Food for thought

The Slow Food organisation aims to protect local food culture, and has grown into an influential international movement.


It all started in Bra, a town in north-western Italy of about 30,000 people. In 1986, Carlo Petrini founded ‘Slow Food’ as a wine and food association. The purpose was to enjoy quality cookery as part of a slow, leisurely lifestyle. It countered the expanding fast-food industry. It also fought the disappearance of local food traditions and a rising apathy towards nutrition.

The association soon expanded into a movement. The first international congress was held in Venice in 1990. The network came to include humanitarian and environmental issues such as fair prices, animal welfare and production methods. Branches opened in Germany (1992), Switzerland (1993), the United States (2000), Japan (2004), Britain (2006) and the Netherlands (2008). Today Slow Food has more than 100,000 members and enjoys support in more than 150 countries.

Slow Food describes itself as a global grassroots non-profit organisation. Funds are drafted from member fees and sponsors. It promotes sustainable food production that is harmless to the environment, animals and anyone’s health. It is not strictly vegetarian, but advocates responsible farming where animals enjoy a high-quality life. Support is great at local level, where 1,500 chapters and 2,000 food communities are involved in small-scale food production.


The organisation’s goal is to mobilise people and create new so-called ‘foodies’. “It is definitely challenging,” says Katharina Augustin, of Slow Food UK. “We work with people who are already converted, so lots of foodies are part of our network. But we also try to approach people we haven’t been in touch with.”

A central part of Slow Food’s manifesto is the principle of local identity. Dishes should have strong traces of where they came from, unlike generic fast food. That involves supporting local producers. “We support them and raise awareness of their produce and why a product produced by hand and over longer time is worth paying more for,” says Augustin. “I think it’s about creating an environment where people appreciate these more and understand why they have higher production costs.”

Slow Food has initiated a series of projects. In 1996 it launched the ‘Ark of Taste’, a directory now listing more than 1,100 products endangered by industrial agriculture. In 2004 it created the ‘Terra Madre’ network, which mobilises local farmers, chefs, academics and consumers. The same year it co-founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences to educate about food production and humanitarian values. It is based in Bra.


Other initiatives include a project in Africa in 2010 to create one thousand sustainable food gardens. Then there are Earth Markets (community-run farmers’ markets), local food communities and projects such as Slow Fish, Indigenous Peoples, Land Grabbing, and a publication titled ‘Slow Wine’.

Whatever the project, the goal is the same: encourage production and consumption of local food. “We believe you can change the system from within,” says Augustin, and cites an example. “Through the forgotten foods programme we have partnerships with a supermarket and a ketchup company. We get in touch with people who normally wouldn’t have heard about us. They go to their cantinas and get served forgotten food and menus.”

The movement has received plenty of recognition. In 2004, Petrini was named a European hero by TIME magazine. Last year he spoke at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Yet the main battle against nutritional apathy will be fought at local level. “It takes time,” says Augustin. “It’s not something that happens with one event. But if you can start making people more passionate about food, they might start looking into these topics themselves.”

Photos: Slow Food UK, Slow Food International.