Terra Madre 2010: Closing Day Questions

I’m trying to wrap my head around Slow Food’s Terra Madre 2010 and Salone del Gusto conferences that drew to a close in Turin, Italy tonight.  I came not knowing what to expect—I just had a sense this was the place to be for someone who cares about these issues. 

What I take away, bottom line, is that the people at Terra Madre, the activists around the world involved in the Slow Food movement, are engaged in what is the next major social movement of our lifetimes.

It’s happening right before our eyes, but it’s easy to miss.  Why?  Unless there’s police with batons and protesters in the streets, the press doesn’t cover social movements, and we don’t see them.  But this is a big, radical—I mean that in a good way—movement, a grass roots one, and if it succeeds the fundamental structures of our society will change, from the way corporations do business, to the laws that govern food and land rights, to the very taste of the stuff we put in our mouths. 

I’m convinced that, even taking into account the law of unintended consequences, these changes will repair so much that is broken in the world: our environment, hunger, obesity, human rights, animal welfare, the taste of our food. 

That’s because by focusing on food, the movement has found perhaps the most powerful lever for changing so much that is wrong in society.  The production, distribution and consumption of food touches on every aspect of our lives, from topsoil maintenance to gender roles. (I believe it ultimately touches on the vitality of our own souls as well, but Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini is clearly more comfortable with the overtly political).

“Food was always a part of social movements,” author Raj Patel told the crowd at tonight’s closing ceremony. “Now it has moved to the center.”

A lot, then, is at stake.  So, will it succeed?

I think that depends on how the movement answers four questions—they are the four that after these days of talking, listening, interviewing, eating (a lot of eating, just…a…lot) and drinking (ditto), I still never got clear answers to.

1. What does it want?

The power of food to touch so many aspects of society may also be a weakness of the movement.  The six presentations tonight touched on food-related issues from the disappearance of small farms to the lack of plant and animal diversity, from corporate control of seed stock and GMOs, to hunger among the world’s women and children, to fast food and obesity and the need for school gardens. Yes, yes and yes.  But like any business, like any person, success depends on focus. You pursue a wide ranging agenda and you may very well end up doing a little about a lot of things, but not enough about any one.

2. How will it declare victory?

Call me a shallow American, but when I join a cause, I want to win.  The Civil Rights Movement culminated in the Voting Rights Act. That was the trophy those ativists could point to on their wall. How will Slow Food know when it’s won?  I asked Josh Viertel, the president of Slow Food USA, this question, and he gave me what amounted to a lot of good things: when there’s more school gardens in America than McDonalds.  When the majority of Americans have access to good, healthy local food. I think he mentioned something about people sitting and eating together—I’ll check that when I write up his interview.  But the end result is no end result. If you can’t give people some Thing to aim for, to aspire to, will they walk off the field as the goal posts keep moving back.

3.  Who will lead it?

Great movements produce great leaders. I left this conference having met severeal of them, from 17 year old Sam Levin, who started a school garden as a high school project at 15 and is just a ridiculously poised and powerful speaker.  I actually think Carlo Petrini appropriated his line about the power of snails, the Slow Food symbol.  “Politicians don’t know anything about snails, but snails know about politicians.”  Must check my notes on that one.

In any case, Sam’s too young, Josh Viertel, also dynamic, a Harvard and Yale grad who did time as a farmer and shephard, still lacks what the pros call name recognition.  Carlo Petrini cannot play a public leadership role in America because, well, he doesn’t speak English.  He is also essentially a Comunist academic, and I say that lovingly.  He seems ambivalent about donning the mantle of movement leader—slipping in to long, philosophical discourses, and reveling in a certain degree of anarchy. At one point tonight animal rights protesters commanderred the proceedings.  Two unfurled a flag in the bleachers with the words, Carne=Morte, while one, dressed in a bloody sheep costume, ran on stage and fell down dead, as a young, shrill woman with a megahone screamed at the audience in Italian.  Petrini, sitting not two feet away, sat through it all bemused. At one point he clapped, perhaps applauding the theatricality or the chutzpah of it all.  What he didn’t do at that moment was take control.  (It’s Italy—no one did).

“Do what you want,” Petrini surged the crowd at the end of his speech, which as you can imagine would only be a rabble-rousing line in a classroom full of third graders.

This is all a good problem, in its way.  The movement is full of leaders, of people taking action in their communities.  But what the movement lacks is a high profile, visionary, singular leader who will push the agenda, set the tone, take the flack, lead the troops.  Funny that a community full of cooks doesn’t realize how important it is to have a chef.

4) What unites the followers?

Clearly the people at the conference are united in their love and admiration for Petrini, and in their hate of the Monsanto corporation.  Mention either of those ends of the love/hate spectrum and you get a universal reaction.  The middle, though, is a little gray.

The people themselves are different: farmers, food lovers, housewives, academics, activists.  And their causes don’t always line up: there are die-hard animal rights activists, hog farmers, social justice workers, etc.  When Raj Patel mentioned in one speech that the conference should be in Spanish to address the people who really farm our fields and cook our food,  I could sense the crowd divided.  When he held up the Black Panthers as a model for changing community through food, you could see tumbleweeds blow past the podium.  It was an interesting litmus test of how far Left, for lack of a better word, this bunch will go. 

So it’s simple: for this critical, growing movement to really change the world, the right leader needs to focus on the winnable goal, abring the largest numbers of activist along, and spark the public imagination as well.

After four days, I have no idea how or whether that could happen.  But I hope it does.