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.
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.
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.
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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.
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%.
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.