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Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009

Slow Food founder pushes fair fare

Staff writer

Carlo Petrini, a 60-year-old Italian, is on a mission: He wants cheap, mass produced foods laced chemical fertilizers and artificial flavors to be replaced by safer, high-quality, and higher-priced, fare.

News photo
Mac attacker: Carlo Petrini, founder and chairman of Slow Food International in Italy, talks about what makes food good, clean and fair at the Italian Institute of Culture in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 21. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

For the past 20 years, Petrini has been promoting ecological, sustainable food production, distribution and consumption as founder and chairman of Italy-based Slow Food International.

"We're overproducing food for 12 billion people, double our population, and 1 billion people are suffering from hunger," Petrini said during a recent Tokyo visit to promote his book "Slow Food Nation: Why our Food should be Good, Clean and Fair" ("Suro Fudo no Kiseki: Oishii, Kirei, Tadashii"). The Japanese version will be released Nov. 20.

Petrini first felt a sense of crisis when he learned a McDonald's outlet was opening near Rome's Spanish Steps in 1986.

Fearing Italy's traditional foods would be threatened by the growing fast food chains, he opened Arcigola, the predecessor of Slow Food, and collected signatures to petition against the McDonald's outlet.

"I collected 5,000 signatures in 24 hours," he said.

Slow Food Movement has since spread globally, registering 100,000 members with more than 1,000 chapters worldwide. A Japan branch was set up in 2004 in Sendai. There are now 47 local chapters in the country.

Slow Food promotes high-quality food measured by three criteria: It has to taste good, it has to be grown in an environmentally friendly manner and farmers should earn a fair price for their products.

Petrini, who grew up loving food in Piedmont, northern Italy, said food not meeting these conditions should be considered lacking in quality.

"Good" food, according to his book, does not simply mean being flavorful. It has to be natural as well. For example, good meat or cheese comes from well-tended animals that are not given growth hormones or chemical feed. Processed foods with artificial flavors don't make the grade.

Petrini said "clean" food must be grown in an environmentally friendly manner.

The increase in agricultural exports amid globalization and industrialization is increasingly damaging the environment, he said.

As an example, he wrote about his experience of not being able to purchase local "quadrato d'asti" pepper in his hometown. What he found instead at a restaurant was cheap imported Dutch peppers.

He was also shocked to learn the field where Italian peppers used to be harvested now grows tulip bulbs for export to Holland.

"If we want food distributed from miles away, we have to keep emitting (carbon dioxide)," he said.

Finally, the "fairness" of food is measured by whether farmers get paid what they deserve.

It is becoming harder for farmers to make ends meet, he said.

"Do you know why young people don't want to be engaged in farming? Because they cannot earn enough money," he said about graying Japanese farmers, whose average age is 57.

What is worse, people are spending less money on food, he added.

"In the 1970s, people spent 30 percent of their income on food in Italy, but they only spend 13 percent today," he said. "And we're spending more money on gadgets like mobile phones."

To change this situation, Petrini argues that people need to consider themselves "coproducers," and not just consumers, and contribute to agriculture by shelling out for high-quality food products.

To support quality food as defined by Slow Food, coproducers must increase awareness of the food they purchase. They must weigh whether the food they buy is leading to a decline in natural species, is grown with agricultural chemicals, is damaging the soil and creating pollution or delivered over a long distance.

Before urbanization, people used to live close to farms, making it easier for them to learn about crops from farmers and retailers.

"Everything (now) is regarded as a commodity," Petrini said, noting food is consumed as energy and selling seeds is a lucrative business for multinational companies.

He said people should not merely try to squeeze a profit from everything under the sun, but added farmers alone cannot change this mind-set.

It sounds like hard work, but Petrini maintains that the agricultural industry can improve if consumers change their attitude toward buying food.

Petrini meanwhile remains hopeful about agriculture in Japan, as young people get fed up trying to pursue a fast-paced lifestyle.

"It seems people are (leading) a stressful life in Japan, and the suicide rate is high. Perhaps the quality of life here is not high," he said. "But I feel young people in Japan are protesting this lifestyle, saying they can no longer sacrifice themselves for it."

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