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Sunday May 10, 2009

Carlo Petrini’s remedy against the current crisis


Founder of Slow Food movement visits Toronto for conference

Carlo Petrini

A financial crisis caused by the unlimited freedoms of an open market can be avoided by simply reviving the “Old World” tradition of eating locally — a principle that the Slow Food movement has been promoting for the past 20 years. This is the claim of Carlo Petrini, founder of the movement, whichwas born in Piemonte, Italy, and has now spread to 153 countries. Petrini says he already sees signs of change with the spread of local markets, the creation of buyer groups, and the establishment of closer relationships between “producers” and “consumers” – terms that Petrini doesn’t like to use, preferring to call them co-producers.
Petrini came to Toronto last weekend —his first visit to the city — as part of a conference at the Italian Cultural Institute. During his stay, he also met with representatives of Slow Food Canada and George Brown College students, and he was awarded the International Eco Hero Award by the Planet in Focus Film Festival.
“This is truly an acknowledgment of his role as leader in defense of sustainability throughout the world, and for revolutionizing the way we think about food,” said Candida Paltiel, Planet in Focus Film Festival president.
“Our movement in Canada is well represented,” said Petrini,“both through ‘convivia’ (local Slow Food associations) and with the networking system, Terra Madre.”
Convivia are local organizational nuclei of the movement. Canada has 30 from Ontario all the way to the Yukon, with 170 representatives who, Petrini explains, are also part of Terra Madre, a “worldwide network of farmers, fishermen, and food producers working in 153 countries of the world,” that meets every two years in Turin.
How can we adopt a slow food lifestyle in today’s economic recession?
“We face three great epochal crises: environmental, energy, and finance. All three have one single cause: mankind’s greedy thinking that the Earth can always produce more, as if it were an infinite resource. There is a need to return to local production and to a better rapport between ‘producer’ and ‘consumer,’ although I prefer the term ‘co-producer.’ The logic of consumerism is based on three elements: speed, the creation of induced needs, and wastefulness. These are destroying the planet. ‘Real economy’ means a fair price for producers who work and for co-producers who buy. But a fair price doesn’t mean a low price, because with a low price, farmers and fishermen can’t get paid. That only benefits the food industry. We need to consume less and in a better way. Slow Food doesn’t involve elitist consumerist logic. The right to quality belongs to everyone, not just to those with money. We believe we are the answer to the current economic crisis.”

How can one find the time to eat “better?”
“I think that this answer has to do with our need to battle two myths. The first is that we no longer have enough time to eat ‘well.’ Our grandparents worked 12 to 14 hours per day, and they still found the time to cook and seek out the right ingredients. We can make time – it’s not true that we no longer have enough time. As Seneca, the first Slow Food philosopher, said, ‘Life isn’t short, life is long. We’re the ones who are wasting it.’ If you can include in your sphere of interests the idea that food is important for you, for your interpersonal relationships, for your health, for your inner peace, then let’s find the time. What does that mean? To find the products, cook them without rushing, and also finding the space and time to enjoy. The second urban legend is that food is expensive. If in 1970 we used to spend 32% of our income to eat and today we spend 14%, it means we’ve transferred our consumption elsewhere. I’m not saying we need to again spend 32%, but one can eat well by spending even 17-18%. It’s a choice.”
However, between producer and re-seller, there’s a disproportionate increase in prices, and, therefore, in profit.
“The farmer earns little, and the consumer pays a lot. Those in the middle get the biggest piece of the pie. This shameful situation needs to be stopped. We need to reduce costs between consumer and producer, and do it in such a way that both sides of the equation are in equilibrium. We’ve destroyed small business by thinking we could save by buying from the large distribution chains. The large distribution chains have monopolized the market and there is no longer any competition, and they’ve placed a millstone around farmers’ necks.”
Is there any hope that the situation can change?
“Yes, because farmers’ markets receive support from the community and buyers’ groups, and this support is growing throughout the world - slowly, but it’s growing. The number of new merchants who have it in their hearts to create a different future is increasing. The merchant of the future will have to be a cultural intermediary, placing himself between ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ in an active role of service, not of theft. I have faith that many young people will become merchants of this philosophy.”

Slow Food Canada wants to unite into a national movement. What are the expectations?
“Our movement is extremely complex. We’re in 153 countries throughout the world, with expectations and practices that vary from one country to the other. It’s not up to an Italian international president to come here and dictate to Canadians how to organize themselves in Canada. The important thing is that they are part of a network with a global vision that serves to instill dignity to workers and consumers.”
What has disappointed and pleased you the most about the movement?
“The greatest delusion is seeing how politics remains insensitive to these issues. The satisfaction is seeing that societies throughout the world are organizing themselves to make a difference. We’re at a historic time of transition. We need to build a new humanism from the ground up. If this doesn’t happen, the situation will continue to worsen.”