A Chat with Slow Food Founder Carlin Petrini

In 1986, the first branch of McDonald’s in Italy opened in the heart of Rome, at the Piazza di Spagna. As in many other countries, protesters howled and demonstrated. One man took decisive action.

Carlo Petrini, or Carlin as he is known to Italians, has quietly grown from being a little-known left-wing journalist, to becoming the leader of one of the world’s largest food activism organizations. Concerned about the encroachment of multinational influence on traditional food culture, he built a resistance movement to defend and protect local food ecosystems, a counterpoint to the unrelenting onslaught of corporate hegemony.

Today, Slow Food spans over 100,000 members in 153 countries, promoting thousands of small-scale producers, communities and educational initiatives. I sat down to interview Petrini (in Italian!), and asked him about the direction of Slow Food, the global food system, and what you can do to get involved.

In America, there are many people involved with Slow Food, but more who have never heard of Slow Food. For these people, what is Slow Food?

Slow Food is an international movement that is involved in the defense of biodiversity, not only in agriculture and food, but also culture; in the defense of small-scale producers, small farmers, fishermen, and artisans because these small producers are the ones who maintain biodiversity. So, Slow Food is a network of these actors that will grow ever stronger, until it finally reaches every country in the world. However, it makes no pretense of having a strong structure or hierarchy–no, it is very, very agile.

In Italy, I can shopping at the market and buy organic vegetables and artisanal products that will not cost much more than the industrial versions. But in America, the difference between the two is significant, and it can cost double or more to buy organic. Why should we spend more time and pay more money for food, especially impoverished people?

Food must be paid at the right price. Here in Italy, we pay too little. When I was young, in the 1970s, 40 years ago, Italian families spent 32% of their income on food. Today, they spend 12% of income. This cell phone here [points] costs the average Italian 13% of his income. You cannot say that food is expensive—the price of food is far too low! And because the price of food is so low, culture is being destroyed, and the young are being sent away from rural areas. Thus, we need an educated countryside, one that values food. Note that there is a difference between value and price. Food is valuable. If I pay a little more for good food—organic food—I help the environment, and I help farmers. This is what they call in economics “positive externalities.” If, however, I only want to pay as little as possible for food, farmers will leave the countryside, water is mismanaged, I eat what is not healthy, and hence, these are negative externalities. Today, the real problem is that food must be at the right price. Not low, but right.

There are many developing countries whose people dream of a lifestyle like those in first-world countries. For instance, in China, people think of McDonald’s as a fancy restaurant of good quality. How do we protect and preserve traditional food culture in these cases?

China has a food culture that is thousands of years old, much older than that of Europe’s. Today they are searching for ways to be different, to be individuals. But it will pass. Why? Because every people is tied to their traditions. And, what has happened in Italy is happening in China. Italy had its moment when it embraced modernity, fast food, etc.—but everything has returned back to the way it was. This is a sure passage. I cannot imagine that the people of China will only eat McDonald’s—no, I don’t believe it.

So, do you eat non-Italian or non-traditional foods?

Oh, certainly, it depends on where I am. Last week, I was in Germany, and I ate German food. I believe that every country has a food culture that should be respected and known. I would not go to Germany and eat a plate of spaghetti—spaghetti can be eaten here! If there is a different culture, my curiosity wants to know that other culture.

What new projects does Slow Food have for this year? Will there be a conference like Terra Madre in the United States?

There will be Terra Madre in different countries of the world. I hope that there will soon be one in the United States because the time is ripe. We would have to see if our chapters and members in America can put it together, but that is the difficulty of working with a big country. Many people have certainly been asking why we have never done a big conference in the U.S. Thus, the time is right.

Do you have any advice for young people who would like to participate in the good food movement?

Be curious. Be knowledgeable. Get the maximum information you can about what you eat, where the producer is from, how it was made, etc. My generation is one that is still very close to farming culture, so we know the products. Today, the new generation does not have these direct links to the farmer. Therefore, it is time to know the information and not be just consumers, but I would say, be co-producers. To be a co-producer signifies the value of food, being curious about food, knowing the producer, knowing the value of the merchandise, and most important, not wasting food.

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