Slow Food enters battle for EU farm reform

ROME — Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, says he used to fear seeing the association he set up more than 20 years ago to promote good eating and fight the spread of standard commercialized consumption degenerate into a club for well-off foodies.

Born out of a ferment of left wing Italian protest movements in the 1980s, Slow Food has since become a worldwide organization with more than 100,000 members and activities and supporters in 150 countries.”It was my greatest terror at the start that we would end up as a kind of association of gourmets, but I don’t think that danger is there anymore,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Now Slow Food, which already runs educational projects for city children, supports small farmers in Africa and helps cheesemakers in Europe develop distribution networks for their products, is joining the battle for European Union (EU) farm reform.

“This is the first time we’ve taken a position that involves making formal proposals as well as protesting,” he said. “We need to change this food system.”

As EU ministers step up preparations for reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the bloc’s €55-billion-a-year farm support program, Slow Food is launching proposals to help small farmers and bring young people back to the land.

The move marks another step for an organization more generally known for its promotion of raw milk cheeses, seasonal vegetables or traditional, regional cooking.

“The idea is to renew the social position of the small farmer, to give it life and sense. This is a huge challenge and for that you need political support,” he said.

“The data is shocking. Today, fewer than 7% of European farmers are under 35 years of age. A third of farmers are over 65 years old. This is already a desperate situation.”

“There’s a lot of work to be done at this level and the new CAP really should address this problem in structural terms with concrete proposals,” he said.


Slow Food’s insistence on knowing where food comes from and its new determination to enter the political fray make for an interesting test of the 19th-century German Chancellor Bismarck’s maxim that it’s better not to look too closely when laws and sausages are being made.

But Petrini remains optimistic of keeping clear of the contaminating effects of political lobbying and says there has been a good response, not only from European Green parties but from some on the mainstream center-left and even center-right.

“We have a very different strategy from the one used by the powerful industrial lobbies with their offices in Brussels and their links to the officials and bureaucracy there,” he said.

“We prefer to work through their voters on the ground. It’s a longer, more complicated campaign. It may work better in some countries than in others but it’s the effort we’re making.

A droll and compelling speaker with an infectious enthusiasm for traditional cooking and food production, Petrini is the most visible public face of Slow Food, which is based in his hometown of Bra in Piedmont, a northern Italian region with a long tradition of culinary excellence.

The organization itself however operates on a very loose structure based on a network of local chapters which include small farmers and producers as well as people interested in food and agriculture.

“We’re strong if we’re well-implanted locally. That’s the way we have to operate,” he said.

Since well before its campaign for EU farm reform, Slow Food has run events like the “Cheese” or “Slow Fish” festivals held every two years, campaigns for biodiversity or the University of Gastronomic Sciences it set up in Pollenzo, near Bra in 2004.

But Petrini says he remains devoted to the idea of eating as a pleasure, even if he is suspicious of the explosion of television cooking shows and high-concept restaurants over the past two decades.

“Look at these,” he says, pointing to a plate of Apulian roasted meat bombette on the table at lunch. “That’s as simple as you like but they’re stupendous.”

In a telephone conversation later, he returns to the theme, rejecting the suggestion that Slow Food is all about fine dining for the rich and noting that the criticism is a convenient one from the point of view of the vast global food industry.

“This isn’t really a question of rich and poor. We’re all badly educated about this kind of thing. Think of the staggering amount of food that gets wasted in the developed world every day,” he said.

“It’s about a more sober, less excessive conception of pleasure,” he says. “A lot of people have the idea that quality is expensive. It’s not that at all. Quality is good.” —Reuters

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