Diet Detective Interview with Slow Foods founder Carlo Petrini

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Petrini, the president and founder of Slow Food, has played a decisive role in creating and promoting its projects, which have now acquired great international visibility. Among Petrini’s creations is the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo and Colorno, the first academic institution to offer an interdisciplinary approach to food studies.

Now, Slow Food has a network of 100,000 members in 153 countries with 1,300 local chapters called convivia. The organization develops activities, projects and events at the local, regional and global level. Its projects include 1,300 food-education activities and 350 school gardens in 100 countries. Its Terra Madre event involves 2,000 food communities, 1,000 cooks, 500 academics and 1,000 young activists.

Carlo Petrini understands the concept of good, clean, fair food and wants the world to understand it, too. I was able to e-mail him a few questions to find out more about the man behind this international food phenomenon.

Diet Detective: What’s the meaning behind “slow food,” and how did the movement start?

Carlo Petrini: Slow Food is about eating good, clean and fair. The concept of good, clean and fair represents the core of our philosophy. When we speak of good food, we mean that it should be good to the palate and good according to the mind. Clean means it should be made in a way that is sustainable for our Earth and does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health. Finally, food must also be fair, guaranteeing that producers receive a fair price for their labor and are treated with respect. These are three useful guidelines consumers can use when choosing their food in order to ensure that what we eat is good for us, for those who produce it and for the environment.

Slow Food began as a gastronomic association that worked to preserve and promote the pleasure of good food. With time, the association evolved as we realized that in order to eat good food, it was necessary to preserve the land and the traditional methods of production that were at risk of being lost due to the rise of industrial production and the standardization of tastes.

Diet Detective: How would you describe the current healthy food movement? Why is it becoming more and more prolific?

Carlo Petrini: It is a movement that has come to life to respond to the problems relating to how food is produced and what is being consumed. It is becoming stronger and stronger in those places that are particularly affected by these issues. The U.S., for instance, is dealing with severe problems of obesity and juvenile diabetes. A counter-reaction to this is the healthy food movement: In the U.S. alone Slow Food has 24,000 members, and local chapters are mobilizing people every day with a myriad of initiatives to promote food education as well as a more sustainable agricultural system.

Diet Detective: What are some of Slow Food’s programs and initiatives to create healthier eating?

Carlo Petrini: Slow Food has many educational initiatives, aimed at both children and adults. The association is present in schools and on university campuses in the U.S. and worldwide, setting up school gardens where students can have a hands-on experience and learn the values of eating local and sustainable food. These are invaluable experiences, particularly for younger children, as they have a profound impact on their future food choices.

On an international scale, Slow Food has launched the Thousand Gardens in Africa campaign with the aim of creating a thousand gardens on the African continent as a way to educate young farmers about having respect for the environment and to ensure access to a daily supply of fresh, local and seasonal foods.

Diet Detective: How does Slow Food activate people politically around the concept of food?

Carlo Petrini: Slow Food promotes the active participation of its 100,000 members through local convivia, or chapters. These groups are active in their local communities, organizing courses, promoting campaigns at the local level, linking consumers with local producers and participating in the major international events organized by the association. One such event is Terra Madre, which takes place every two years in Turin. It is a meeting that brings together a permanent network of sustainable farmers, fishermen, food producers, cooks, teachers, researchers, experts and students, all of whom work towards the creation of a good, clean and fair model of food production and consumption. In essence, Slow Food calls for an active mobilization of its members on a local level but always keeps in mind those issues that involve us all globally.

Diet Detective: What are some of the key problems with our food system?

Carlo Petrini: Food production today is an intensive, industrialized system based on monoculture [single crop in one year] and is inappropriate for the needs of humans and the environment. The result is a system where food is produced in excessive amounts, but many still don’t have access to adequate nutrition. We are severely damaging the environment, and agro-biodiversity is diminishing at very rapid levels. Information and education are scarce. Take the latest case of the proposed bill in five U.S. states that would prohibit people from taking photographs on farms [called “ag-gag laws“]. There is something deeply wrong with this. Transparency is a key issue, and people have the right to know how their food is being produced. Intensive meat production is a clear example: The conditions in which animals are being raised should not be kept hidden by the industry.

Diet Detective: You founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences; what was the purpose? And was it your opinion that this area of study was not covered at other institutions?

Carlo Petrini: The University fills an important void and was born to give scientific dignity back to gastronomy, a real science. As Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825, “Gastronomy is the reasoned knowledge of everything concerning man insofar as he eats. … It is gastronomy that moves the growers, the winemakers, the fishermen and the families of cooks.” With time we have lost the global aspect of gastronomy, a subject that encompasses many fields, such as botany, natural history, physics, political economy. It is wrong to consider gastronomy as one subject; it is a truly interdisciplinary field. It would be like considering food only from a nutritional perspective. Food is also about culture, history, environment and social justice. The University of Gastronomic Sciences is not a cooking school, but an institution where students approach gastronomy with a holistic and open way of thinking.

Diet Detective: You are quoted in a Time magazine article as saying “no good products without good producers” — what do you mean by that?

Carlo Petrini: It means that humans are the determining factor. It is humans, not the industry, who make good food, because they are the true carriers of value, culture, tradition and history. In most cases, industrial production causes the loss of good food, because the people who produce it no longer exist. We need more people on farms and less industrial production.

Diet Detective: You have an issue with using the term “consumers” to describe those who eat food — can you explain?

Carlo Petrini: As I write in my books Slow Food Nation and Terra Madre, consuming is the final act of the production process, and a consumer must begin to be part of this process, getting to know it, influencing it with his preferences, supporting it if it is in difficulty, rejecting it if it is wrong or unsustainable. By bringing the consumer and producer closer together, as they once were, consumers become co-producers. Wendell Berry once wrote, “Eating is an agricultural act,” and I believe this sums up the meaning of being a co-producer. By being aware of what we eat and by making good, clean and fair choices, we can influence production and contribute to a better environment and, ultimately, a better life for our farmers and ourselves.

Diet Detective: You use the term “normalize” with relation to food. What do you mean by that?

Carlo Petrini: By normalization of food I mean that good food should be available to all people, not just a small elite percentage of the population. People should have access to adequate information and education to better understand the real value of good, clean and fair food. Consumerism and a destructive food-production system have transformed food into a consumer commodity, depriving it of its cultural, social and environmental values. It is much more than a simple commodity. We must all begin giving it the value it deserves and giving pride back to the people who produce it.

Diet Detective: If you were the “King of Food,” how would you fix our broken food system?

Carlo Petrini: I would focus food production as much as possible on a local scale, thereby safeguarding the work of small-scale farmers: the ones who retain the traditional knowledge of food. Having a food system based on local economies would also mean respecting environmental and cultural biodiversity. I would give power back to local communities so they could grow food according to their own culture and habits and could guarantee their own food sovereignty.

Diet Detective: What’s always in your fridge and pantry?

Carlo Petrini: Pasta and local, seasonal vegetables.

Diet Detective: What food would we never find in your fridge or pantry?

Carlo Petrini: Blue-fin tuna, salmon and all the products we should stop eating to save them from extinction.

Diet Detective: What do you generally eat for breakfast?

Carlo Petrini: A cappuccino and a croissant.

Diet Detective: Have you ever eaten what we in America consider “junk food?” If so, what did you eat?

Carlo Petrini: If it happened, it was a mistake! I happened to eat a very poor quality hamburger once. Hamburgers can be an excellent product, but the meat used in that particular burger was very bad quality, even though it was not made in a so-called fast-food establishment. poor quality hamburger once. Hamburgers can be an excellent product, but the meat used in that particular burger was very bad quality, even though it was not made in a so-called fast-food establishment.

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