It's always said that nature finds its own balance. So it seems fitting that the Slow Food Movement has gracefully evolved in the hills of Piedmont, Italy, a mere two hours away from Genoa where anti-globalization activism recently played out in the violence that has become the predictable companion of protest.
But Slow Food chooses to make its stand against the relentless big business-driven homogenization of society in kinder, gentler ways by preserving and promoting traditional ways of growing, producing and preparing food. Wherever we live, what we eat tends to be the closest thing to cultural diversity we experience in our daily lives. But as Carlos Petrini, Slow Food's founder, has pointed out, "A hundred years ago, people ate between 100 and 120 different species of food. Now our diet is made up of at most 10 or 12 species."
Petrini launched the Slow Food Movement in 1986, in direct response to the opening of McDonald's on Rome's Spanish Steps. In 1989, delegates from 15 countries convened in Paris to take the movement global. Their manifesto read: "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life. May suitable doses of a guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency."
"Contagion" rings ominously true when you reflect on what has happened since 1989: mad-cow disease, foot-and-mouth, E-coli outbreaks, GM scare after GM scare, each and every one of them underlining the simple fact that the industrialization of food production is breeding monsters. We've fallen out of touch with seasonal cycles, with local merchandise. We've lost the direct connection between producer and consumer. In fact, in many ways, what has happened to the food industry has been a forerunner of what is happening in many other industries as the forces of globalization place profit over humanity.
So Slow Food's emphasis on natural, organic methods couldn't be more timely. And it is not at all surprising that it has taken on an activist edge. Its adherents are pragmatic and political, as befits a movement whose roots are in the Italian Communist Party. It has recently opened offices in Brussels, where it lobbies the European Union on agriculture and trade policy, and New York where it organizes trade fairs and tries to find markets for traditional food producers. And if he resists the homogeneity of agribusiness on principle, Carlo Petrini also believes that globalization can benefit small producers by opening up international lines of communication and creating demand for their niche products. It is already happening when a huge US company like Williams-Sonoma buys artisanal corn in Piedmont. And the Internet obliterates the middle man, helping small farmers find a market for their high-quality goods.
But the real fascination of Slow Food lies in its commitment to the defense of endangered foods and methods. To read the Ark of Taste, the movement's compendium of species under threat, is to experience an arcane and seductive diversity: the purple asparagus of Albenga, the black celery of Trevi, the Vesuvian apricot, the Californian red abalone, Britain's Blenheim Orange apple. It's sheer poetry. Petrini has said, "We want to extend the kind of attention that environmentalism has dedicated to the panda and the tiger to domesticated plants and animals." Hence the label for the movement: eco-gastronomy.
Since 1995, when it launched its defense of endangered foods, Slow Food's membership has grown from 20,000 to 65,000 members in 42 countries. So far, there are about 300 in the UK, but that number will surely grow as more people come to appreciate just what it is that Slow Food stands for. It starts with the premise that we are what we eat, then shows us ways that food can make us better people, both as a noble alternative to agribusiness tyranny and as an irresistible exercise of the foodie pleasure principle -- the production and consumption of good eats. Dissent was never so delightful.
(An earlier of this essay originally appeared in a recent edition The Big Issue, which I guest-edited. The Big Issue is a current affairs magazine founded in 1991 by my husband, Gordon Roddick, with financial assistance from The Body Shop Foundation.)