Terra Madre and the Future of the World
By Anastatia Curley
I’ve been in Italy for the past week, and I haven’t seen Obama or McCain speak in ages. Polls have shifted, gaffes have been made and challenges hurled, but I’ve been preoccupied with another piece of political theater. In Italy, at Slow Food International’s biennial conference, I witnessed the most interesting political moment of my life. The players: the Italian Foreign Minister, Carlo Petrini, and 7,000 food activists. The scene: the closing ceremonies of Terra Madre. The stakes: the world food system.
At the closing ceremony, the Italian Foreign Minister spoke about the G8 and the slow food movement (he spoke on a pre-recorded broadcast, but he spoke.) The broadcast was too long, and the translation not so great, and I was in a haze of four days of intensive eating and serious conversation, so it took me a moment or two to realize what was going on: he was saying that the global food system was in a crisis, that this needed to be addressed at the next G8 summit, and that delegates from Terra Madre should be present at G8 and make a case for the kind of food system they believe in. Italy holds the presidency of the G8 this year, and his offer seemed genuine, for whatever it might be worth.
Suddenly about half of the people in the (thousands strong) audience stood up and literally turned their backs on the offer. This sounds like it ought to have happened in silence, but it was accompanied by a chorus of boos that drowned out all the translations, so that it was impossible to even tell what was being protested. Once the minister’s overlong speech finally came to an end, the boos crescendoed.
Then Carlo Petrini, founder and president of Slow Food International, came to the stage.
Petrini’s relationship with the members of Slow Food is something like that of a preacher’s with his flock. He’s the leader of the global movement; unlike any politician (even one you trust), he’s unequivocally on their side, as far as they are concerned. He projects an air of wisdom, a little bit of remove, but he’s the kind of person that people call “Carlo” and not “Petrini.” He walked up to the stage, took a long quiet look at his audience, and said, “Our fathers were peasants. Our fathers were patient; they knew how to listen. The time has come that we should not be patient any more, but we must remember that wisdom of our fathers: we must listen. Our minister has made the mistake that many politicians make: he talked too much and too long. But you must listen. When you go to the people of power, you do not go bowed down, with your hat in your hand. You go and you look them in the eyes and you tell them your story, but first you must listen.” In this vein, with jokes that soothed his audience and rebukes that subdued them, he went on to make the case for being present at the table of power.
By the time he was done, all the people who had turned their backs were giving him a standing ovation.
Carlo’s finesse with a crowd is impeccable, and I don’t doubt that he genuinely loves his flock. The question is, was this the right advice? What’s the next step for Slow Food? The slow food movement has been fighting an uphill battle for years now, working in the dark, crying in the desert, and suddenly powerful people are paying attention. This seems like the moment when movements flounder, because it’s the moment when they’re given a certain amount of power-if G8 is listening, there’s a chance to really get things done-but it’s also the moment when they have to start compromising. Purity is for separatists.
So what’s next? Where will Carlo lead, and will his flock follow? Right now, there are 7,000 very impassioned (if conflicted) people making their way home to their communities. But change is in the air, and both farmers and policy-makers are going to need to have a role in making it happen.