“Come to the Table” was the motto of Slow Food Nation ’08, and over the Labor Day weekend roughly 60,000 people heeded the call, gathering in San Francisco to eat organic food, meet local farmers and listen to panel discussions about the future of sustainable agriculture. The plaza in front of City Hall was transformed into a fruit and vegetable garden flanked by an outdoor market. An exhibition space at Fort Mason, near the waterfront, featured “taste pavilions” with artisanal foods and meals prepared by well-known chefs. Measured solely by attendance, the first get-together of this kind in the United States was an unqualified success. The crowds were large, the lines were long and almost all the events were sold out. The food and the weather were terrific. Among the many vegans and carnivores, the cheese lovers, wine connoisseurs, raw milk advocates, biodynamic farmers, locavores and chocolatiers, a consensus emerged that what had previously been considered a slogan–“slow food”–was now a genuine social movement. Largely missing, however, was a group of people who will ultimately determine whether this movement gains importance beyond the Bay Area: the workers who harvest, process and serve the food we eat.
The idea of slow food has its origins in the Northern Italian counterculture of the 1970s. While American hippies were forming communes and going back to the land, some of their socialist counterparts in Italy were embracing the traditional music, food and agriculture of life in the rural Piedmont region. Carlo Petrini, a brilliant and charismatic journalist, became the leading spokesman for the notion that there is nothing contradictory about championing pleasure and working for change. After staging a protest at a new McDonald’s near Rome’s Spanish Steps, Petrini and his allies issued a Slow Food Manifesto in 1987. “We are enslaved by speed,” it declared, “and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life.” Two years later, the manifesto was endorsed by delegates from fifteen countries, as the destructiveness of a mechanized, industrialized food system became increasingly clear. Today, Slow Food International has about 85,000 members in more than 100 countries.
At the heart of Petrini’s Slow Food philosophy is a set of fundamental values that aim to distance its celebration of pleasure from mindless decadence. According to the Slow Food trinity, food must be “good, clean, and fair.” The “good” refers to taste; the “clean,” to local, organic, sustainable means of production; and “fair,” to a system committed to social justice.
I never made it into any of the taste pavilions at Slow Food Nation, where the ideal of “good” was amply represented. During panel discussions billed as “Food for Thought,” the movement’s leading writers and intellectuals discussed the harms that modern agriculture is imposing on the world. Patrick Holden, who heads the largest organics group in Britain, warned that the coming shortage of fossil fuels would consign industrial agriculture to the dustbin of history. According to Holden, ten calories of fossil fuel energy are now required to produce each calorie of food. The rising prices of basic inputs–such as the natural gas necessary to produce fertilizers, the petroleum that allows long-distance trucking of livestock, the jet fuel that brings strawberries from New Zealand–will force a return to more traditional farming methods. Vandana Shiva, a passionate defender of India’s small farmers and opponent of genetically modified foods, argued that free trade was actually “forced trade,” imposing the needs of multinational agribusiness upon Third World economies. And Michael Pollan, author, most recently, of In Defense of Food, explained how the latest US farm bill is really a “food bill,” providing subsidies to the manufacture of unhealthy, processed foods while maintaining high prices for healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables. Most panelists, including myself, signed an admirable twelve-point Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture.