Slow Food Nation

How should journalists cover the Slow Food movement?

Working for the Slow Food movement—as I did for three months in 2006 until my Italian visa ran out—is the kind of job that requires some explanation. Somebody asks, “What do you do?” When you say, “I work for Slow Food,” they tend to assume you sell Crock-Pots.

Founded in Italy to champion traditional cuisine in an increasingly homogenized global food culture, the movement is easiest to explain with its motto, and a clarification. It’s built on the idea that food should be “good, clean, and fair.” The “good” part means it should be tasty. The “clean” part means its production shouldn’t harm the environment, and its consumption shouldn’t harm eaters. The “fair” part means farmers should get a living wage. Admirable goals, all—and by a happy quirk of nature, without which founder Carlo Petrini might still be a socialist politician in small-town Italy, food often tastes better this way, too.

Slow Food has grown quickly since its founding in 1989—the organization now boasts about 85,000 members in 132 countries. As the The New York Times noted in a recent article, Slow Food USA is about to host its biggest-ever event, modeled on its Italian progenitor’s famous food festival, the Salone del Gusto, held biennially in Turin, Italy. The Italian event showcases a market of hundreds of food producers from all over the world—the 2006 edition had around 170,000 guests. The American version, which will be held in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend, expects a more modest 50,000, according to the Times.

The article focused on the movement’s image problem in America. Slow Food has long battled charges that it is, as the Times puts it, “one big wine tasting with really hard to find cheeses that you weren’t invited to.” Its adherents claim the opposite, arguing that the modern world’s twisted modes of food production have rendered “good food” a luxury many can’t afford. And good food, they say, is a natural right of all humanity.

Slow Food’s San Francisco event is ambitiously titled Slow Food Nation, and the Times used the news peg to examine the movement’s philosophy, history, critics, and fans. But it’s worth considering the environmental implications of what a Slow Food nation might actually look like, and whether it could, in fact, improve on the fast-food status quo. There is a strong environmental component to the movement’s efforts—founder Petrini coined the phrase “eco-gastronomy” to describe the tantalizing idea of eating your way to a better environment. The Times quotes one of Petrini’s favorite maxims, that “a gastronome who isn’t an environmentalist is just stupid, and… an environmentalist who isn’t a gastronome is just sad.”

It’s cute. It’s quotable. And it might even be true. After all, the problems with the industrial agriculture are manifold. As the environmental magazine Grist documented in admirable depth last fall, industrial farming has led to soil depletion, loss of biodiversity, pesticide and herbicide runoff, unsavory chemicals in our drinking water, and diseases spreading quickly and widely in centralized food distribution systems (Remember the salmonella-tainted tomatoes? Or the E. coli spinach?)

Slow Food’s alternative vision emphasizes local production and consumption. Although the word “sustainable” tends to be overused and imprecise, the organization actually has a fairly specific vision of what sustainable food production means, which is easy enough to find in the press. Roughly speaking, it means smaller-scale farming with natural fertilizers. It also means local distribution, on the assumption that the less distance food has to travel to your plate, the less fossil fuel gets spewed into the air. (A piquant stat from sustainable chef Kurt Michael Friese: 95 percent of Iowa’s food is imported from out of state, and travels an average of 1,500 miles to the plate.)

But, observes David Szanto, who got his master’s degree at Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences and is now the school’s communications and outreach manager, “The reality check is we are globalized in our identities and cultures. We do eat mangoes north of the 35th parallel,” not to mention oranges and coffee. And Friese notes that, although Iowa produces more pork, corn, and eggs than any other state in the U.S., it has no indigenous source of salt.

The bottom line: Totally local farming can’t totally sustain our lifestyles. And this isn’t totally clear from the coverage.

There may be other, bigger problems with the underlying theory behind Slow Food’s version of sustainability. A handful of its favorite causes include food that is fairly traded, organic, and locally produced. You can muster evidence—as The Economist did two years ago—that each of these might actually harm the environment and the food producers they aim to protect.

How? “Fair trade” ensures a subsidy on the wages food producers earn: the extra cash could encourage the overproduction that makes it so difficult to earn a living wage farming in the first place. This brings prices back down and hurts the producers that aren’t assured of fair trade subsidies. Farming “organically,” that is, with natural fertilizer that lacks yield-improving chemicals, produces less food per acre used. On a broad enough scale, such farming would divert more uncultivated land to agriculture. The Economist surmises that some of this land could very well come from rainforests.

Even the idea of burning less fossil fuel in food transportation, which seems reasonable enough, ignores other energy sources involved in food production. A study (pdf) at Lincoln University in New Zealand showed that, because of comparative climate advantage, it actually takes less aggregate energy to grow apples in New Zealand and ship them to the U.K. than it does to grow apples in the U.K. and sell them locally. Similarly, if you’re drinking wine in New York, it might be more carbon-efficient to pick Bordeaux over Napa—the former is shipped by boat, which uses less energy than the truck that takes the latter cross-country. (For a very good assessment of the difficulties inherent in calculating carbon emissions, see Michael Specter’s recent article in The New Yorker.) On the local level, what if you have to drive further to get to your farmer’s market than to your supermarket? Does it cancel out the environmental savings of local production if enough people take that trip?

Covering Slow Food presents a dual challenge. Once you’ve spent about a thousand words grappling with what this movement is and does, it’s easy to overlook the question: “Does it work?” Especially since all signs point to: “It’s too soon to tell.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Kathy Gilsinan is the associate editor at World Politics Review