On New Year's Day 2023, the BBC World Service dedicated its regular History Hour to food.1 Five stories were featured, among them: bakers in Malta in the 1970s, instant noodle-makers in Japan, and the creation of a Bollywood favorite, Chicken Manduria, in Mumbai in the 1980s. But the program is memorable for the prominence given to creative food people from Italy. One story celebrated the 40th anniversary of the creation of ciabatta, a handmade, flat white bread, invented in a small village in the region of Veneto - allegedly to fend off the arrival of pre-sliced industrial loaves in the newly spreading supermarkets - and now copied in 50 countries across the globe.
The most substantial story concerned the birth and worldwide diffusion of the Slow Food movement. Starting out from a small town in Piedmont, the network now has branches in 150 countries according to its charismatic founder, Carlo Petrini, interviewed in the program. The paragraphs that follow trace the development of this remarkable non-state actor and explains its meaning in terms of the politics of identity, the culture wars surrounding food, and Italian soft power.
Slow Food was officially founded in Paris in 1989 by Petrini and 15 like-minded activists who published a manifesto that denounced the evils of an ever-faster, ever-more intense industrialization, and encouraged the virtues of a much slower lifestyle, renouncing fast-food and all that it implied:
In the name of productivity, the 'fast life' has changed our lifestyle and now threatens our environment and our land (and city) scapes. Slow Food is the alternative, the avant-garde's riposte... First of all, we can begin by cultivating taste, rather than impoverishing it… by encouraging international exchange programs, by endorsing worthwhile projects, by advocating historical food culture and by defending old-fashioned food traditions.2
Petrini, a well-known cultural protagonist in his town of Bra, had already attracted attention when he expressed his support for the prevalent, militant opposition to the opening of the first McDonald's in Italy – right by the Spanish Steps in Rome, in 1986. It was a time when the earliest steps in Italy's own war against globalization were being taken. The Northern League, potentially a secessionist movement from the Italian state, was born in 1989. The politics of identity – involving territory, social cohesion, and cultural protectionism which would gradually spread to education, language, and food – were starting to take hold throughout the peninsula. Thirty years later with the election of the Meloni government in 2022, which includes today's version of the Northern League, their intensity has only increased.
But from its beginning in the late 1980s, the vision of Petrini and his friends was always environmentalist, internationalist, and unmistakably anti-capitalist. This latter impulse was not understood in the class-based, Marxist-Leninist terms of revolution, but instead proposed a completely alternative lifestyle: explicitly slow… and starting in the kitchen. The movement took the snail as its badge and symbol.
In an article published by the Turin daily La Stampa in October of last year,3 Petrini recalled that beyond the anti-McDonald's phase, another early stimulus came from the concluding rounds of the GATT free-trade negotiations, which lead to the birth of the WTO in 1995. Here the full liberalization of trade in agricultural produce was envisaged – a green light in the view of Petrini and like-minded friends elsewhere, in favor of global agri-business and industrial-scale food production. They took their cause to the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, which, according to Petrini in 1996, officially recognized the right of peoples everywhere to self-determination in their agricultural policies, in order to guarantee social access to nutritious, ecologically sound, and culturally appropriate food.
From its inception, Slow Food sought to balance the defense of local food traditions with the sort of "Third World-ism" associated with both Communist and Catholic traditions. By 2004 the association was able to grow a branch named "Terra Madre," a network of "food producers, fishers, breeders, chefs, academics, young people, NGOs and representatives of local communities who are working to establish a system of good, clean, and fair food from the grassroots level." Held in Italy, the first global meeting of Terra Madre food communities brought together 5,000 producers from 130 countries. The 2007 'Declaration of Puebla' (Mexico) said:
This path we embarked upon in 1989 has moved from food to soil, from pleasure to justice, from quality to daily shopping, from the promotion of products to equal dignity for cultural diversity. We have reconfirmed it at Puebla thanks to the presence, reflections, energy, and imagination of 414 delegates from 49 countries, representing more than 80,000 members from five continents.4
In 2002 another Slow Food spin-off came to life. This was Eataly, a chain of high-quality food shops and restaurants created by Petrini's friend and Piedmontese neighbor, the entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti. As the company's website explains, the point was to identify brands and producers which shared the values of the overall movement: attention to quality, environmental and economic sustainability, and social responsibility. 5 The chain would also explicitly highlight and add value to Italy's unique food culture. The first shop opened in Turin in 2007. While expanding throughout Italy, the chain spread internationally to Tokyo (2009) and New York (2010), in addition to parts of the Middle East (2013) and Africa (2014). Operating together with Slow Food, Eataly claims to have opened 10,000 market gardens in African schools and villages. By 2021 the chain was earning €464 million worldwide and was already in the sights of private equity investors. 6
Yet another extraordinary Slow Food initiative was the creation in 2004 of its first specialized university, the Università delle Scienze Gastronomiche, which is close to where the movement itself was born and where Petrini continues to live today. The website explains that the purpose of the institution was to create a new sort of professional figure, the 'gastronomist': a person "with interdisciplinary knowledge and expertise including science, culture, politics, economics and the ecology of food, [a specialist] able to develop values such as the sustainability and sovereignty of global food systems, from production to consumption." By now, over 3,000 students from numerous countries have graduated from its courses.
The university continues to evolve. Among its spin-offs is the Ark of Taste (as in Noah's Ark), created for the purpose of defending biodiversity of food products by means of local mapping and conservation. Today the website claims to have memorized the existence of 5,954 products from 151 countries.7 They include fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, desserts, and salami; those which risk extinction are given special preference.
But the point is not just the products, it is also the producers. Anything which can protect farmers and traditional farming from the overwhelming presence of industrial agribusiness will find the favor of the Ark. Its innovative atlases of traditional food practices now cover Kenya, Peru, Brazil, Albania, Tanzania, Estonia, and even Ukraine (in Ukrainian). The newest series will cover Italy, region by region. Meanwhile, over 600 specific projects have been set up in over 70 countries to protect small-scale local products and producers and to recover local traditions and foods, including their methods of preparation.
Today the Slow Food website suggests that the movement includes 1 million supporters and 100,000 members in 160 countries.8 Enthusiasts can join programs which favor slow travel, slow fishing, slow cheese, slow bees, slow meat, and much more, and indigenous communities around the world. Its European incarnation focuses its advocacy work on "Common Food Policy, Agriculture, Fisheries, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Genetically Modified Organisms, and Responsible Consumption and Food Labelling."9 The movement works closely with the EU and acknowledges its support. But its most typical performances are to be found within Italy itself: the great world cheese festival in Bra in alternate Septembers; the Saloni del Gusto in Turin, which last year attracted 350,000 visitors and 3,000 delegates from 130 countries; its convivia (Slow Food chapters) up and down the country; the presence of Petrini himself in the mainstream media on the key topics of food, rural heritage, the environment, and the relevant policies of governments.
The contemporary era in Italy's very particular soft-power status as a nation, with food at its center, began with the Expo World Fair of Milan in 2015. Dedicated to the theme of "Feeding the planet, energy for life!", more than 20 million visitors explored 150 national and company pavilions over a 6-month period, giving a much-needed boost to national self-confidence – Milan's in particular. Naturally, Slow Food and Eataly were prominent, but so was McDonald's. When the former objected to the presence of the latter, the American chain responded for the first and only time in public, accusing Petrini of "half-baked Third Worldist rhetoric which will never feed the planet" and asserting that 'it's sad that Slow Food feels the need to fight McDonald's in order to give itself an identity.'10
The general success of the Milan Expo produced a number of spin-offs. The Foreign Ministry in Rome took up the challenge of "gastrodiplomacy," setting in motion an annual tradition entitled the "Worldwide Week of Italian Cuisine," Italian embassies and consulates in 105 countries now regularly organize over 1,300 food-oriented events: from tasting sessions, presentations from celebrity chefs, and cooking shows and mini-courses to fairs, exhibits, films, and exhibitions.
Following Milan, in 2016 a conference at Nomisma, an economic think-tank based in Bologna, revealed just how big the stakes had become in the production and marketing of food in Italy. Diplomats, businesspeople, and experts described the effort that the country's food brands, and key ministries were investing in building influence and fortunes in the world's wine and food markets. That year the sector brought €37 billion into the Italian economy. A new, integrated public-private drive presented at the conference hoped to lift this figure to $50bn by 2020. Food and wine exports had grown by 69% over the previous ten years. The conference demonstrated how a qualitative leap forward had taken place in the attention that authorities at every level were giving to food and wine as a key currency of business, but also the sort of export that advertised the nation's creativity, territories, and values. They saw how a narrative of identity was emerging from the nation's food experience in all its forms, one which expressed a distinct and successful synthesis of tradition and modernity.11
In 2022 the new Right-wing government of Giorgia Meloni re-named the Agriculture Ministry to include the phrase sovvranità alimentare (sovereignty in food). What the phrase meant, the new Minister of Agriculture told Parliament, was that in the current world situation, he and his Ministry expected to play a more significant role in government policy than had been the norm till then.12 The point was to raise the profile of Italy's food and agriculture sectors by highlighting its traditions, products, and rural origins while emphasizing the nation's identities and capacity for leadership. Farmers, said the Minister, were the custodians of the land and of the immense food, agricultural, and forest assets of the country. They were under threat from economic emergencies of all kinds and were to be defended. In the end, sovereignty in this sector was about the right of each nation to choose its own food production system, reject global standardization and synthetic food, and insist on quality, local production, natural sustainability, and the Mediterranean diet.
All of this could have been taken straight from one of Slow Food's many manifestoes, but it was still a surprise to see Petrini, a man of the Left and an internationalist - if ever there was one - applaud the new food sovereignty concept in the La Stampa article mentioned above. There was no mention of environmentalism in the Minister's declaration nor of aiding less developed societies. His government's antipathy to the EU was well-known. Its Northern League components were distinguished by their defiant protectionism, conservative self-centeredness, and militant provincialism. But Petrini suggested that the concept could be reconfigured to provide "a positive tension between the local and the global, so that peoples might be free to choose what to produce and consume," far less subject to the whims of the global food industries, far freer in their access to land, water, and seeds.
In the presence of interested diplomats from France, Japan, and Peru, the Nomisma conference organizers applied the label of 'soft power' explicitly to what they thought the new activism on food and wine meant for Italy's world presence. The standard definitions of soft power present it as a tool for leveraging a nation's cultural and moral assets so that they might serve conventional objectives of foreign policy. But the formula can only be taken seriously if it is seen as an expression of prestige and leadership in areas that rarely have anything to do with geopolitics. Food questions are typical of those issues which are continuously broadening the scope of foreign policy. Producing and selling food in the world concerns not just marketing but also agriculture, the environment, health, science, and education in addition to matters of trade, investment, regulation, and security.
But in food too, you can only become a serious player in the game of soft power when you tell stories that others can admire and trust or set standards that others spontaneously choose to follow. Non-state actors like Slow Food and Eataly confirm that all soft power-plays revolve around the force of example, where the most enduring, penetrating, and impressive examples in Europe - but also in the Gulf States, Japan, and elsewhere - come from an agent's ability to provide original syntheses of local traditions and global modernity. The force does not need to be aggressive or antagonistic: Slow Food co-operates with institutions at all levels and does not contest the diffusion of fast-food outlets in Italy or anywhere else.
The BBC program pointed out that there are now 54 McDonald's outlets in Rome. But, like Meloni's Ministers, they have learned the lessons that Slow Food has taught. They insist that their products make the best use of Italy's food traditions and links with il territorio; that their meat is 100% Italian and that their chickens are strictly free-range. Fresh salads and Parmigiano-Reggiano are prominent on their menus.13 At the start of the "American Century" in the 1940s, an Irish writer said: "Our problem is to find a formula of life as between the old traditions and the new world rushing into us from every side." In Italy, you have a choice of formulas, but food will always be at the center of the equation.
About the Author
David Ellwood teaches the course on Soft Power and Global Politics at SAIS Europe. He was Associate Professor in International History, University of Bologna, 1978-2012. His major book was The Shock of America. Europe and the Challenge of the Century, Oxford UP, 2012. He was President of the International Association for Media and History, 1999-2004.Footnotes
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