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Slow Food: inching towards Food Sovereignty?

Recently, Carlos Petrini, the founder of the Slow Foods movement, has been incorporating the concept of food sovereignty in his social discourse. To some food activists, this is a logical consequence of Slow Food’s opposition to the industrial agi-foods complexes controlling our food systems. Others, dismiss the statements as superficial (and the movement as elitist). Still others find Petrini’s position a welcome surprise, and await further developments. Can Slow Food—a movement reknowned for it’s gourmet food and well-heeled consumers advance a broad-based notion like food sovereignty?
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Slow Food Movement: History and Philosophy

The Slow Food movement was formed in response to the establishment of a McDonald’s restaurant in the famous Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Its founder, Carlo Petrini, was a food journalist who was concerned about what the presence of a McDonald’s would mean for the local food culture. In particular, he saw the food chain as a threat to the local trattoria and osterie, the local dining establishments of the working class. When Slow Food became an official movement in 1989 at the Opera Comique in Paris, the Manifesto stated:

We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods…A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life…Our defense should began at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.

The original focus of the Slow Food movement was predominately the defense of gastronomic pleasure from the “Fast Food model”, with particular concern for traditional food items. However, it soon expanded to encompass concerns of environmental destruction due to the industrialized and globalized food system. In addition to encouraging more ecologically sustainable production methods, the Slow Food movement also supports the protection of biodiversity, particularly of gastronomically significant crop and livestock species, varieties and breeds. This perspective, dubbed “eco-gastronomy”, incorporated the “recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet”. Eventually, the Slow Food movement philosophy also came to advocate for fair compensation for farmers and other food producers. The movement has more recently defined Slow Food as,

[G]ood, clean, and fair food. We believe that the food we eat should taste good; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and the food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.

These three main elements, which represent taste, environmental sustainability, and social justice respectively, are those which Carlo Petrini has identified as being essential to quality food.

More recently, Petrini has incorporated the term “food sovereignty” in his public statements. For example, in his opening address at the 2004 Terra Madre (to be discussed later) he stated that, “The pesticide and GMO multinationals are implementing policies incompatible with the environment, stressing mother earth, humbling the food sovereignty of peoples and jeopardizing the freedom of farmers and growers.” On the Slow Food website he wrote, “The principles of small-farming agriculture and food sovereignty can help rebuild the fabric of productive rural communities based on strong human relationships. They can create a new small-scale agricultural economy that respects the environment and provides small farmers and their families with dignity and skills.” He has also written a piece emphasizing food sovereignty as a human right and highlighting the commitment of Slow Food to the concept.

What is Food Sovereignty?

Food sovereignty is a term first conceived by the global peasant movement Via Campesina in 1996 at their Second International Conference in Tlaxcala, Mexico.
Via Campesina is a “transnational peasant and farm movement [that has] vowed to collectively resist the globalization of agriculture to ensure that the voices of those who produce the world’s food would be heard.”

One of the most commonly used definitions of food sovereignty comes from Via Campesina:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture policies; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self reliant; to restrict the dumping of products in their markets, and; to provide local fisheries-based communities the priority in managing the use of and the rights to aquatic resources. Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production.

Via Campesina has also outlined 14 principles of food sovereignty, which refer to the specifics of the movement’s position. These include emphasis of food (and its production) as a human right, local production, pesticide and GMO-free agriculture, cultural protection, hunger elimination, greater control over public policy, fair prices for producers, removal of agricultural from trade agreements and out of the hands of related governing bodies, and prioritizing growing food over fuel production.

Food sovereignty is currently a powerful political concept and maintains a great deal of meaning for the peasants, fisherfolk, and food justice activists who use it. What does the term really mean for the defenders of “quiet material pleasure” in the Slow Food movement?. Petrini’s use of the term seems to imply a commitment to challenge the system that puts fuel over food, allows hunger in a time of abundance, prevents people from feeding themselves, prioritizes corporations over communities, and relegates biodiversity as secondary to productivity. Given that the concepts of food sovereignty and Slow Food come from very different philosophical, economic, and social reference points—and maintain different goals—can the Slow Food movement become a means to achieve food sovereignty?

Slow Food as a Means to Achieving Food Sovereignty

The philosophical positions of the Slow Food and food sovereignty movements are clearly compatible on many issues. In particular, Slow Food, like food sovereignty, rejects the use of GMOs, demands sustainable agriculture practices, fair prices for producers, supports biodiversity, and emphasizes the preservation of traditional techniques and knowledge.

However, the two movements diverge regarding the mean for achieving these goals. The Via Campesina has very clear political positions, and is outspoken in its opposition to many international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Their tactics involve demonstrations, protests and other forms of mobilization. Via Campesina defines itself as a peasant movement that focuses primarily on the rights of the world’s food producers.

Conversely, while “much of the work of contemporary peasant activists consists of identifying and drawing attention to the institutional agencies behind the increasingly deterritorialized and invasive market forces that buffet them from all sides” , the Slow Food movement has yet to make a political statement regarding the political and economic institutions which have significant control over the nature of world agriculture. The movement’s tactics could be described as passive: attracting attention to the Slow Food philosophy through education and taste rather than pursuing an overtly political agenda. According to Renato Sardo, former International Director of Slow Food, “[The movement’s president] Carlo [Petrini] always says he doesn’t want Slow Food to be a super big operation, a super political operation. Slow Food is a light movement and not a very powerful movement, and does not have enormous financial capacity. Slow Food is more [about] cultural stimulation that puts things in the minds of people in a general pro-positive way.” Personal interview with Renato Sardo, April 17, 2007

Further, while Via Campesina and food sovereignty arose directly out of opposition to the neo-liberal policies that devastate peasant livelihoods and undermine the ability of the world’s poor to feed themselves, the Slow Food movement is constantly battling accusations of elitism, due to its high membership costs, financially inaccessible events, and promotion of expensive gourmet products. Claims one prominent agroecologist, “They want the poor to prepare food for the rich.”

Despite these contradictions, Slow Food’s may have the potential to act as a suitable vehicle for at least some elements of food sovereignty. Currently, the Slow Food movement’s projects regarding biodiversity, education, the pleasure of food, creating networks, and building “food communities” may provide opportunities for introducing the food sovereignty agenda to those who might otherwise never have heard of the concept, or the movement . And don’t poor peasants, fishers and agricultural wokers have a right to enjoy good food?


The Slow Food movement activists and the subsistence level agriculturalists, pastoralists, and fisherfolk view the current global agricultural system as a great threat to the most essential element of a viable food system: biodiversity. Agricultural plant genetic resources, which have suffered constant and substantial decline due to modern commercial agriculture (FAO 1996), are vital in that they provide ecosystem stability and adaptability, as well as retain cultural significance.
However, due to the economic focus on just a few staple crops, many “minor” crops from a global perspective (FAO 1996) receive little attention but are locally, regionally or nationally important.

The Slow Food movement has attempted to address lesser known agricultural products of cultural significance through the Presidia. The Presidia, supported by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, is a project that assists groups of artisan producers or growers whose products are at risk of extinction. In the developed world Presidia projects help producers of products such as cheese and cured meats, whereas in the developing world the products tend to be cereals, herbs and spices, coffee, tea, and cacao. The Presidia helps producers establish standards for their products and create economic linkages with consumers through branding and marketing.

However, while Presidia projects give crops at risk much needed attention, the projects continue to propagate a system of market-based solutions to address the vulnerability of unique varieties and products to extinction. The Slow Food Presidia do little to challenge the political economy from which the original troubles stem, and therefore make negligible progress on the ultimate goal of a “viable future for traditional foods.”

In addition, particularly in the developing world, the Presidia products are best suited for foreign markets, thus they are generally exported. A focus on export-oriented crops may be problematic in achieving sovereignty. On one hand, Via Campesina’s concept of food sovereignty “does not negate trade.” By trading unique products with distinct gourmet value, producers can help maintain threatened plant biodiversity, and can capture a market that is willing to pay fair prices to producers. However, producing value-added crops such as vanilla or coffee does little to address the nutritional needs of the producing communities. According to Via Campesina, “food is first and foremost a source of nutrition and only secondarily an item of trade” (Desmarais 2004). Thus, the crucial questions therefore is, does the production of these export commodities displace local edible crops?


According to Alice Waters, “Slow Food reminds us of the importance of knowing where our food comes from. When we understand the connection between the food on our table and the field where it grows, our everyday meals can anchor us to nature and the place where we live.”

One of the aims of the Slow Food movement is to “improve public knowledge of food, particularly that of artisan producers, with the aim of securing awareness of our right to pleasure and taste.” The Slow Food organizers have founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences which “aims to educate and train students to be able to spread the philosophy of Slow Food and foster the development of sustainable agriculture.” On a smaller scale, local convivia (chapters) are encouraged to start school gardens in their towns or cities as, “there is no better way to understand food than to grow it yourself.”

Unfortunately, the Slow Food movement has directed little educational focus on the concepts of food as a right, social justice, land reform, or international trade policy—subjects that are of fundamental importance to food sovereignty. However, the emphasis that Slow Food places on food education and the institutions that have been established, have potential as vehicles for exploring a deeper analysis of the existing flawed food system.

Focus on Pleasure

Focusing on gastronomic pleasure may seem an unlikely means to achieving food sovereignty, particularly in the developing world. However, highlighting the pleasure that can be derived from food helps to develop a personal interest in what one is eating. Ideally, when food consumers start to pay attention to the quality of the ingredients they may also start to ask other questions about their food. Thus capturing attention through taste may serve to increase awareness of other food issues. Moreover, even if consumers are not incited to investigate the production of the food they eat, they may still be voluntarily participating in a system of production that exhibits characteristics of a sovereign system. For example, products of the highest quality are often made on a smaller scale, using traditional knowledge and geographically unique inputs rather than via an industrialized manufacturing process.

Clearly, touting the “pleasure principle” is not going to speak to the world’s hungry. It does, however, offer the hope that focusing attention on the quality of food will ultimately lead consumers to reject the industrial model that is common to the struggles of both Slow Food and food sovereignty activists. The question is, do they reject the industrial model, or simply the industrial product?

Communication Between Food Communities

Every two years since 2004, Slow Food has held an event called, Terra Madre in Turin, Italy. Terre Madre “[B]rings together representatives of food communities that produce good, clean and fair food in a responsible and sustainable way”. According to Renato Sardo,

The whole Terra Madre operation is simply to put the world’s attention on the farmers and to say ‘if we want to save the world we have to start with these people, we have to protect these people’. Listen to what they have to say, enable universities and science to learn from these people, because often times they have been neglected and deserve to be heard. Personal interview with Renato Sardo, April 17, 2007

While issues surrounding the politics of representation at the conference remain to be resolved (many participating farmers do not speak the languages used at the conference—much less each other’s…), Terra Madre offers a potential opportunity for communication links to be formed between food producers all over the world promoting a transmission of information and solutions.

Linking Producers and “Co-Producers”

According to the Slow Food website:
[W]e promote the concept of being a “co-producer” – that is, going beyond the passive role of a consumer and taking interest in those that produce our food, how they produce it and the problems they face in doing so. In actively supporting food producers, we become part of the production process.

By introducing consumers to the idea that they are involved in the production of their food, the concept of “co-producer” encourages them to examine whether or not they contribute to a healthy, sustainable, and just food system.

To help create the linkages between the producers and “co-producers” Slow Food organizes events, fairs and markets. By focusing on locally-produced food, the movement seeks to minimize the number of steps through which food passes, simplifying the food system. This could be a step towards re-organizing the way wealth and market power is distributed within the food system, in order to increase benefits and decision-making power to those who produce our food. Or, it could simply make it easier for those who want good fresh food to get it at relatively lower cost…


In Petrini’s book, Slow Food: A Case for Taste, he says that “the Slow Food ‘recipe’….is a proposal to wed pleasure to awareness and responsibility, study and knowledge, and to offer opportunities for development even to poor and depressed regions through a new model of agriculture”(Petrini 2001). While the message is noble, as a food sovereignty movement, Slow Food will have a long road—with important political crossroads—ahead of it. Presently, the Slow Food version of development does little to actually challenge or dismantle the industrial agrifoods complexes that control our food systems, In practice, Petrini’s development plan to help “poor and depressed regions” is actually a plan to help them create gourmet products meant largely for export to foreign, rich “foodies.” This version of development, operating within the same neo-liberal market paradigm that marginalizes these producers in the first place, in and of itself is not enough to advance food sovereignty. If and when the Slow Food movement does propose a new, more equitable model of agricultural development, it remains to be seen whom within the movement will act to change the food system.—such a model would require a much more in depth analysis of the current model and its shortcomings.

However, the Slow Food movement, as it now stands, has the potential to support elements of food sovereignty. It has international networks with local chapters, and a food community representing the diverse interests of farmers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk, as well as artisans and chefs. Its focus on educating people about food can contribute to a greater global consciousness about where food comes from, how it is made, and who makes it, all the while piquing new interest by demonstrating that food can be a source of great pleasure. The greatest contribution that the Slow Food movement can have is to draw the attention of a brand new group of people to the social, cultural, and environmental tragedy that has arisen from an industrialized, corporate controlled food system. If Carlo Petrini is genuinely committed to pursuing food sovereignty, he must do more than just incorporate the term into his public discourse. He must also consider how to put the resources and membership of the movement at the service of those clamoring for food sovereignty. A strong first step would be to open space within the Slow Food movement not just for small producers to serve good food, but for them to speak. Slow Food will move towards food sovereignty when the movement ensures that the voices of those who produce the world’s food are heard.

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