January 16, 2015
Food binds us together. It is who we are. What we eat, where our food comes from, how it’s produced, who grows it, and when it arrives on our table tell us pretty much everything we need to know about ourselves. Our culture is the sum of its edible parts. How we treat the animals that we eat, for example, tells us—or ought to, anyway—a great deal about the state of our nation. Overgrazed range is a food issue. Population is a food issue. Food ties urban to rural, eater to grower, people to land, past to future, one nation to another, our children to ourselves. There is no such thing as a “post-agricultural” society, as author Wendell Berry has noted. We’re all eaters. We’re all in this together.
It was not a surprise to learn that the slow food movement originated in Italy, where good food is as much a part of the culture as, well, fast food is in America. The two, of course, are connected. Slow food was founded by activist Carlo Petrini in the small town of Bra in 1986 as a deliberate push back against the infiltration of fast food chain restaurants into Italy. His initial aim was to support and defend good food, good eating, and a slow pace of life. The quality of food, Petrini insisted, was intimately linked to the quality of life. “By training our senses to understand and appreciate the pleasure of food,” he wrote in a document given to delegates, “we also open our eyes to the world.”
Over time, the slow food movement broadened its goals, I learned, arguing that diverse, healthy food is the foundation to overall human well-being and, as a consequence, the very survival of our imperiled planet. Slow food’s official mission is to protect, conserve, and defend traditional and sustainable foods, primary ingredients, methods of cultivation and processing, and the biodiversity of cultivated and wild food varieties. This mission is premised on the wisdom of local communities working in harmony with the ecosystems that surround them. Slow food also protects places of historic, artistic, or social value that form a part of our global food heritage.
In 2008, Terra Madre’s emphasis was on youth—1,300 young farmers and students attended from ninety-seven countries. The event included the launch of the International Youth Network. The opening ceremony featured an Olympics-style parade of nations, with each delegation dressed in traditional outfits and carrying a placard announcing their homeland. Plenary speakers included Sam Levin, a fifteen-year-old student from Vermont who described his successful effort to start an organic garden on the grounds of his high school. His (youthful) declaration captured the mood of the gathering: “It’s a promise to all of you that we will finish what you started,” he said. “It’s a message to our parents that we will be the generation that will reunite mankind with the earth.”
For the next three days, Gen and I wandered in and out of workshops, listened to lectures courtesy of professional translators, browsed the global goods, and braved the jam-packed Salon de Gusto in an adjacent building, which featured local food from every part of Italy. We also attended media events, such as the official unveiling of the Manifesto on Climate Change and the Future of Food Security, which was self-described as an agroecological response to the challenge posed by climate change. Rising temperatures meant declining food harvests, I read, which in a world already straining to feed itself posed any number of challenges, not the least of which was justice. The poor nations of the world will bear the brunt of climate change’s early effects, said the manifesto, which means the rich, polluting nations should bear the brunt of the costs associated with adapting to those effects. It was only fair.
Perhaps most impressive of all, besides the wide diversity of people (and the smiles), was the quantity of youth in attendance. This was a bit of a revelation to me. Youth, I’ve been told over and over, don’t want to go into agriculture anymore. It’s not profitable, it’s too hard, the hours are too long, and so forth. They wanted jobs in town instead, preferably involving computers. While I harbored doubts about this claim for years, it wasn’t until Terra Madre that I realized that an opposite case could be made.
For example, I spoke to one young man who had recently graduated from a university in Montana with a degree in environmental studies. His plan? To become an organic farmer. He had found a farm and was ready to get to work. “Why farming?” I asked him. It was his way, he replied, of doing something about the global challenges confronting us.
“Doing something” was the watchword of Terra Madre. In fact, it could be the motto for the “new agrarianism”—the name being given to this diverse effort taking place around the planet to create an economic alternative to industrialism. Frankly, I find this movement very hopeful and exciting. I left Terra Madre fired up.
COURTNEY WHITE is a former archaeologist, environmental activist, and the co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists, and others around practices that improve land health. Today, his conservation work focuses on fostering economic and ecological resilience for working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. White is the author of Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West and Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country. In 2012, he published a collection of black-and-white photographs of the American West in an online book titled The Indelible West. It includes a foreword by Wallace Stegner (written in 1992). His new book is The Age of Consequences: A Chronicle of Concern and Hope, published this month by Counterpoint Press. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.