A Loud, Slow Call To Rethink Everything About How We Feed Ourselves

The legendary founder of the Slow Food movement lays out his vision for preserving the world's biodiversity by returning to ancient forms of agriculture. The future of the planet is at stake.

One potato, ten potatoes...all from Argentina
One potato, ten potatoes...all from Argentina
Carlo Petrini*

We are about to usher in 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, as designated by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). For the first time, the world's largest food-related organization has validated the universal importance of this social model.

In less than one month, we will thus begin to celebrate those who have resisted, who have overcome, those considered too far removed from modernity, ignorant and underdeveloped. These people have suffered all manner of harassment — political, cultural and social — yet they have persevered without ceding to the rules of conformity. Today, finally, the world is giving proper due to small-scale agriculture for its role in guaranteeing the alimentary and social security in every corner of the planet.

The world is facing two crises simultaneously. The first is environmental: global governing powers cannot manage to make the shared decisions necessary to avoid the looming disaster of climate change. The second is of an entropic nature: the pattern of always increasing consumerism, everywhere and at any cost, just doesn’t work.

Slow Food was founded with the deep commitment to change the system for how people are fed. Let’s think about what farming has been used for over the past 12,000 years: a subsistence economy — in which the surplus produce was used as a reserve in times of trouble. Bringing in the industrial model as the dominant force in the field of agricultural has made sure that the subsistence economy was not only abandoned, but even ridiculed.

We have instead favored an economy based around capital, labor and accumulation. But the subsistence economy offered a holistic vision, not one compartmentalized, that allowed for the expression of sacredness, generosity and the capacity to give to others. It was another world; poor, but with a completely different logic.

Beyond subsistence

Family farming offers us new paradigms. It has been said that family farming is subsistence. The word brings with it a colonialist attitude, evoking subsistence as something for the poor, while the rest of us thrive in the economy of the market and finance. We need to de-colonize our thoughts.

Subsistence is not the economy of those without a future, but of those seeking the happiness of a family able to live in harmony with nature.

At a time in which we’re suffering the consequences of the past decades of intensive food production, when solid fertilisers and synthetic pesticides were implemented, an indiscriminate use of water and energy resources were wasted, as well as the gradual erosion of biodiversity, once again, a model of farming that uses sustainable agriculture and families has become indispensable.

Currently, 90% of the calories produced and consumed comes from 12 types of vegetables and just five animals. The ‘productivist’ economic model brought us along to this incredible state – and without a rapid reversal, we’re not only seriously endangering the future of our food, but our planet too.

What’s biodiversity? What does it have to do with my food?

Biodiversity is a recent term, used for the first time in 1986 in Washington by entomologist Edward O. Wilson to describe the wealth of variety of animal and plant species that make up our planet. It’s a complicated word that, unfortunately, only scholars use in daily life. Incorporating it into daily language has been Slow Food’s mission for years. It needs to become a simple term used by everyone because it is life itself: It is made up of a myriad of elements that interact with one another, from the smallest up to the most complex ecosystems, allowing for a balance on which nature grows and evolves.

Many small dots connect to make up a puzzle but if you lose just one, it ruins the image as a whole. This isn’t to say that things haven’t changed as, over time, many species have become extinct and others have taken over. But it has never occurred at the incredible speed as we've witnessed in recent years.

Carlo Petrini founded Slow Food in 1986 (Bruno Cordioli)

We are going through what many call the sixth great mass extinction, and just as the Earth lost its dominant population 65 million years ago — the dinosaurs — this time, we’re in danger of losing the wealth of resources that compose the earth and, consequently, the human species.

Indeed, there is a substantial difference between this extinction and those of the past: for the first time in history the trigger is the human being.

We continue destroying forests, clearing land from rural areas in order to expand our cities, accumulating waste, above all plastics – a serious problem for our oceans - not to mention the enormous amount of pollution of water and soil, due to the endless increasing of the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Last guardians

Although everyone is conscious of these realities, few are actually trying to change their habits in order to stop this rising phenomenon.

The consequence? The last guardians of the earth, those small farmers, shepherds and fishermen who know and respect the fragile balance of nature and struggle to preserve it, are excluded.

So, what is the link between biodiversity and food? Why should we be alarmed about its disappearance? Because biodiversity does not only mean vegetation and wildlife, but also the varieties of plants cultivated by man, the dairy and beef breeds selected over time.

Today, some 60% of the world food supply are based on three types of crops: wheat, rice and corn. By focussing on the most commercially viable varieties of cereals and not giving space to the cultivation of older species, we are destined to lose thousands of rice types that would be selected by local farmers. This is what is happening in India and China, countries that once were blessed by abundant varieties of these plants. According to World Food Program, 75 % of plant varieties are lost and there is nothing we can do to bring them back. The United States rate of species loss is even higher, approaching 95%.

Vicious circle

Unfortunately this is not territorially circumscribed as it concerns several areas of our planet: for example Mexico, which in the past had thousands of types of cultivated corn, nowadays only counts a few different varieties. Today the world’s food supply focuses on a small number of selected hybrids, controlled by a handful of multinational corporations, regulating the production and especially the product value on the market.

A vicious circle also links small producers to these big agricultural markets, with serious consequences on their independence and threats to their territory that is increasingly pillaged from its traditional goods.

Slow Food feels the sense of duty to confront this problem: this is the reason why it launched a number of projects aiming to protect biodiversity in the world.

To fight this phenomenon and preserve the richness of resources “The Ark of Taste” was created. A project through which Slow Food collects information on plant and animal species, as well as processed goods such as bread, cheese and cured meats that belong to the culture, history and traditions of small communities all around the world. The aim is to create a list of products calling attention to those species that are at risk of extinction.

Nevertheless, Slow Food does not want to merely report the problem: In order to have a more active role, it has also started a project getting involved directly with the producers called “Presidio.”

The project is a concrete solution for the protection of traditional regional products, fishing and farming techniques, ancient processing and cultivation systems and everything that represents the history and culture of our ecosystems.

Change of habits

All this is done because the battle to defend biodiversity is a battle for the future of the planet. It is a fight that must start at the local level, so that everyone can contribute. How can this be done? It is simple: it should start with a change of habits, paying more attention to what we buy and where, respecting the natural seasonality of products and opting for those that grow locally.

This brings us back to the concept of “conscious consumer” or “co-producer,” of someone who is familiar with both the supply chain and small producers in the area where he or she lives. It is a winning strategy that arises from awareness, but especially from a certain education on the subject. For that reason, educational projects have been created. One example is the school gardens, which aim to bring children closer to earth.

A true revolution must begin in our homes, connecting producers and consumers, as advocated by the idea of “Earth Markets.” This is not just another common market, but an international network of producers and farmers who are sensitive to the Slow Food philosophy.

Slow Food will stand beside FAO for the “International Year of Family Farming,” an extraordinary opportunity for all those who care about the future of the planet and its inhabitants, primarily the human being. It is necessary to promote the best traditional farming practices, because it is only from there that we can begin to make the paradigm shift that we all so desperately need.

*Carlo Petrini founded the International Slow Food Movement in Italy in 1986 after leading protests against the opening of a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in central Rome. The movement advocates taking a slower, more natural approach to eating, cooking and agriculture, and has spawned other "Slow" movements, including Slow Cities, Slow Travel and Slow Design.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!