Long before demonstrators and police battled it out on the streets of Genoa during the G-8 summit, a potentially more influential attempt to guide the direction of globalization was slowly evolving about two hours' drive away in the countryside of the neighboring region of Piedmont in the foothills of the Italian Alps. In the small market town of Bra, in an area known for its red wines and white truffles, is the headquarters of a movement called Slow Food, dedicated to preserving and supporting traditional ways of growing, producing and preparing food. If the French attitude toward globalization is symbolized by farm activist José Bové driving a tractor into a McDonald's, Italy's subtler and more peaceful attitude is embodied in this quirky and intelligent movement, which has taken up the defense of the purple asparagus of Albenga, the black celery of Trevi, the Vesuvian apricot, the long-tailed sheep of Laticauda, a succulent Sienese pig renowned in the courts of medieval Tuscany and a host of endangered handmade cheeses and salamis known now only to a handful of old farmers.
Founded in 1986, in direct response to the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Rome's famous Piazza di Spagna, the Slow Food Manifesto declares that:
A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.
In its first years Slow Food, which has adopted the snail as its official symbol, was heavily concentrated on food and wine, and produced what is considered to be Italy's best guides to wine, restaurants and food stores. But in the mid-1990s Slow Food developed a new political dimension, called eco-gastronomy. "We want to extend the kind of attention that environmentalism has dedicated to the panda and the tiger to domesticated plants and animals," says Carlo Petrini, the movement's founder, a tall, handsome bearded man of 54. "A hundred years ago, people ate between one hundred and a hundred and twenty different species of food. Now our diet is made up of at most ten or twelve species."
Worrying about the fate of the Paduan hen might have seemed a quixotic and elitist concern a few years ago, but with the lingering panic over mad cow disease, the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and the debate over genetically modified food, Slow Food--with its emphasis on natural, organic methods--has suddenly acquired a political importance and popularity that has surprised even its own leaders. Since 1995, when it began to defend endangered foods, the organization has grown from 20,000 to 65,000 members in forty-two countries. To press its political concerns, Slow Food has recently opened offices in Brussels, where it lobbies the European Union on agriculture and trade policy, as well as in New York, where it organizes trade fairs and tries to find markets for traditional food producers.
Two years ago, Slow Food flexed its muscles when the European Union tried to enforce uniformly rigid hygiene standards for all European food producers that were originally invented by the American space agency NASA. The standards have helped to keep astronauts from getting sick in space and are used successfully by corporate giants such as Kraft Foods, but would have imposed impossible burdens of reporting, paperwork and new equipment on thousands of small farmers, driving them out of business. Slow Food started a petition that was signed by half a million people, and eventually Italy obtained exemptions for thousands of artisan food makers.
As national boundaries disappear in Europe and become more porous elsewhere, food has emerged as an important source of identity, giving a new twist to nineteenth-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach's famous phrase, "We are what we eat." But the secret to Slow Food's appeal is not that it offers a nostalgic backward glance at a world of vanishing pleasures. Globalization, in Slow Food's view, has the potential to help as well as harm the small food producer. On the one hand, globalization has the homogenizing effect of allowing multinational corporations to extend their reach to virtually every corner of the world. But at the same time, by making it easier for members of small minorities (beekeepers or Gaelic speakers) to communicate at a distance, it creates openings for niche cultures to thrive. Rather than being afraid of McDonald's, the Italians feel that they can take it on and win. "We are making the bet on quality," says Petrini. The international network that Slow Food is building is an example of what Petrini calls "virtuous globalization."