Carlo Petrini’s Terra Madre, Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities

Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement in 1989 as an outgrowth of  his campaign against the McDonald’s fast food chain opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome.  An international member-supported nonprofit association and a worldwide network of people, Slow Food is “committed to improving the way food is produced and distributed” [].  The organization explains its name as “an ironic way of saying no to fast food … living an unhurried life, beginning at the table.”  Its use of the snail as a symbol reflects the value placed on moving slowly and calmly eating one’s way through life.

With 100,000 members in 153 countries and more than 10,000 small producers involved in Slow Food Presidia projects [which support small-scale, artisinal and traditional food production], Slow Food has become a significant force in world agriculture.  The international Slow Food movement has nine National Slow Food Associates: Italy, USA [], Germany, Switzerland, France, UK, Netherlands, Japan, and Australia.  Within the United States, there are 200 local chapters, called “convivia,” with at least one in each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia [].  Each convivium organizes a number of events each year, ranging from simple dinners and tastings to visits to local producers and farms.  Promoting CSAs and Earth Markets [], in order “to get to know local foods and producers and to educate others about them,” is an important purpose of the local chapters.  Since 2004, Slow Food has offered a multidisciplinary academic program in food studies at its University of Gastronomic Sciences, with two campuses in Italy, one  near Turin, the other near Parma.  In 2010, the most recent biannual food festival of the Slow Food Movement held in Torino [Turin], Italy attracted record attendance estimated at over 200,000, including 30% from outside Italy, to five days of events.

From 2000 to 2003, the Slow Food movement presented awards for the defense of biodiversity to a dozen or so farmers, fishers and food artisans each year, who helped save small fragments of biodiversity: an animal breed, native plant variety, or a traditional way of turning nature into food.  A network of 700 journalists in 80 different countries nominated hundreds of individuals for these awards.  It occurred to Mr. Petrini, “with the same outlay of funds and resources, instead of the journalists, we could invite thousands of farmers” to gather at the 2004 biennial food festival of the Slow Food movement for a complimentary event to be known as Terra Madre, “in honor of Pachamama, the South American Indian name for the Earth Mother venerated by millions of farmers and peasants all over the world.”

Mr. Petrini in his Terra Madre, Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2010) emphasizes that the Slow Food movement was only the catalyst for establishing the Terra Madre movement: “it is Slow Food that is part of the Terra Madre network, and not vice versa.”  With its third “world meeting of food communities” in 2008, 7000 delegates from 153 countries representing 1600 food communities joined voices to lend their weight to Petrini’s vision for a world agriculture “that takes in ‘sacredness’ of food, respect for the environment, sociality [emphasis added], conviviality and culture.”  The assembly of individuals in community or “sociality” and the nurturing of social relations is at the heart of the type of agriculture which Terra Madre seeks to sustain and grow.  According to Mr. Petrini, agriculture is “not just another sector of industry like iron and steel” with producers and consumers.  Rather, individuals become “coproducers”  and an integral part of a food community by their support of farmers markets, school gardens, csa (community supported agriculture) farms and the Terra Madre model of agriculture.

The transcript of Mr Petrini’s speech at the opening ceremonies of the third world meeting of 1600 food communities in 2008 is included in the opening pages of his book. His rejection of the “crazy market economy,”  “rogue finance”  and speculation in food and food stuffs in order to “get rich quick” by manipulating increases in rice, grain and corn is a powerful message, though restrained by his “hoping the market economy manages to regenerate itself virtuously, keeping its feet on the ground and connecting more with the rural economy.”  In his view, the ongoing world economic crisis “will lead to greater respect for the rural economy” and “the people who work the land.”

Mr. Petrini paints a disturbing picture of the current crisis in food created by industrial agriculture with “the number of those suffering from hunger and malnutrition about to top the one billion mark.”  At the same time, tons of edible food is thrown away as a byproduct of the industrial agriculture system.  He cites estimates that in the United Kingdom, 6.7 million tons, a third of the total available is wasted, while in the U.S., Americans waste 25.9 million tons a year, a quarter of all their food.  In the Philippines, “a curious and shocking figure” is that 1.2 million tons of rice is wasted every day.  According to his Terra Madre manifesto, “the models of standardized production and large-scale monoculture fail to solve the problems of food” given this failure to feed almost a billion hungry people while creating “new pandemics, such as obesity and diabetes,” and the wasting of food.  He sees “cracks” in the supremacy of the “empire” of the “top five and a few other multinationals (which) have almost managed to monopolize the ownership of seeds, land, breeding farms, and animal and vegetable varieties.”

Mr. Petrini is a visionary who believes fervently in his cause, which strongly rejects commodity-based, industrial agriculture described as the “global agribusiness machine,”  in favor of “glocalism” or small-scale food production, “with trade as direct as possible with as few middlemen involved as possible.” Nonetheless, his statement of principles in Terra Madre, which calls for transforming world agriculture by focusing on the nurturing of food communities, does not strike an arrogant tone.  Rather, Mr. Petrini subscribes to a generous view of what constitutes a food community.  Petrini focuses specifically on about a dozen of the 2,000 food communities in 153 countries, which make up this growing movement including  (1) a food community of farmers, breeders, processors and cooks in the West African nation of Benin producing honey, peanut and palm oils, shea butter, cashew and pineapple syrups, néré sauce, soy cookies, dried baobab and okra, yam, manioc, white corn, sorghum and soy flours “bought by at least five hundred people every week,” (2) the Angelic Organics  Farm [] near Chicago, Illinois, a community-supported agriculture farm with over fourteen hundred families participating in the weekly shares, (3) and the Axo family bakery in Parainen, Finland, which keeps the tradition of baking black bread and pullaa, a light bread with a sweetish flavor, made with corn spiced with cardamom and cinnamon and decorated with almonds and sugar” alive.  He makes special mention of the school garden program developed by chef and author, Alice Waters.  The inspiring Edible Schoolyard program [] established in 1995 by the Chez Panisse Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Ms. Waters, began with a one-acre garden planted at the Martin Luther King Middle School on Rose Street in Berkeley, California in 1995, and this garden remains a thriving acre of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers.  The Edible Schoolyard program  now has a small network of Edible Schoolyard program across the country.  Petrini also notes that in 2006, the Terra Madre agenda was enlarged “to include culinary know-how,” and cooks have become a vital part of the movement.  Mr. Petrini praises the “ever-increasing number of chefs and cooks committed to using fresh, seasonal, sustainably produced ingredients,” who play an important role in educating many people about “taste and eating.”

Mr. Petrini forcefully maintains that a minimum form of agricultural subsistence can be developed “at all latitudes and in all contexts” by planting a garden.  Growing food for oneself should be a task valued by all humans.  When asked by writer Craig Lambert of Harvard Magazine how Harvard University should plan for its 400th anniversary, Bill McKibben echoed this point made by Mr. Petrini’s by his suggestion: “Farm the Yard” [].  Growing food, in Petrini’s beautiful words, “enables us to earn value in terms of conviviality, personal gratification, community service, environmental protection, and in a word, well-being.”

Carlo Petrini in his Terra Madre advocates strongly for organic food: “You have to produce organically to provide quality for everyone-including the world’s poorest.”  The soil is a living thing, and Petrini argues “we are murdering it,”  noting that “the same amount of synthetic chemicals has been applied to the world’s soils and introduced into its natural systems in the last ten years as was used in the whole of the preceding century.”  Petrini maintains “they will jeopardize soil fertility in the long term.”  He rejects the attempt to dominate nature by the development of GMO’s (genetically modified seeds) which are designed for monoculture and bemoans the loss of biological diversity by allowing “fruits of thousands of years of evolution to vanish.”  For example, of the “5,000 existing potato varieties, only 4 constitute the majority of those cultivated for commercial purposes in the United States.”  In contrast, small scale farmers who are part of the Terra Madre movement agree on several basic points: (1) their labor helps save biodiversity, (2) they grow food in harmony with the earth using sustainable techniques, with respect for the environment and for season, (3) food is grown in conditions respectful of workers, their rights, and their cultures, and with a decent guaranteed wage, and (4) they produce quality food.

Mr. Petrini rejects labeling Terra Madre as “anti-global.”  Instead, he maintains that “We, the people of Terra Madre, are the most ‘global’ of all, because we are well aware that we are a living, active, creative part of that most wonderful of globes- our Mother Earth.”  Moreover, in Carlo Petrini’s words, Terra Madre does not mean “waging war on the global food system- it means creating alternatives.”  Terra Madre, Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2010).  [FW Barrie, 11/8/11]





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