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We are what we eat

By Darryl D'Monte

There are three ideal attributes of food, according to Carlo Petrini of the Slow Food movement: It should appeal to the senses; it should be clean and environment-friendly; and most of all these days, it should be fair

The term 'slow food' evokes a quizzical smile: its reference point is the opposite -- fast food, which implies eating on the trot in an increasingly busy world or, at the very least, consuming junk. But the very fact that the term isn't familiar may lead one to imagine that it is an esoteric movement, almost a kind of secret society of do-gooders and well-meaning cranks.

So it was something of a surprise to be invited to a presentation in Mumbai recently by Carlo Petrini, Founder President of Slow Food, which is based in the small northern Italian town named, quaintly enough, Bra. The presentation was organised at the state-run Institute of Nutrition in Dadar, which churns out hundreds of young people who (wo)man the kitchens and serve tables at restaurants and hotels throughout the country and, indeed, some parts of the world. It was organised by Navdanya, run by Vandana Shiva, who was present, and also addressed by Jehangir Lawyer, Managing Director of Fortune Gourmet Specialties, and an importer.

That there is need for such a movement may not be immediately apparent. But look at all the available signs. The indefatigable Lester Brown, who founded the Worldwatch Institute in Washington and now runs the Earth Policy Institute, has recently cited the following dangerous food trends:

  • For seven of the last eight years, the world consumed more grain than it produced; grain stocks are now at a historic low. (India's wheat stockpiles are also perilously down.)
  • One-fifth of the US's grain harvest is now being turned into fuel ethanol.
  • Grain yields increased half as fast in the 1990s as they did in the 1960s.
  • One-third of reptile, amphibian, and fish species examined by the World Conservation Union are threatened with extinction.

It is no secret that food prices are reaching record levels, partly due to the surging price of oil as well as the conversion of corn to ethanol in the US. Mexicans import around 80% of their corn flour required for tortillas (the equivalent of our chapattis) from the US, and the diversion of this crop to cars has hit Mexicans where it hurts most.

At a meeting in Fuenlabrada, a suburb of Madrid, on the impact of climate change on cities, Jeremy Rifkin, the maverick economist and author who has written 17 bestsellers including the prophetic The End of Work, cited how, unknown to most consumers, the production of meat is a major cause of global warming, after the construction of buildings and energy-inefficient transport. This specially applied to beef. In the US, a third of the arable land has been diverted to feedgrain, as distinct from foodgrain. Cattle and other animal farming generated methane, the second biggest greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide; it is 20 times more damaging than the latter. Due to rising living standards in China, and soon India, the consumption of meat has doubled globally. Petrini also emphasises that intensive food production is mainly responsible for degrading the environment, with the excessive use of water (irrigation accounts for around 75% of total use in India), fertiliser, chemicals and loss of biodiversity.

But the crisis by no means stops there. Last year, for the first time, the number of overweight people in the world -- not those clinically classified as obese, in terms of body weight -- surpassed those who suffer from hunger, roughly a third of the 6 billion-plus people in the world, which is a damning indictment of the entire world food production and distribution system. According to Aric Sigman, in a book titled Remotely Controlled: How TV is Damaging Our Lives, excessive exposure to the idiot box has brought about a major change in diet in the industrial world, soon to be emulated in developing countries. Not only do people tend to eat junk food with transfats, far too many calories and sugar, they increasingly don't eat together as families, thereby disrupting social systems and families.

Petrini was trained as a sociologist and started Slow Food in 1986. It was converted into an international movement three years later. Initially it was classic gastronomy, the culture of eating carefully and painstakingly, which kicked off -- unsurprisingly enough -- when the first McDonalds opened in Rome to considerable controversy. It concerns consumers, producers and restaurants. There is now even a University of Gastronomic Science to promote "taste education". That seems a tremendous irony -- the need to re-educate us to taste what we eat and drink all over again, not just smokers but everyone whose senses are assailed by mass-produced food and unhealthy lifestyles. No wonder that Petrini describes gastronomy as a "young and ancient science" at one and the same time. Its origins could well be traced to France where this science was related to everything that a person consumes. Thus it embraces not only agriculture but animal science, physics and chemistry, not to mention economics and sociology.

Since Petrini was addressing future chefs in Mumbai, he complained that these graduates were considered less important to society than doctors or scientists and yet "you are what you eat". In Britain, there are laws restricting schools from serving or even selling junk food like hamburgers and pizzas; now it even extends to flavoured drinks and colas. Former President Bill Clinton has taken similar initiatives in the US and only a month ago Petrini addressed a school in that country. India is suffering from a virtual epidemic of diabetes, and is the world's most affected nation, which is partly due to genetic factors and sedentary lifestyles but also to diets with too much starch and oil. There is hardly any doubt that we pay far too little attention to what we eat.

This is why organic foods and the Slow Food movement is a fledgling force whose time has come.

What is the choice? According to Petrini, instead of mass-produced food, which is almost inevitably unhealthy -- besides the high environmental costs of packaging, transporting and storing it -- one should buy local foods as far as possible. Food should be procured directly from farmers who get a raw deal as those in this country are only too painfully aware. Petrini clarifies that, according to the FAO, the world produces enough food for 12 billion people, a little less than double the world's current population. And yet, 800 million people starve and another 1.7 million suffer from malnutrition. What is even more shocking is that roughly half the food produced in the world is wasted.

"Our mission is to remain in harmony with nature," Petrini says. "We are not inventing anything." He waxes eloquent about the nature of cooking. If one thinks of the best cooks -- not a single outstanding meal, but a sustained exposure to it -- it would obviously be not a specific restaurant or hotel or even a country but one's own grandmother. "No one can have a future if you are not proud of the past," Petrini reminds us. This home-cooked food was memorable for its true taste and simplicity and, above all, it was cooked with love, not with any mercenary motive. In poor societies, it was difficult to create a sophisticated gastronomy because there were so few ingredients. But by going to the essence one could educate one's senses. Food is a sensory product which not only the mouth but the brain is sensitive to.

The profusion of media and advertising is making the consumption of food and drink complicated these days. Particularly on TV, the images associated with these things evoke sex, power and other attributes that have nothing to do with the product. Petrini regrets the targeting of young children to consume more and more sweets. A poll conducted on the reaction of Italian children to various foods was revealing. Asked to smell an apple and say what it reminded him of, a child cited "shampoo". Gastronomy, like any language, requires an education of the senses, a grammar and syntax. Like a language, it changes with time, which is why no one has a favourite dish forever.

Like languages which pick up words from everywhere, from all human contact - shampoo itself is derived from the Hindi champi -- few people realise the origins of what are considered entirely indigenous foods. Italians believe that spaghetti is a native dish, and yet it was Marco Polo who was influenced by Chinese noodles and helped Italians perfect this variant. The tomato came from Latin America. By the same token, few Indians realise that the chilli comes from Mexico and the potato from Peru; in western India, thanks to the Portuguese who colonised Brazil and introduced countless fruits and vegetables here, the potato is known as batata, a variant of the Spanish patate. The English drink tea every afternoon, which they imbibed in India, and now chicken tikka masala is the most consumed dish in the UK and a wholly native concoction. Not many people are aware that punch, a fruity alcoholic drink in Britain and the rest of Europe, originates from panch, because British soldiers had to add five ingredients to make local brews potable.

If one has to select the ideal attributes of food, Petrini says, there are three factors. It should be appealing to the senses, which are not only taste but aroma and sight. It should be clean and not environmentally damaging. But, most of all these days, it should also be fair. This means that farmers should be well compensated and respected, like lawyers, and be able to keep their dignity. In India at present, because agriculture is contributing an increasingly smaller percentage to our GDP due to high returns on IT and services, there are moves to devalue farmers further. At a meeting on cities in Delhi some months ago, a World Bank official made a case for farmers on the periphery of cities selling their underground water supplies which, he claimed, would be more profitable than growing their crops. SEZs on farm land are a variant of this devaluation of farmers.

"India has thousands of cuisines and knowledge," Petrini observes. "You should become protagonists of this movement." The Slow Food Foundation now runs some 300 projects all over the world. In Tibet, for example, which is relatively free from the invasion of fast food, yak cheese makers are helped to improve their varieties with Italian professionals, and the produce is marketed in China and the US. Slow Food produces Ark of Taste, a catalogue of gastronomic products in danger of disappearing: there are 600 products from 30 countries at present. The Presidia are Slow Food projects that are sustainable by better production techniques and stringent quality standards in 43 countries.

But literally the mother of them all is Terra Madre, Mother Earth, a cultural event begun in 2004 which brings together a few thousand people to Bra from all over the world every October to exchange information, ideas and solutions. This year, it promises to assemble 1,600 food communities from five continents; 5,000 farmers, breeders, fisherfolk and artisanal (small scale) food producers; 1,000 cooks; 500 educators; and 1,000 young people from the Youth Food movement. Locally, Navdanya (www.navdanya.org) -- Vandana Shiva is closely associated with Slow Food -- has started outlets in Delhi and Mumbai for organic foods and has a stall selling such products at the popular Dilli Haat.

It is certainly an uphill task, given the 'McDonaldisation' of the globe. But, with increasing concern about unhealthy lifestyles and the growing incidence of cancers, diabetes and other ailments, Slow Food can only become more popular. Importer Jehangir Lawyer, who addressed the Mumbai meet, mentioned how he sells organically grown pasta and artisanal cheeses to outlets in this country.

As it happens, there is a parallel little-known Slow Cities movement that also originated in Italy, which works against the concept of building rapid highways, flyovers and motorways through and to cities. Both movements face tremendous opposition in this country, with its new-found fascination for everything 'Western'. One only hopes that Slow Food, because it originates in the West, is taken more seriously than the organic food movement is here.

InfoChange News & Features, February 2008