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Is slow food slowly changing?

Farmers and food artisans discuss the future of the slow food movement at the biennial Terra Madre.

By Lisa AbendCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2008

Contrasts: Hams and Peruvian sweet potato products, right, were exhibited at Terra Madre.

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP Photo/Newscom

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Turin, Italy

Somewhere between the exquisite vial of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, fermented in cherry wood, that Modena's Acetaia del Cristo sells for roughly $150 and the few dusty potatoes that Ann Petroni hawks on a blanket she brought with her from Burundi, lies the future of Slow Food, founded in 1989 to counteract the pernicious effects of fast food.

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Along with vinegar and potatoes, the accomplishments and contradictions of the organization were also on display last month at Terra Madre, a biennial gathering that brings hundreds of small farmers and food artisans from around the globe to Turin, Italy, to exchange advice, share experiences, and display products they've lovingly grown or made. The convention is the main event on the Slow Food calendar.

While it is certainly a glorious celebration of sustainable agriculture and eating, Terra Madre also embodies many of the tensions inherent in Slow Food itself. As the looming global recession gave added punch to customary complaints of elitism, attendees alternated between promoting a progressive political agenda and gorging on fine-cured meats and pastries.

"I can't stand gourmets anymore," said Carlo Petrini at a press conference midway through the five-day extravaganza. "People who sniff a cheese and talk about how it has the most wonderful aroma of horse sweat. Think how incredibly boring we would be if we were still just a gastronomic society." Those are provocative words from the founder of the international Slow Food movement, which started as a small club of Italians determined to protect their cuisine from the encroachments of McDonald's.

But at Terra Madre, it was clear that Slow Food is no longer primarily about taste. Experts lectured about the dangers of genetically modified crops and spoke on the need to devise policies that entice young people to become farmers. The organization issued a manifesto on climate change and agriculture. After activist Vandana Shiva spoke of how organic farming could mitigate global warming, autograph-seeking fans crowded around her as if she were a rock star.

Newly elected Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel told a meeting of the US delegation – which, with 800 members, was the largest to attend Terra Madre – that the organization had to do a better job of addressing issues of social justice. "That's been a weakness for us," he admitted. "The problems in our food system disproportionately hurt poor people, and the solutions that the sustainable agriculture community has come up with are not accessible to everyone. We can't just say that people should pay more for food that is good, clean, and fair."

Along with the high-minded discourse, there were other sources of inspiration. From the lunch tables at which delegates from Bolivia in bowlers and embroidered vests sat down to eat pasta salad with women in saris to the enthusiastic youth workshops where college students exchanged ideas for a Teach for America-style program that would encourage young farmers, many attendees took hope from the gathering. Titu Buitu Kimolo from Tanzania couldn't contain his enthusiasm. "It's my first time at Terra Madre, but I've learned so much," the 23-year-old farmer said. "From talking with people here, I got the idea to go home and start a project planting fruit trees at the local school."

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