Food is fuel, they say. But it is also cultural, economic, and increasingly political. The Slow Food movement began more than 30 years ago in Rome with protests against the construction of a MacDonald’s near the city’s iconic Spanish Steps. Today, it is a global movement, active in 160 countries that works to preserve local food varieties and promote sustainable food systems. “Slow food is the opposite of fast food,” explains Marta Messa, the newly appointed Secretary General of Slow Food.
When Messa began her work, the question was “What’s on the plate?” but now it’s also about “Who owns the seed?” Coming from Italy, Messa grew up with a strong food culture. She remembers how her grandmother would begin preparing the family’s Sunday lunch on Saturday. Helping her grandmother make gnocchi as a child felt more like playing with flour and water for a couple of hours, than cooking. But she realizes now how important these formative experiences with food and family were.
There were also small ceremonies, including “dressing the table” with a cloth, that added importance to the time spent preparing and eating food together. The question, maintains Messa, is “What priority do we give to nourishing ourselves and our loved ones?”
Slow Food is the brainchild of Italian journalist, activist, and gastronomist, Carlo Petrini, and was inspired by a desire to protect local food cultures and traditions, promote gastronomic pleasure, and a slow pace of life. “Slow foods are linked to a huge diversity, not only of flavors but also to a wide variety of microbes that are ultimately linked to our health,” explains Messa.
To this end, Slow Food has a variety of long term projects dedicated to finding, cataloging, and promoting the cultivation and consumption of forgotten local food varieties. The Heirloom Apple project in Piedmont, Italy is one such initiative. Eight forgotten apple varieties, found in small valleys at the base of the Alps, are being cultivated at the research center of Slow Food’s Foundation for Biodiversity in Piedmont.
Slow food is trying to encourage consumers to become their own little political activists when it comes to making food choices.
Many of these varieties date back to the Middle Ages and are often significantly more nutritious and environmentally sustainable than those we now find in commercial supermarket chains. But with the advent of large scale farming and global supply chain dynamics, they were lost. “I challenge you to find more than four apple varieties in any of the leading supermarket chains in Europe today,” says Messa.
The global food market is dominated by large retailers who often dictate the relationship between producers and consumers. But Slow Food’s Cook’s Alliance project and Earth Markets are working to change this.
Cook’s Alliance brings producers of forgotten foods together with local chefs to create dishes that allow patrons to appreciate the full range of flavors provided by these special foods. Earth markets, similar to farmers’ markets, are designed to let local consumers access small producers and food craftsmen. All produce must meet Slow Food’s biodiversity and sustainability criteria.
“Slow food is trying to encourage consumers to become their own little political activists when it comes to making food choices,” says Messa.
Messa’s own Slow Food journey began in 2010 when she returned to her hometown near Bra, Italy, where Slow Food is headquartered. There she helped to coordinate the Thousand Gardens in Africa project, which was working to create a thousand healthy, clean, and fair food gardens in African schools and communities.
The project was designed to raise awareness of local food biodiversity and train a network of leaders who will champion the value of their land and culture in the future. Messa coordinated the whole project, working closely with local agronomists and project managers. She has been with Slow Food ever since.
Now based in Brussels, one of Messa’s key functions is advocacy. Slow Food advocates at the local, national, and European level in order to influence legislation for food production and consumption. Messa is positive about the European Union’s recently released Farm to Fork strategy. “It is the first time we have seen this level of ambition with regard to regulating the entire food system rather than simply agriculture.” Slow Food believes that policies like these are the answer to the current food and climate challenges that we face but recognize that they require time and patience.
When Messa began her work, the question was “What’s on the plate?” but now it’s also about “Who owns the seed?”
However, she acknowledges that “this positive ambition is under constant attack” from large agrochemical companies, farmers organizations, and others who have an interest in maintaining traditional modes of food production. The food shortage caused by the war in Ukraine has strengthened calls for the continuation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). One of the building blocks of the European Union, CAP has subsidized food production for decades and accounts for almost 40% of the EU budget.
“CAP is clearly not aligned with the Farm to Fork policy,” says Messa. “We are working really hard with partner organizations to keep the bar high.” While CAP typically subsidizes traditional farming methods, it places little emphasis on sustainable agriculture. One of their strategies is to bring transition farmers to talk with the European Commission directly. These are farmers who have made the transition from traditional methods of farming to more ecologically friendly ones.
“We cannot blame the farmers,” maintains Messa. The CAP policy has encouraged a certain type of farming and it will take time, both in terms of training and economic investment to change it. “But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start.” Young farmers also need to be encouraged via better access to land and credit. “We must nurture the interest and energy that we see from younger generations to farm.”
Messa believes that the strength of Slow Food is its work at both local and global levels. “This tension is our strength.” However the task is not easy and when progress feels slow Messa takes comfort in the words of the late Martin Luther King – “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it tends toward justice.”
In the meantime: “Vote with your fork every time you purchase food and take the future in your hands – every action counts.”