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Slow Food Picks Up Steadily

Claudia Ciobanu

TORINO, Italy, Oct 29 2010 (IPS) - It’s been a steady, even if slow growth for the Slow Food movement around the world.

Senegalese women at the Slow Food festival. Credit: Claudia Ciobanu

Senegalese women at the Slow Food festival. Credit: Claudia Ciobanu

Founded 22 years ago in Italy, the Slow Food movement tackles issues as diverse as basic survival of farmers, land-grabbing, biodiversity protection, school lunches and consumer awareness.

Slow Food was created in 1989 by Italian Carlo Petrini as a non-profit eco- gastronomic organisation to counteract fast food and the disappearance of local food traditions.

In 2004, Slow Food created the Terra Madre global network of small farmers, cooks, academics, NGOs and consumers, meant to connect people around the world interested in implementing the Slow Food concept: producing quality, natural food to be commercialised at prices fair to the farmers. The network now boasts over 100,000 members in 153 countries.

More than 5,000 participants attended this year’s Terra Madre reunion Oct. 21-25 in Torino, Italy. More than 150,000 people visited Salone del Gusto, a producers’ market taking place by the side of the reunion.

The majority of farmers exhibiting were Italian, testifying to the popularity of Slow Food in its country of birth. Out of Slow Food’s 1,300 convivia (local chapters of Slow Food), 291 are in Italy.

But over the last decade, the movement has acquired increased popularity worldwide.

In Western Europe, where food production has been shaped for decades by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy with its focus on industrial agriculture, an increasing number of middle class consumers are now seeking alternatives.

Since its founding in 2005, Slow Food UK has opened more than 40 local chapters. Forty-one chapters are active in France and 31 in Spain. The convivia organise periodic markets for local producers and events to make consumers aware of the economic, environmental and health impacts of choosing between sustainable and industrial food.

Over the past couple of years, Slow Food has grown in former communist Eastern Europe as well, with the most numerous local chapters in Romania and Bulgaria. Here, following the dismantling of state-run collective farms after 1989, governments have strongly pushed for the aggregation of small plots of land, to make farming more efficient.

Nevertheless, up to three-quarters of farms in countries like Romania and Bulgaria continue to be subsistence or semi-subsistence ones. While many of these farms are likely to exit the food production system, some are strengthened through Slow Food, and its periodic local markets for farmers.

In the United States, where agriculture is highly concentrated – the biggest four firms control over 50 percent of the market in sectors as diverse as beef and pork packing or corn seed and ethanol production – Slow Food has grown to over 25,000 members and 250 local chapters since its founding in 2000.

Last year, the movement concentrated on improving the quality of school lunches. High obesity rates among U.S. children have been linked to poor nutrition. Over 30 million kids in the U.S. eat subsidised lunches at school, with authorities allocating less than one dollar per meal.

In September 2009, Slow Food mobilised over 20,000 people to participate in ‘Eat-Ins’ at schools all over the country, serving food from local farms. Participants asked legislators to allow locally produced fresh food in school canteens and to improve school food standards.

Slow Food has also developed branches in Latin America, where it works on safeguarding traditional production techniques of indigenous communities and fighting biodiversity loss.

In Asia Japan, one of the earliest countries outside Europe to join the movement, has over 40 local chapters of Slow Food. India has only two convivia and China, three.

Each year, new farmer groups join the Terra Madre network. Most new participants at this year’s meeting (from outside of Europe) were from Africa, where Slow Food is developing particularly in the central and western parts of the continent. Most local chapters are in Kenya (12) and Senegal (8).

One of the new entrants was Gnima Dieng from the Saloum delta, Senegal, a producer of wild fruit juices. Traditionally, women living on the Saloum islands have made a living out of gathering and processing molluscs, but overfishing by foreign fleets has made it increasingly difficult for them to continue this trade. Women have turned to producing juices from local fruit, such as karkade, ginger, or tamarind, explains Dieng.

“We sell our juices in local markets and we are now working (with Slow Food) on opening a laboratory to produce the drinks,” she explains. “Customers will have more confidence in our products if they are produced in this way.”

Kenyan Liose Chepkinyeny, also new at Terra Madre, is a producer of ash yogurt from the district of West Pokot. The yogurt is produced from cow or goat milk mixed with ash of the native cromwo tree. “It helps us, women and children, survive in the period when men are away with the animals,” explains Chepkinyeny.

“Being here at Terra Madre gives us hope. It helps us to continue the struggle to bring added value to our products. We are making progress, but we still have miles to go.” Chepkinyeny said that there are now over 500 members in the Kenyan network, which is growing.

In addition to fighting for survival, African farmers in the Terra Madre network are also addressing larger issues of the continent. Following the 2009 famine in Uganda, Edward Mukiibi – the Slow Food convivium leader in Mukuno, central Uganda – has developed a programme to create school gardens where kids can grow their own vegetables. This year, over 1,000 students participate in this project in 31 schools.

At this year’s Terra Madre, Slow Food announced its commitment to a global campaign against land grabbing. According to the organisation, 50 million hectares of arable land in Africa, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe have been or are in the process of being bought or leased by foreign governments or corporations. On these lands, monocultures, particularly for biofuels, are replacing small-scale farming.

“Slow Food is a small entity,” Carlo Petrini said in Torino, “but this is not a time for parochialism. We want to strengthen rapports with all organisations and movements that work for food sovereignty, that fight against food being considered a commodity.”

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