the efforts of Slow Food, and outside of a reductive, recipe-focused idea of food as cooking.
NFM: What's the biggest problem we face in the food system today?
CP: Many things are not good, but I have a constructive approach. Arrogance of power, lack of sensitivity in politics, the phenomenon of cultural misery, which is becoming diffuse—when confronted with these things, we must respond, and in that response we find the reasons for our mission.
NFM: Slow foods and place-based foods are very compelling concepts, but how can busy Americans integrate these things into daily life?
CP: Most difficult is the challenge of implementing a different kind of economy based on quality and biodiversity. In terms of the values and principles of Slow Food, the United States is among the most active and most creative of Slow Food interpreters. Farmers' markets, organic production, growing awareness of these issues—these are all values that are very present. There is huge potential, and we're seeing a lot of growth, maybe more in America than in the Old World.
NFM: Do you have a message for food corporations that are entering organic production or buying smaller organic companies?
CP: The first principle is governance of limits. If there is no governance of limits, this exponential growth will eventually create monsters. Intensive production of organics can also damage the environment. Monocropping of organics is not sustainable. The larger these companies become, whether organic or conventional, the more they need to exploit natural resources and man. For example, many large organic growers in California are exploiting the Mexican labor force. My message would be to govern their limits and don't think that growth is the only solution. This is what is so difficult to explain to Americans. You can explain it, but to implement it is another story.
NFM: What's next for Slow Food? What are your goals going forward?
CP: The priority for Slow Food this year is Terra Madre, Oct. 26 to 30, in Turin, Italy. My goals are first, the construction of the [Slow Food] network physically, in terms of the materials and resources we need. Second, to create the dialogue between traditional knowledge that our producers have and the science of academics; to achieve this, [we expect] 400 university professors from around the world and 5,000 producers alongside to facilitate the dialogue. Third, the construction of a new economy: Consume differently. It's also valuing diversity and a consumption that is measured appropriately, at a human scale.
Visit www.slowfoodusa.org to learn more about Slow Food and Terra Madre.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 84