The Slow Food movement originally began in Italy in 1989. Representing not just a shift in the production of food, Italians wished to hold on to their cultural values of food. Slow food means everything from production to consumption, an idea that most developed countries are less in touch with than developing countries. Where developed countries must focus their food intake based off of buyers and consumers, developing countries can put more emphasis on the importance of the production of food. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to control this aspect of the market, especially when big corporations are involved and competing against small family farms. In Italy, while both small and big farms were subsidized by the government, there emerged a lot of distrust surrounding food. For Italians, it is much more important where their food came from, how it was produced, and their relationship with who they bought it from than perhaps the price of the food or its nutritional value.
From this overall fear and skepticism from food, there came a shift around the “branding” of food. For instance, many quality labels were made and placed on food, emphasizing that local food means quality food. Small changes like these have Italians feel more security about what they are buying, but mass produced, industrial food is still highly disliked. Similarly, big corporations like McDonalds were first met with extreme fear and dislike. Italians feared a globalized food world would mean the destruction of their culture, and especially the importance around producing food with meaning. One of the founders of the Slow Food Movement passed around homemade pasta to protestors outside of the McDonalds, sparking the origins of slow food.
In the United States, the Slow Food Movement has perhaps accidentally harnessed the attention of the elite and upper-class bourgeoisie food consumers. Starting in 1998, the American branch of the Slow Food Movement (Slow Food USA) has been branded as polarizing people. The cultural meanings around slow food have been lost in the United States, perhaps unsurprisingly given the number of fast food chains and an overall quick-paced lifestyle. This past summer in San Francisco, Slow Food USA took the opportunity to almost rebrand themselves from a cliquish and snobby rich hobby to a more reflective way of life. In Italy, the group focuses on finding local products and helping those who can, produce more of them. In the United States, farmers markets are trendy and supportive of local farmers, but often deemed too expensive and out-of-the-way for the big population to catch on. Ultimately, both Slow Food movements are important, but Italians are preserving their cultural importance of food where Americans are trying to build it.
Differences between Developing and Developed Nations
As we have seen time and time again in the course, globalization affects developing and developed countries very differently. As a result, Slow Food and their approaches in developing countries differ from the approaches used in developed countries. Anette Kinely’s article “Local Food on a Global Scale: An exploration of the International Slow Food Movement” is focused on those differences, but also aims to show that they are more similar than we might think.
At its core, the difference between developing and developed nations is that “people in developing nations are more likely to earn their livelihoods directly from agriculture,” while “most people in developed nations are likely to have marginal connections to the process of food production” (Kinely). What allows for Slow Food to be able to address these differences is their structure. While there is an executive board of directors and an international council, the work is done through “convivia,” or volunteer driven groups. This allows for problems to be addressed locally, in whatever way the volunteers deem will best induce the necessary change. According to Kinely, the movement and its leadership is “highly conscious” of not using a Eurocentric approach to their work.
Kinely uses Kenya and Alberta, Canada as examples of the differences in approaches used by the Slow Food convivia in the area. In Kenya, agriculture makes up 50% of the country’s GDP (Kinely). Similarly to other developing countries, Kenya has been moving away from traditional crops and moving towards monocultures and genetically modified crops, which as a result doesn’t allow for farers to get a fair price for their crops and makes the country more vulnerable to crop failures (Kinely). The Slow Food movement in Kenya has worked towards addressing these issues by helping farmers breed different varieties of sheep, goats, and cattle, cultivating seeds, beekeeping and even a group committed to preventing soil erosion (Kinely). They also work to educate the communities, especially school children. In Alberta, Canada, the Slow Food movement is much more focused on the fact that Alberta’s agricultural activity is mostly controlled by large corporations and heavily influenced by the international market. This has threatened small farms extensively. The issues Alberta face are not solely economic however. The Albertan identity is under threat, because small-scale ranching was a highe part of their lives before the monopolization occurred. The Slow Food movement in Alberta focuses on “sustainable food production and distribution, public education, the promotion of local food products and culture, and the production of quality artisan foods” (Kinely).
The Slow Food movements in Kenya and Alberta are similar in the sense that they both are facing international and governmental pressure to change their agricultural ways in order to achieve a greater yield. This has significant consequences in terms of crop failure and food shortages for both communities. Another similarity is that they are both facing an aging farm population, which could lead to a larger percentage of the food being supplied by industrial agriculture. The differences in both communities are significant, however. In Kenya, the movement is much more focused on producing food for the communities own sustenance, “with only surplus food being sold outside of the community” (Kinely). In Alberta, food is being produced to sell, not necessarily for consumption. Another significant difference is that the Slow Food movement in Alberta is much more focused on consumers and teaching them about the benefits of local food over industrially-produced food, while the focus in Kenya is centered around the experience and knowledge of the people producing the food (Kinely).
The similarities and differences between the Slow Food movement in Kenya and Alberta are representative of the different stages in which the communities are in. Ultimately, they have different economic structures and positions, which means that the way the Slow Food movement addresses the issues will have to be different.
Food and European Identity
Slow Food emerged in the late 1980’s, in the midst of a spirited debate over the application of European Union food and safety legislation, and what wide reaching jurisdiction such policy might have. Slow Food’s institutional and economic influence is evident in its rapid expansion throughout the world, with offices in Switzerland, Germany, New York, and more recently Brussels, where it can lobby the EU on trade and agricultural policy. While granting that different European nations are known for a wide variety of nation-specific foods, Americans often lump ‘European’ food into a larger category that is characterized as fine or perhaps sophisticated. In “Slow Food and the Politics of Pork Fat: Italian Food and European Identity,” Leitch argues that food is a tremendously political platform that is imbued with complex meanings and functions as a cultural symbol in an increasingly nationalist world.
Leitch writes that a nation’s food symbolizes a great deal of its history, in the wider global context in which colonialism has shaped cuisine all around the world. Food is compared to the Euro, in that it has become a single common currency “through which to debate Europeaness and the implications of economic globalization at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Nations have debated the use of the Euro throughout the EU, and the effect it might have on the exchange of value between nations. The same goes for food — the more localized and culture-specific a food becomes/remains, the more cultural capital it’s afforded. Think, for instance, of French bread, tortillas, or gnocchi. These foods call to mind particular nations and national cuisines that are encased in much deeper histories and values. This brings us to a fascinating question of how we decide what local food in a globalized world is truly authentic …
Furthermore, in a globalized world where nations band together in unions like the EU — who ought to have a say in how exactly a food is manufactured or processed? — as in cases such as the Italian lardo. What are the risks and benefits of affording greater agency to individual nations in making food production decisions. Likewise, how does allocating all of that decision power to one larger political body affect the ways in which individual nations produce and consume their food?
Finally, we touch on the huge irony that sits between the mission of this movement and the reality of its execution. Due to Slow Food’s own promotional campaign and marketing tactics, a food which might have once been a common element in local diets, a staple even — a source of calorific energy, has been “reinvented and repackaged as an exotic item for gourmet consumption.” The movement has branded itself as a form of social activism, as a movement that aims to alleviate hunger and the distance that has grown between consumers and their food. Unfortunately, this has been translated in a way that connects “eating local” with bourgeois elitism that manifests itself in haute cuisine and “the right to pleasure” in food and wine. Leitch argues that Slow Food is just as concerned with the “commodification of rural and proletarian nostalgia” as the actual protection of local cultures and peoples and their experience of food.
Increased globalization has led to escalating compression of time and space. We are more intimately familiar with the other ends of the earth than ever before, and technological advances has made our worlds smaller by the year. In this context, Slow Food is almost an act of subversion — to take food and the act of eating and slow it down to a state of stillness or locality. The intention and heart of Slow Food seems to be pure, it’s how we choose to interpret and utilize the movement that could present more complicated threats to our global food systems.