With Slow Food, the world’s most important contemporary food movement created to counter fast food and fast lifestyles, gathering momentum, here’s a look at the movement’s biggest event held in Turin, Italy, recently.

The singing begins at night. Every night. Words are inconsequential. Emotion and rhythm don’t require language. Sometimes Palestine begins with hand drums, their verses punctuated with whoops and whistles. Sometimes it’s the group from the Philippines, dancing in a circle to gongs and guitars. Sometimes it’s the boys from Sierra Leone, with their distinctive painted wooden hats, all big smiles and bright scarves. The song always gathers strength. It rings through the marketplace, drawing in Swiss men in suspenders, Moroccan women with dramatic kohl-rimmed eyes and petite Korean cooks.

We’re in the Terra Madre arena titled ‘Market Place’, a space hosting 400 food communities from 100 countries. Next door the Salone del Gusto, a theatre of taste that began in 1996, operates from three massive pavilions, displaying Italy's gastronomic diversity. Held in Turin’s Lingotto Fiere centre, covering 80,000 sq m in all, this is Slow Food’s biggest event. It’s especially important this year because, for the first time, Terra Madre (a network of global food communities established in 2004) and Salone del Gusto are coming together. The idea is to introduce consumers to the faces and stories of the people who grow, rear and make products that are not only unique but also respect the environment, nurture communities and preserve tradition. People who make food that is ‘good, clean and fair’ — in keeping with the Slow Food manifesto. It’s a simple but powerful message, steadily capturing imaginations, gathering fervent supporters and strengthening communities across the globe.

What it stands for

This is why Slow Food is now growing into the world’s most important contemporary food movement. A global grassroots organisation, it began in 1989 as left-leaning journalist Carlo Petrini’s crusade against Rome’s first McDonalds and everything it represented. The movement was created to counter fast food and fast lifestyles, seen as the reasons for disappearing local food traditions. Its aim was to make people more aware of what they eat and how it’s produced. To re-introduce people to the sensuous pleasures of quality food, thus ensuring that low-quality, mass produced, homogenous meals don’t clog the arteries of the world. To remind people that, in this shrinking world, daily food choices affect producers, the environment and the economy.

Today with a presence in 150 countries, this non-profit, member-supported movement has grown far beyond its original manifesto. With over 100,000 active members, a livewire youth wing and 2500 networked food communities — many from marginalised groups — Slow Food has consciously moved from celebrating snobby gastronomy to a careful political movement, fuelled by savvy marketing, good intentions and clever networking. Celebrating small farmers, niche producers and rare breeds, it has been criticised for being impractical. Can Slow Food really feed an increasingly hungry world? Isn’t it too hippie? Too Don Quixote, tilting enthusiastically at windmills? Petrini, who is still the heart of the movement, doesn’t think so.

A gifted speaker who can bring crowds to their feet with his poetic, metaphor-laced speeches, all balanced on that irresistible ‘hope-love-joy’ formula, Petrini says they’re attempting to “put forward real alternatives to a development model that is no longer sustainable for us or for the earth.” He adds, “What is needed is constant silent change.”

The best way to move people is to involve them. And the best way to involve them is to lure them in with the pleasures of food and, only then, attempt to make them care about its politics. It’s a technique that’s revolutionary in its simplicity.

This year, Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto drew 220,000 visitors over the course of five days. They came to eat ricotta stuffed cannoli, farinata flatbreads slathered with pesto and sweet piedmont peppers tossed with sausages at the Italian Street food section. To sample from the 1200 Italian wines at the Enoteca section. To knock back shots of strong Haitian rum, taste wobbly lavender-honey laced French nougat and discover the joys of chilled Breton oysters. They stayed to learn much more.

Designed to mesmerise, the venue boasted an African vegetable garden symbolic of the 1000 gardens that Terra Madre communities have created in schools, villages and outskirts of cities in 25 African countries. Outside, the Monferrato Circus, staging an acrobatic opera that incorporated a five-course meal, was packed with enthralled audiences. Meanwhile, in Terra Madre’s market place, people experienced the joys of diversity. Jams and jellies made from Brazil’s hardy sweet-sour Umbu fruit trees. Biscuits of kanihuaco flour, ground from a hardy grass in Peru. Smoked Osypek cheese washed down with Polish mead. Fragrant Alnif cumin. Caramelly confiture de lait from Normandy. Indian multi-grain ladoos.

Learning about food

'Food education is at the core of event: interactive workshops for almost 4000 children, where they learn everything from appreciating subtle flavours of organic vegetables to understanding the nuances of powerfully dark espresso. For adults there are Taste Workshops, guided tastings led by producers, chefs, winemakers, brewers and experts; the Theatre of Taste, featuring chefs from all over the world; Meetings with the Makers, featuring inspiring figures from the international food and wine world.

Then are there the conferences. About 56 in all, involving 16,000 people, delegates and the general public. Debates, involving academicians, producers and policy makers, all thrown open to participative audiences, dealing with food-related challenges: seed saving, bio-diversity, sustainability…

Meanwhile 650 delegates heard 90 presentations from 50 countries at the organisation’s Sixth ‘International Congress of Slow Food,’ a three-day event that brought together countries from Palestine to Israel, Somalia to Mali, China to Brazil. The central message: We’re in the middle of a global food crisis. And it’s undeniably a political crisis. Ending it, according to Slow Food’s voices, means restructuring and rethinking established patterns. Linking people who think alike, whether they’re millet growers in Kenya and India, chefs from Malaysia and Burkina Faso, or indigenous farmers from Russia and Argentina. It’s not just about swapping technical notes. As R. Selvan, who heads a loose network of 22,000 organic farmers in Tamil Nadu, says, “Malaysian farmers, African farmers, Israeli farmers... Our challenges are different. But when we see them survive, it gives us joy and hope.” Slow Food doesn’t underestimate the power of hope.

Amid all the seductive rhetoric encouraging consumers to be ‘active protagonists’, to support ‘cultures that nourish’ and be the ‘generation that reunites mankind with the earth,’ there are cold, hard facts about a world in peril. Director-General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, José Graziano da Silva, speaks of the crime of food wastage — “If we managed to cut total food loss and waste by half, we would have enough food to feed one billion more people” — encouraging Slow Food to unite forces with the FAO, to focus on the problem of world hunger. Slow Food vice-president Vandana Shiva — founder of Navdanya, an organisation of seed savers that has successfully conserved more than 5000 crop varieties in India — talks about corporate greed and the resulting seed wars being fought across the world. “In my own country we have lost 275,000 farmers who have committed suicide. A quarter million suicides is genocide. And we have to stop this genocide.” The legendary Alice Waters, Slow Food vice-president and chef, speaks about the need for education.

In the Monferrato tent, Phrang Roy, coordinator of the Indigenous Partnership for Agro-biodiversity and Food Sovereignty, talks of how Slow Food began as the dream of a few people. “The reality is food is political. Slow Food’s beginning was for consumers in urban centres. They then realised this is not possible without involving producers. Then they needed the custodians of culture: the women, elders, indigenous people. And so the network grew.” Stating that it’s become more influential over the last 3-4 years, he says, “It’s important because it emphasises the local aspect. Good, clean and fair. Good tasting, clean for the environment and fair to producers. It’s a simple message. It’s not a revolution. It’s not leftist. It’s not saying you have to break structures. It works with the government and the private sector. These are the strengths.”

As a social movement, Roy says it has opened doors for indigenous people, raising critical issues like food sovereignty. “They want to be in control of their vulnerability. To increase productivity, but in a relevant realistic way.” Finding practical crops that can be grown without poisoning the soil and water. In North East India, for example, Bibiana Kenee revived a strain of millet, and made her village self-sufficient. She says she felt insecure, living in Oongtraw in the East Khasi hills. “I realised if the bridge to my village is cut off, we will starve. I realised the importance of being self-reliant.” Today, her community has krai, which they pound and cook like rice, as well as vegetable gardens teeming with edible local plants, herbs and spices.

Given how active North East India has been, it seems appropriate that the Second Indigenous Terra Madre 2014 will be held in Meghalaya. (The first, held in Jokkmokk, Sweden, in June 2011 brought together 360 participants from 60 indigenous groups.) The idea is to strengthen knowledge networks, establish food sovereignty areas and encourage increased participation of indigenous advocates in decision making at both national and international levels.

This is a war against homogenisation of food. Against thoughtless mass-produced meals.

Creating a global community

The takeaways are simple. Realise you can vote with your fork. Don’t eat food that hurts you or the earth. Don’t eat food created by taking advantage of the powerless. Don’t underestimate the power of food communities: by linking hands they can change the world.

It’s more than a gastronomical movement. Or an environmental movement. Or a social movement. Its biggest advantage: creating a community that embraces everyone, cutting across race, class, geography and age. As Phrang Roy leaves the conference hall, young Californian Gerado O’ Marin stops to say hello and tell him how his 'Youth-Food-Justice' group reaches people with hip hop. “We make Slow Food cool,” he laughs.

The Slow Food Youth Network (SFYN) is abuzz with stories of how Petrini had been partying with them the night before. They open their meeting with a You Tube clip of him dancing, arms akimbo, waving his signature striped scarf in the air. Totally in keeping with his opening address at the grand inauguration of the event earlier in the week, where he said, “This crisis won’t be overcome with sadness. At Terra Madre, politics has taken joy by the hand.”

The energy is infectious. Pius Ranee from Shillong explains how he organised an indigenous food festival with 500 youth, to revive food that’s on the verge of extinction. Helen Kranstauber from Amsterdam speaks about film festivals, debates and ‘great parties’ built around Slow Food themes. Bernado Simoes from Santa Catarina, Brazil, talks of the trips he organises through Brazil to demonstrate its biodiversity and rally protectors, whether they’re biologists, chefs or federal prosecutors. He ends with, “I joined SFYN because I’ve seen fish disappearing. Beaches shrinking. Indigenous tribes being kicked out of their land. I want my children to see the world I know.”

SFYN’s self proclaimed goal? “Change the world using the rocket powered fuel of a good meal.” As they say, “Food is rock. And this is how we roll.”

This year’s event is historical, says Petrini. “We have grown incredibly. We understand the old methods don’t work any more.” It’s time he says, for new technologies. New ideas. New methods of dealing with old issues. “Bring your know-how from your countries and communities. Air, water, earth... They have no borders.” He continues. “We cannot think about nations. We can’t think about national borders… Do not turn Slow Food into a church. Do not turn Slow Food into a political party. Do not turn slow food into a bureaucracy. There is no charity here.”

Delegates wind down on the last day. It’s been a hectic five days with people flying in from remote corners of the world, and starting work immediately. Thirteen-hour days at the venue, talking to people, telling stories and participating in debates.

Powerful bonds

Despite the lack of a common language, the sense of community is moving. Locals have housed many of the participants, welcoming them back every night with home-made meals and halting conversations in a mix of Italian, English and a flood of other languages. At the stalls, Italian volunteers share gifts from their homes, wine made by a cousin, chocolates from an aunt, beer from the neighbours. Delegates from different nations exchange e-mail addresses and share the last of their goodies: French nougat, Belgian chocolate, Indian peanut chutney.

Slow Food may save the world. It may not. But it’s undeniably forging powerful bonds. Making strong beginnings. Changing lives. Inspiring people.

At this event alone, warring nations have sat together at a table breaking bread. Consumers have realised they have the power to make a difference, power that should not be influenced by thoughtless, commerce, petty disputes and rabble rousing politics.

It’s 11.00 p.m. and the lights are about to go out for the last time. Exhausted delegates troop out, lugging boxes and bags. Then someone begins to whistle. And someone begins to sing. And a drum beat meanders from the vicinity of the African stalls. The air is rich with music.

An impromptu community of 100 nations, now held together indelibly. This is what it’s all about.

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