Originator of the international Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini talks about his fight to end the standardization of taste, foster culinary diversity and protect biodiversity. In his work he draws from French luminaries such as Brillat-Savarin, Edgar Morin and Pierre Rabhi.
4 QUESTIONS WITH CARLO PETRINI, PRESIDENT OF THE SLOW FOOD ORGANIZATION
Cooking has been talked about a lot lately, and poorly, according to you. You refer to it as food pornography, what do you mean by that?
The media want to entertain without making people think. Cooking is everywhere, on TV and in magazines, but it's mostly how-to guides without any substance, and no thought behind it – it's definitely not gastronomy.
To get out of this mess we need to look back at Brillat-Savarin's main premise in The Physiology of Taste (1848), where he describes gastronomy as "the reasoned comprehension of all that relates to the nourishment of man." It has to do with chemistry just as much as physics, biology, genetics and agriculture, of course. But it is also a question of history, anthropology, economics and politics. Gastronomy is a complex multidisciplinary science. Even Hippocrates sensed the connection between food and health. He wrote, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." When I tell people I'm a "gastronomist" I don't want them to think "epicurean socialite". I want it to evoke all the bounty and huge range of possibilities that word entails.
"Gastronomy is a complex multidisciplinary science."
How did gastronomy become a political issue?
When we started the Slow Food movement in 1986, we wanted to build a global movement for food culture. We now have 160 member countries and a sizeable impact. In September 2016, at Terra Madre's next biannual meeting, the Salone del Gusto in Torino, we will be issuing recommendations to governments on recognizing biodiversity as a cultural heritage that needs protecting. We are giving food for thought to 600 students at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, which we opened in Italy.
And don't forget that feeding ourselves is one of our basic human concerns. In fact, it is a powerful leveraging tool in political, economic, religious and ecological matters. Gastronomy can and should be an instrument of change.
"Gastronomy can and should be an instrument of change."
How is the acceleration of climate change forcing us to get organized and take action?
Like Edgar Morin says, we have to change the paradigm. Right now everything depends on four motives that go unchecked: science, technology, industry and profit. There are many excesses and disastrous outcomes. Academic advances in animal feed led to the mad cow disease crisis, the number of peasants and skilled workers is falling dramatically, 65% of biodiversity has been lost by focusing on the most productive species – the very species that are threatening soil fertility – and this is going on even when waste is at an all-time high. Yet it is the globalization of food production that can be blamed for a large part of greenhouse gas emissions. The system is criminal. You just have to look at the exponential population growth projected to reach 9 billion in 2050. Soil fertility and resource management are critical issues.
"Change is in the air."
We should stop being consumers and start becoming "co-producers". There are already initiatives to develop local economies through the AMAP network in France (Association for Maintaining Small-Scale Family Farming), or changing methods of producing and shipping food. Pope Francis even issued an encyclical on climate change, for which I agreed to write the preface despite being deeply agnostic. We have to get organized and things will start moving. I helped set up the first farmers’ markets in large US cities and now there are over 4,000 of them, even one in Harlem. There are 10,000 microbreweries in the United States – 20 years ago there were only two. Change is in the air.
Why should agriculture once again become a central part of our lives?
Everyone's saying you have to eat organic. It goes without saying that in an ideal world food would be good, local and organic. But sometimes you have to make a tradeoff. It's better to eat local food when you know that organic is coming from the other side of the world! You have to educate yourself, get to know the land and the people involved. Rome wasn't built in a day. This is a "quiet" revolution and patience is the operative word. First, we need to restore our relationship with the earth. We have to learn how to love it again. Farmers and ordinary people have to reopen the dialogue.