Slow Down with Carlo Petrini: Slow Food Founder Stops by the Friedman School

By Kelly A. Dumke

How expensive is our cheap food? How do we globalize the solution but de-globalize the strategy? Is our food system eating us? Carlo Petrini, president and founder of Slow Food, posed these questions to a captive audience of students, staff, and faculty during a recent stop at the Friedman School seminar series. Read on for a recap of Mr. Petrini’s talk and reaction from Friedman faculty, Dr. Timothy Griffin and Dr. Chris Peters.

Slow Food is an international grassroots organization founded in 1989 by the former Italian journalist to counter the rise in fast food and fast life, the disappearance of the local food tradition, and the dwindling interest in food choice and its effect on the rest of the world.

Armed with a single note card and a trusty translator, Italian-speaking Carlo Petrini captivated an audience of students and staff, faculty and foodies, and supporters and skeptics for over an hour during the noontime seminar. The Friedman School seminar was one stop on Mr. Petrini’s recent tour of several New England universities where he spoke about the future of food, the significance of biodiversity, and the tenets in his latest book, Terra Madre: Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities.

Structuring his talk around a single overarching paradox – “It’s not us eating food, it’s food that is eating us,” – Mr. Petrini began by discussing several major issues in the current global system.

The Lost Provolone – A Defeat for Biodiversity

According to Mr. Petrini, 70% of Mother Nature’s biodiversity has been lost since 1900. Using a humorous yet poignant example, Mr. Petrini laments the loss of bovine breeds. “In Italy we only have five breeds of milk cows now, and they are the ones that produce the most liters of milk. There once existed a variety that produced less milk, and that milk made the most delicious provolone in the world! That breed no longer exists and neither does the best provolone.”

The Farmer’s Plight – Soil Fertility, Water Quality, & Consumption

“All farmers say it was better in the past,” stated Mr. Petrini, referring to the deterioration of soil fertility across the landscape of industrialized agriculture. He highlights 150 years of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that have not only reduced soil quality but also contributed to widespread pollution and reduced water quality. Furthermore, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of farmers, now representing only 4% of the global population and just 1.5% of the U.S. population.

The Waste Paradox

“We produce food for 12 billion, we are a population of 6 billion, yet 1 billion suffer from malnutrition…” declared Mr. Petrini, highlighting one of the greatest paradoxes of the current food system: waste. He described this as much as an outcome of the industrialization of agriculture as an erosion of culture, noting sagely that “if you forget the value of food, you can easily waste it.”

Slow Food & Terra Madre

Referring to the current state of the global food system as an “entropic crisis” requiring a paradigm shift, Mr. Petrini launched into a discussion about the ideals of Slow Food and the tenets of Terra Madre to shift the global food system.

Mr. Petrini stressed the need for an alliance between the “people who produce food and the people who consume food”, a notion he calls food sovereignty. Returning to one of his central questions, Mr. Petrini highlighted the need to understand those promoting the industrial food and low prices, for what is “cheap” in terms of price may be “expensive” in terms of health, land, and waste. Furthermore, he calls for a restoration in the value of regional, seasonal, and sustainable, emphasizing with the tone of an adamant leader “Respetarre le rimanenze!!” (“Respect the leftover!”).

Petrini concluded his lecture by emphasizing that productivity and efficiency can no longer solely measure the value of food, and reciprocity is key: consumers must be viewed as co-producers. As he states in Terra Madre: “All those who play a primary role in the creation of food must become ‘sovereign’ again.”

Friedman Reaction & Commentary – “A contrast of solutions”

The fundamental ideals of Slow Food are hard to argue: restoring the value of food; promoting regional, seasonal, and sustainable production; and connecting those who produce with those who consume. It’s hard not to leave a lecture basking in the romantic ideals of a “good, clean, and fair” food system. However, beyond an ideal, are the tenets and beliefs of Slow Food and Terra Madre feasible?

Dr. Timothy Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food & Environment program, teaches Agriculture Science & Policy this fall, with recent lectures focusing on applying technological advancements to improve Africa’s food security. “It’s a fascinating contrast of solutions,” he stated when asked to comment on Mr. Petrini’s lecture.

“The question I asked myself is: if you take central concepts of what he’s [Carol Petrini] talking about and try to scale it out, does it fix the problems of the food system? Environmental, social justice, food security?” asks Dr. Griffin.

In his class, Dr. Griffin posed this question to students: is the approach Mr. Petrini talked about, emphasizing the cultural importance of food, compatible with an approach of ramping up investment in science and technology to grow more food?

“I am looking at this as a scientist,” states Griffin, bringing up issues such as economics and policy. The luxury of placing such an importance on food changes at different ends of the economic spectrum. “Consider the spectrum from affluent people to those who live on less than a dollar a day: there is a huge difference in the cultural value of food” he noted.

Dr. Chris Peters, professor at the Friedman School and co-professor of Agricultural Science & Policy with Griffin, also questions aspects of the talk. “There were some statements I wanted to fact check,” referring to statements about the current world food production’s ability to feed 12 billion and the 50% waste rate Petrini mentioned.

However, both Griffin and Peters highlight the importance of looking at changes to the global food system from multiple perspectives. “It won’t be scientists and policymakers who teach farmers how to grow food in Africa. This happens at the level of individual households and individual communities,” quotes Griffin.

Dr. Peters notes, “I thought his [Petrini’s] focus on values was really refreshing because in a scientific environment, we tend to avoid those issues.” Given our propensity to pack as much as we can into time, the notion of “taking time to do some things slowly is a refreshing message as well,”

So are the ideals of Slow Food, Terra Madre, and Mr. Petrini compatible with more scientific and technological solutions?

“I hope it’s not incompatible because saying ‘I’m on this side of the fence and you are on that side of the fence’, does not get us very far in the world of food issues,” states Griffin.

Dr. Peter’s indicates the need to examine our food system with broader goals including balanced diets, affordable prices, and sufficient compensation. “There are many good reasons why certain modern agriculture practices evolved,” states Peters. “I don’t think we can push science aside in changing the food system.”

Returning completely to traditional agricultural methods may not be feasible or even desirable, notes Dr. Peters. However, it is important to understand traditional agricultural methods when considering the global food system. “I think that is what Mr. Petrini is looking to – the lessons that have been lost from traditional agriculture.”

Kelly Dumke is a second year nutrition communication student and aspiring chef at heart.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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