Carlo Petrini
Ashoka Fellow since 2008   |   Italy

Carlo Petrini

Slow Food
The global food supply chain is broken. Low-cost food is subsidized through a process of externalizing costs that serves only the largest multinational organizations and creates negative environmental…
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This description of Carlo Petrini's work was prepared when Carlo Petrini was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


The global food supply chain is broken. Low-cost food is subsidized through a process of externalizing costs that serves only the largest multinational organizations and creates negative environmental and social impacts. Small producers around the world are seeing their way of living jeopardized. Consumers find it harder and harder to know about the source and nutrition of the foods they buy. Carlo created the Slow Food movement to reawaken consumers to both the source of their food and to food’s gastronomic value. Slow Food benefits all in the supply chain: producers are accessing broader and deeper markets and consequently building sustainable businesses while preserving and restoring many threatened forms of traditional artisanal food production. Consumers are reconnecting with the source of food and the food communities around them in a way that is healthier and better for the environment.

The New Idea

Carlo founded Slow Food, an eco-gastronomic organization, in Italy in 1986. His goal was to counteract the spread of fast food and the frenzy of fast eating, the disappearance of local food traditions, and the indifference about what we eat. Slow Food works on a global level to promote good, clean, and fair food. In other words: The food we eat should taste good, it should be produced in a way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health, and food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.
Carlo strongly believes that each consumer’s food choices have consequences all over the globe. He developed the concept of co-producers—that is, going beyond the passive role of a consumer and taking interest in those that produce our food, how they produce it, and the problems they face in doing so. Slow Food also protects food biodiversity, educates people about food, and brings consumers and producers together by promoting alternative distribution channels. Carlo understood early on the importance of food’s gastronomic value to change consumption patterns, educating consumers to be the primary actors in the transformation of the food industry (a key step to sustainable agriculture and a better environment).
Carlo believes this is the best defense against poor quality, mass-produced, or adulterated food, and also against environmentally damaging and unhealthy food in our diets. By reawakening and training consumers’ senses, Slow Food helps people rediscover the joys of eating local foods and understand the importance of caring where their food comes from, who makes it, and how it’s made. Slow Food safeguards local cuisines, traditional products, and vegetable and animal species at-risk of extinction, through a process called “taste education.” Carlo has developed educational programs for everyone: Children and adults, members, and non-members; with a special effort to include youth in this transformation.
Another important area of Carlo’s work is the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity to safeguard our gastronomic resources and to defend our world’s heritage of agricultural biodiversity and gastronomic tradition. The Slow Food Foundation supports projects in defense of food biodiversity in more than sixty countries and promotes a sustainable agriculture that respects the environment, the cultural identity of local people, and promotes animal well-being.
To strengthen the field by bringing together all the various players involved in the food industry, Carlo established Terra Madre, a global network of food communities, including, farmers, breeders, fishermen, cooks, and agricultural experts, to exchange ideas, knowledge and experience, discuss their work, and to come up with possible solutions to common problems.

The Problem

Seventy-five percent of European food product diversity has been lost since 1900. Ninty-three percent of American food product diversity was lost in the same time period. Thirty-three percent of livestock varieties have disappeared or are near to disappearing, and 30,000 vegetable varieties have become extinct in the last century, with one more lost every six hours. This trend is exacerbated by the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which dazzle with the promise of laboratory-created “super cereals.” GMOs are presented as a natural response to feed the world’s population once current crops are no longer sufficient. However, this will cause us to lose the plant heritage that has naturally adapted to local conditions and whose variety provides safeguards in the event of disease and famine due to natural events. We also lose knowledge about foods which have fed us for centuries, and thus, the ability to feed ourselves.
Meanwhile, the continuous, unaffordable increases in the prices of wheat (+120 percent), corn, rice (+75 percent), soy, and other products are causing havoc across the world, especially in poor developing countries where most people spend more than half their income on food. Increases in worldwide consumption of meat (including in countries where meat was rarely consumed) and the boom in biofuels are among the main causes for soaring prices, which show no sign of moderating. The situation is further aggravated by the drop in global production and overall rise in the demand for food. Since the agri-food industry has positioned itself as the world’s main provider, the distribution has been handed over to food companies so they can make profits. But profits do not follow the laws of nature, and this incompatibility has disruptive social and environmental consequences.
The Green Revolution reduced agriculture to monocultures of rice and wheat needing increasing doses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation water. Farmers’ breeding was replaced by industrial breeding, and agro-ecology was replaced by industrial agriculture. Genetic Engineering, often referred to as the second Green Revolution, has already reduced agriculture to corn, soy, canola, and cotton, based on two traits—herbicide resistance and toxin crops—in the hands of five giant corporations. On a daily basis the world’s resources are being exhausted by this new intensive monoculture.
Many of these changes are taking place because we have forgotten the value embedded in the act of producing and consuming food. Its importance has been eroded, reducing it to the level of any other consumer product that follows the rules of a market economy as opposed to nature.
Today the world of food resembles an assembly line of a manufacturing business. For example, the Netherlands have become the world’s major exporter of oranges simply because they developed the most efficient logistics to distribute them. Examining data provided by the U.S. Federal Department of Agriculture, the U.S. exported US$20M of lettuce to Mexico, and in the same year, they imported US$20M of lettuce from Mexico. According to BBC’s website, several English fish, once caught, are sent to China to be processed and packaged before returning to the country they came from to be sold in supermarkets. The global food system seems to have completely lost its bearings.
Much of the traveling our food does is useless, generating polluting emissions and wasting energy, choking up transportation networks and negatively impacting food quality. This shows the most obvious signs of our modern-day emphasis on efficiency. Health, taste, local economies, and the environment, take a back seat to overriding economic conditions.

The Strategy

Carlo founded Slow Food to address some of the most pressing issues created by the global food industry. Slow Food is a social movement with 100,000 members in 132 countries. The network is organized into volunteer-based local chapters called Convivia, which promote courses, tastings, dinners, and campaigns at the local level. The network also links consumers with local producers and participates in major international events organized by the association. There are more than 1,000 Slow Food Convivia active in 80 countries.
Slow Food’s work is organized in three main areas: Awareness and education, food and agriculture biodiversity protection, and bringing together food communities, including consumers, farmers, breeders, fishermen, processors, distributors, cooks, and agricultural experts. Carlo has created a volunteer member network that allows him to achieve all this with less than 150 full-time staff and a budget of €25M (US$33.3).
Good, clean, and fair food is only possible with knowledge: Knowledge of those who bring food to the table and knowledge about those who eat it. Understanding more about our food, how it tastes, and where it comes from, makes the act of eating all the more pleasurable. Taste is subjective, but it is also something that can be acquired and trained. The agri-food industry, which tends to standardize taste, knows this full-well. To address the phenomenon, which has serious consequences for local areas and lifestyles, Slow Food has developed educational programs in 60 countries. At taste workshops experts (i.e., cooks, producers, and so on) teach participants to taste and compare and hence to “understand” foods. School garden programs give children the chance to learn “in the field,” out of doors. Slow Food has educational programs for everyone; children and adults, members and non-members.
An important focus is set on Slow Food’s school programs that range from training teachers and collaborating on curricula, to improving school lunches and organizing afterschool programs. An estimated 9,000 school teachers have participated in Slow Food courses since 1998, sharing their knowledge with thousands of students and parents in taste education programs. These programs are different from many other food education projects because they are not confined solely to nutrition. They also emphasize that food means pleasure, culture, and conviviality, and teach values and attitudes, and enhances relationships and emotions. Educational material, in the form of courses, talks, conferences, and taste workshops, is available for teachers to use in their classrooms.
Moreover, Slow Food feels that universities should play a crucial role in identifying and communicating knowledge which is primarily transmitted orally and through practice. This knowledge has in some ways been marginalized by the information that agribusiness offers to consumers through clever PR campaigns. Universities can play a major role in educating consumers and promoting sustainable systems of catering and supply. In 2003, Slow Food founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the only institution of its kind worldwide, an international center of training and research, serving people working for a new agriculture, the maintenance of biodiversity, an organic relationship between gastronomy and agricultural sciences.
Carlo also created the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, for the defense of our world’s heritage of agricultural biodiversity and gastronomic tradition. The foundation supports various projects including the Ark of Taste, which finds, catalogs, and nominates traditional foods that are endangered and in need protection, the Presidia, which supports small projects to assist groups of sustainable producers, and the Earth Markets, created to bring consumers and small-scale sustainable producers together.
Slow Food makes its support of biodiversity real by promoting artisanal producers of quality products. Created in 1996, the Ark of Taste is a growing catalogue of foods that have been forgotten or marginalized and are at-risk of disappearing completely. The Ark identifies almost 800 animal breeds, fruit and vegetable varieties, prepared foods, specific dishes, and offers a resource for those interested in sourcing and promoting quality foods.
In 2000, to help artisan food producers directly, Carlo created Presidia which currently involves more than 300 projects all over the world. These small-scale projects protect traditional production methods by supporting producers in situ and helping them find markets for traditional foods. With Presidia, a little assistance goes a long way. All it takes is to bring together producers, help them coordinate marketing and promotion, and establish quality and authenticity standards for their product. Other products take more effort to save. Sometimes it’s necessary to build a dairy or an oven or develop new ways to use or prepare a particular food. Slow Food Presidia works in different ways, but the goals remain constant: To promote sustainable artisan products, to stabilize production techniques, to establish stringent production standards and, above all, to guarantee a viable future for traditional foods and small-scale producers, particularly in the Global South.
Carlo has made an important effort to build the field, focusing on two aspects: Linking producers with consumers and creating an important global network of food communities. To foster a closer interaction between producers and consumers, Carlo launched the term co-producers to name the act of going beyond the passive role of a consumer and taking interest in those that produce our food, how they produce it, and the problems they face in doing so. In actively supporting food producers, consumers alter the demand for food and over time can alter the production and supply of food. These two groups are typically separated at the two ends of a food chain which over the last fifty years has become progressively more depersonalized, lengthened, and opaque. The result is that those producing food and those eating it no longer know each other, talk to each other, see each other, or shake each other’s hands. Slow Food organizes numerous fairs, events, and markets, to foster a greater connection between producers and co-producers.
The other key initiative launched by Carlo in 2004 is Terra Madre, a world network that brings together food communities working for the sustainability and quality of their food products. Terra Madre aims to restore dignity to the work of farmers, fisher folk, breeders, and artisan food producers all around the world; to safeguard the right of peoples to food sovereignty; and, to encourage a sustainable model of agri-food production. Terra Madre fights the standardization of taste, large-scale industrial agriculture, and genetic manipulation, and promotes collaboration between producers, cooks, and academics to change the way food is produced today.
At each meeting of Terra Madre, held biennially, participants attend workshops and panel discussions devoted to problems they encounter every day as well as on broader themes, such as biodynamic and genetic engineering. Most importantly, they meet each other to discuss their work and possible solutions to common problems. Recently, 6,000 delegates representing 1,600 food communities from 150 countries attended, including farmers, breeders, fishermen, processors, distributors, cooks, and agricultural experts. Based on the success of the biennial Terra Madre meetings, Slow Food also develops, in collaboration with local partners, regional Terra Madre meetings. In this way, local networks are strengthened and more producers have access to the global Slow Food movement, connections with cooks and academics, and increased visibility in their own countries and communities.
Slow Food has two commercial bodies it controls for self-financing: Slow Food Promozione deals predominantly with the organization of major events such as the Salone del Gusto, Cheese and Slow Fish, in addition to fundraising, publicity, and sponsorship sourcing, and Slow Food Editore is responsible for the association’s publishing activities, including websites, member magazines, and newsletters, as well as over seventy food and wine guides, essays, and cookbooks.

The Person

Born in Bra, a rural region of Italy, Carlo studied sociology at Trento University and then became involved in local politics and association work. He began to write about food and wine in 1977, contributing to major Italian newspapers and periodicals. Carlo also began to devise and organize cultural events. In the early 1980s, Carlo laid the foundations for Arcigola, an association whose aim was to promote the culture of conviviality and good food and wine, this eventually developed into the Slow Food movement. Blessed with a knack for anticipating events in the fields of food, agriculture, and eco-gastronomy (a term he coined), Carlo has played a decisive role in the development of Slow Food, inventing and promoting its projects, which have now acquired great international visibility.
As a renowned expert in the field, Carlo has written about themes such as sustainable development, material culture, gastronomy, and the relationship between food and the environment, for many important daily national newspapers and books. He was recognized by The Guardian (January, 2008) as one of 50 people who could save the planet, and by TIME Magazine Europe as ‘Hero of the Year’ (2004). Also the depth of Carlo’s theoretical analysis on the sustainability of food and agriculture in relationship to gastronomy has been acknowledged by the academic world. In 2003 l’Istituto Universitario Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples conferred on him an honorary degree in Cultural Anthropology, and in May 2006, he received an honorary degree in Human Letters from the University of New Hampshire (US) for his achievements as a “…revolutionary precursor and founder of the University of Gastronomic Sciences. [Carlo’s] Slow Food association has awakened the world’s interest in gastronomic and agricultural biodiversity.”

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