After 22 years in action, Slow Food, a once-small community of farmers, producers and anti-corporate-ag activists, has blossomed into a network of 86,000 members in more than 154 countries. Carlo Petrini is the man behind it all. From his office in Italy’s Piedmont region, where Slow Food was born, the movement’s founder talks with Plenty’s Jessica Tzerman about the upcoming Terra Madre conference, the predictability of the global food crisis and how America’s youth could save sustainable agriculture—for everyone. 

You’re holding the third biennial Terra Madre conference in late October. What are you most looking forward to about the event?

Petrini: Terra Madre was developed to bring together small-scale artisan farmers and food producers, chefs, and academics to share experiences and pursue more sustainable agriculture. This year, I look forward to having a greatly increased presence of young people. It will be the biggest and most important Slow Food meeting to date.

How will the youth delegates strengthen Terra Madre project and Slow Food?

A priority for Terra Madre 2008 is providing the right motivations and rewards to persuade young people to return to the land. They are vital to the fight for good, clean, and fair food; to supporting smallscale, sustainable and local food production; and to reversing the impacts, both environmental and social, of industrial agriculture and mass food production. Young people in America are already showing great leadership through programs such as Slow Food on Campus. Their delegation gives us a sign of hope for our future. It’s also the first sign this century that perhaps the US won’t have to outsource food production to developing countries or rely on industrial agriculture, even though those have been the dominant trends.

How will the conference seek to address the soaring cost of food and the growing global food crisis?

The problem of rising food prices is that it hits countries the hardest where most of the population lives in rural areas and gets by on a very low income ($2 to $3 a day per capita). A possible solution to the current emergency is to use appropriate, efficient tools to make subsistence farming a priority, instead of cultivating primarily for export. By doing this, local economies will strengthen, grow and ultimately favor small-scale artisan production and food security, which respect and are in tune with the environment and local traditions. This isn’t a utopia but an idea of great merit; it’s a modern response to the problems we face today, not a return to the past.

What has been Slow Food’s biggest accomplishment to date?

In addition to Terra Madre, the 2004 opening of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, near Slow Food’s headquarters, was a momentous occasion for us. It represents a new approach to gastronomy, with a comprehensive and multidisciplinary knowledge of food culture and science, and first-hand experience of production processes and regions.

How has Slow Food changed America’s food culture? What work is left to be done?

Slow Food has taken root in the country that invented fast food, and it has shown that there is another way for people to eat and live and has given people the choice to reject fast-food life. More and more people are interested in eating good food and knowing where it comes from. Slow Food Nation, the first national US Slow Food event, was held from August 29 to September 1 in San Francisco. Tens of thousands of people came to celebrate the positive change that is happening and to raise awareness among Americans of the food alternatives available to them. However, the biggest challenge today is to increase this network. [And eventually] I would like to see the victory of good, clean and fair food.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Slow food guru
A conversation with Carlo Petrini.