As the European Union--in the wake of the recent food scares and, especially, with the prospect of enlarging its membership to include much of Eastern Europe--rethinks its agricultural policy, now is the time for Slow Food to have an impact. European agricultural policy was set in the 1950s, when hunger from the war was still a vivid memory. "The goal was self-sufficiency, and the emphasis was on producing quantity," says Mauro Albrizio, who heads the Slow Food office in Brussels. "Farmers were given subsidies according to the amounts they produced. The European Union would guarantee a price for, say, wheat that was a certain amount greater than the market price, since European farmers were somewhat less productive than American or Canadian farmers. The more you produce, the more money you make, and this encouraged intensive agribusiness practices that put a premium on quantity. There is no reward for quality, for the integrity of the process or the importance of the product to the area." Ninety percent of the EU's agriculture budget, some 42 billion euros--which constitutes 45 percent of the budget of the EU itself--goes toward this kind of price support. But with the prospect of enlarging the EU to include several countries of the former Soviet bloc, Europe's system of farm subsidies may have to be revamped. "To simply extend the current price-support system to all of Eastern Europe would be impossibly expensive," says Albrizio. Various alternatives are now being discussed. Slow Food would like to see the price-support system gradually phased out and replaced by a more modest approach that would not favor quantity over quality. Farmers would receive a subsidy for the number of acres they have under cultivation, and then decide whether they want to push for maximum productivity at a lower price or to concentrate on the high-quality goods that Europe is arguably best suited to produce.
The choice of quality over quantity would seem to have been reinforced by the mad cow epidemic and the recent experience of one of the breeds Slow Food has been trying to protect: the Piedmontese cow. Despite being greatly prized for their cheeses and the fine quality of their beef, the number of Piedmontese cows has decreased dramatically in the past twenty-five years from more than 600,000 to about 300,000, because of their lower productivity. They produce less milk than the more popular Holstein cows. And it generally takes Piedmontese farmers, using traditional feeding methods, about eighteen months to bring their cattle to slaughter, while cattle raised with the help of food additives and growth hormones can be marketed after just fourteen months. Thus the Piedmontese cow recently appeared ready to give way to the inexorable logic of agribusiness.
To prevent the disappearance of prized breeds and species, Slow Food has adopted the concept of the presidio, or defense battalion, creating a list of endangered foods and sponsoring strategies to try to save them, generally in the form of expertise and marketing help. In the case of the Piedmontese cow, Slow Food helped to organize a consortium of sixteen livestock farmers. Rather than urge them to expand their herds and cut expenses to become more cost-effective, Slow Food encouraged them to agree to a series of strict protocols for natural and organic methods of feeding and raising the animals in order to produce the highest-quality beef. What might have seemed like a suicidal strategy a few years ago became a winning one last year when the first cases of mad cow disease were reported in Continental Europe. With beef consumption in Italy dropping by about 30 percent, butchers and consumers were desperate for meat that offered genuine safety guarantees, and demand for Piedmontese beef soared.
Naturally, Piedmontese beef costs somewhat more, about $4 a kilo instead of $3 for the more common breeds. "The average Italian eats about twenty kilos of beef (forty-two pounds) in the course of a year, and if you pay 2,000 lire more per kilo (about 50 cents a pound) for Piedmontese beef, that comes to about 40,000 lire ($18) a year--an entirely manageable cost for excellent-quality, safe meat," says Sergio Capaldo, a local veterinarian who heads Slow Food's efforts on behalf of the Piedmontese cow. "Now, to a meatpacking company or even a butcher, a difference of 90 cents a pound makes a big difference, whereas to the individual consumer with his forty-two pounds a year, it means much less. So if we had an educated consumer who chooses his beef the way he chooses his wine, the whole equation of cost and quality changes."
Once the consumer becomes discriminating, slow-growing cattle such as the Piedmontese breed begin to make sense. "The meat has less fat and cholesterol than many kinds of fish, including sole," says Capaldo. Indeed, according to US Department of Agriculture tests, 100 grams of Piedmontese beef contains 1.7 grams of fat, compared with 11.3 in standard kinds of cattle, and 95 calories, compared with 251 calories in most beef.
That discriminating consumers may affect the way food is produced is not such an improbable idea. We are already seeing some signs of this in our own country [see William Greider, "The Last Farm Crisis," November 20, 2000]. "I think the United States is natural Slow Food territory," says Petrini. "You have a huge movement of organic food and the phenomenon of the microbreweries. Up until ten or twenty years ago, you had two large companies [Busch and Miller] that dominated the beer market. Now you have 1,600 microbreweries." Equally promising, he says, is the rise of farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture, where a group of people in a place like New York City makes an arrangement with a farmer in upstate New York to deliver vegetables to the city once a week for six or seven months a year. New technology, such as the Internet, has eliminated the middleman in areas like stockbroking and bookselling, and the same may be the case with food. The Internet has been important in forming and knitting together community agriculture networks. "Community-supported agriculture and farmers' markets eliminate the mediation of the supermarkets," says Petrini. "It is biodiversity from the ground up, with a new class of farmers in direct contact with consumers. Alice Waters [founder of the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California] is teaching schools how to create their own gardens. She's Slow Food down to her bone marrow." In fact, during the past year, Slow Food has experienced its greatest growth of new members in California. As a result, Slow Food decided to hold its first US conference in late July in San Francisco.
In today's prosperous, global consumer economy, Slow Food may have a message particularly attuned to the culture of the day: a kind of pleasure-loving environmentalism that does not reject consumption per se but the homogenization and high-speed frenzy of chain-store, fast-food life. The issues that animate the protesters of Seattle and Genoa, Petrini says, are very much part of Slow Food's concern with agriculture and cultural diversity. "I want Slow Food not to be merely a gastronomical organization but deal with problems of the environment and world hunger without renouncing the right to pleasure," he says. "The American gastronomical community simply contemplates its own navel" and has no political consciousness, while the American environmental movement has tended to have a self-denying, ascetic component that regards eating anything other than tofu as hopelessly selfish and decadent. "By now even the Food and Agriculture Organization has recognized that you can't talk about hunger without talking about pleasure," says Petrini. "At the same time, you can't deal with pleasure without being aware of hunger." Many of the foods that Slow Food is protecting, although treated as delicacies today, were peasant foods that were brilliant strategies to stave off hunger and contain worlds of knowledge about intelligent use of the environment. Their preservation and development may mean more than a few good meals.