The Politics of Food: Carlo Petrini interview

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Great article found here from The Skinny.

“Never has food been as central to world politics as it is today.” So says Slow Food founder and much-lauded international campaigner Carlo Petrini, in Scotland on a flying visit to launch the newly devolved Slow Food Scotland, confer with the Holyrood government on agricultural policy, meet some cheesemakers, and deliver lectures to the nation’s youth on sustainability, provenance, and biodiversity.

Slow Food was founded in 1986 to protest the opening of a McDonald’s near Rome’s Spanish Steps, and it promotes food that is locally produced, sustainable, artisanal – but don’t be fooled by the ‘Guardian Lifestyle section’ associations that this may conjure up. The movement is deeply political, internationally focused and left-leaning. It aims to combat fundamental issues of supply, demand and waste that are facing the world’s nations today.

Petrini is emphatic that the current paradigm of industrial food supply is unsustainable: “You use more energy to produce the food than the food creates. This is the problem of the world – the resources are finite. And to solve this issue of entropy in the world’s food supply, you need to create new paradigms. Because we are now producing food for 12 billion people, but there are just over 7 billion of us. So 40% of food is just thrown away. We are producing 40% more than we need – in Europe, 30% of organic produce becomes compost.”

This issue is linked both to industrial regulations (such as the old EU-standards gripe of the misshapen carrot) and consumer preference. People at some point stopped accepting food that was dirty, or off-colour, or a weird shape. Says Petrini, “Nowadays food is just being sold through television with people cooking, following recipes. This is not all of gastronomy. A holistic vision of food is very important for the change.” He elaborates: “Food is not just food, it is not just something you eat – it is agriculture, fishing, craft food manufacture. Food is biology, genetics. And from a humanistic point of view it is also anthropology, history, politics – that’s why it is a holistic vision of food. [The consumer] has to buy raw materials somewhere. And if they buy a genetically modified product, that is a political choice.”

‘The change’ is the aim of Slow Food – to create a world where the focus moves from large-scale production which damages community, environment and individual health, back to smaller scale, more localised production based around the movement’s core tenets of Good, Clean and Fair. This is a belief backed by the UN, says Petrini: “The FAO [Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations] initially thought that famine could be eradicated through industrial agriculture, but they have since changed their mind.”

Slow Food is now present in 175 countries around the world, each nation representing a different iteration of the concept and responding to their own local issues uniquely. Says Petrini, “Each country has its own history and its own culture and its own way of experiencing its relationship with food.” They’ve recently launched a programme in 43 nations across Africa called 10,000 Gardens, which aims to promote local agriculture and community development. Petrini explains some of the impetus for the programme: “In many countries of Africa there is a big issue now concerning land grabbing, regarding people being expropriated of their land by either multinationals or their government. China, for example, is striving for mines, places they can extract raw materials. [Then] in Mozambique for example, or Madagascar, they are grabbing land where they can raise crops for the short term, and then the land is no longer usable.”

The fight against these big corporations is not being carried out by direct confrontation with authorities, rather by more grassroots, flexible means. Says Petrini, “It’s more getting around it – it’s a lengthy process. We are investing in programmes supporting leadership in African youth.” This focus on local leadership is one of the key tenets of current thinking on responsible international development. He continues, “I don’t believe in missionaries, or in NGOs either. There must be an African solution. It is local people who have created these 10,000 gardens in Africa – we are investing in local resources, in humans… It gives prominence to women, because intensive industrial farming sets women aside from the labour. This is a big problem in Africa, because they are the pillar of local agriculture. And the solution to problems in Africa goes through local agriculture, not industrial agriculture. That’s very important.”

Back in Scotland, the climate looks ripe for a paradigm shift. Petrini is full of positivity for the local attitude. “There’s been a greater understanding towards slow food of late,” he says. “Ten years ago it wasn’t like this… The change is going to take place in Scotland at a much quicker pace than in the rest of the UK. All the conditions are there for a very rapid development. People are becoming increasingly sensitive towards the issue – this is not just the case in Scotland, it is a worldwide phenomenon.”

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