When McDonald’s intended to open its first outlet in Rome 30 years ago in 1986, one Italian journalist, Carlo Petrini was incensed. He saw the very idea of the now global behemoth opening a store in Rome as a threat to Italy’s regional traditions of food and a slow pace of life. Patrini filed a case against McDonald’s seeking denial for it to set-up shop. He lost the case. With nothing more to lose, Petrini led a demonstration to the planned McDonald’s site at the Spanish Steps in Rome.
Thus the Slow Food Movement was born, with the intention of raising awareness about endangered local foods and traditions. It aims to save a model of food production which is 'Good, Clean and Fair' for consumers, producers and the planet itself.
'Good' stands for quality, flavoursome and healthy food. 'Clean' is the production of food that does not harm the environment. And the cost of food should be 'Fair' to both consumers and farmers. Thirty years later in 2016, the movement is spreading this philosophy through its presence of 1,500 local chapters in 150 countries. The movement believes food is linked to various aspects of life including politics, culture, agriculture and environment.
Slow Food is essentially an antithesis to the fast food culture and fast pace of life. It is also about realising that humans are a strand in the larger web of life. The way human beings produce and consume food has a direct impact on not only our health, but also on the health of other organisms we share our environment with. Through our food choices, we can collectively influence how food is cultivated, produced and distributed.
In the past two decades in India, with the advent of fast, junk food and ready-to-eat food packages, the current generation is disconnected from its old food varieties and culinary traditions. Just a generation and half ago, India’s staple food was largely millet like jowar, bajra, ragi, etc and the nation ate seasonal produce. With the opening up of the economy in the 1990s and change to a brisker lifestyle, the way Indians eat has undergone a sea change. The food retail market in India is projected to be valued at Rs 60 lakh crores by 2020. In 2014, it was valued at Rs 25 lakh crores. There are over 2,700 fast food chain outlets in India. This number covers mostly the urban metros and smaller cities and towns, leaving almost all of the rural India untouched. The American pizza chain Domino’s has 850 outlets across India, making it the largest fast food chain in the country. McDonald’s has only around 400 stores, with plans to add 250 more in the next five years.
By 2050, the world’s population will stand at 9 billion people (the figure currently stands at over 6 billion). To feed such large mass of people, every year we cut down nearly 10 million hectares of rain forests in Amazon, Africa, Borneo and India’s Northeast. This loss of forests also wipes out around 25,000 species of plants and animals forever. The forests are replaced by agricultural fields and oil plantations. In the last 75 years we have destroyed 75 percent of the world’s agro-biodiversity carefully selected by farmers over the previous 10,000 years of agriculture. Corn, more than any other crop dominates the fields. Global corn production is estimated to number close to 1,000 tonnes. Large monoculture fields of corn are completely different from thousands of traditional kernel varieties found in Mexico and the Andes. Closer home, the situation is not very different. Huge tracts of single crop farming of wheat, rice and sugarcane is not uncommon. In some places in Punjab and in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, due to excessive use of fertilisers, the land has become rock solid, unable to support any cultivation. The situation is serious in our oceans too. More than 40 percent of the fish catch from industrial fishing is thrown back into the water. Unsustainable overfishing is rapidly depleting limited reservoirs of fish stocks.
With this brutal march of globalisation and unprecedented exploitation of resources at an industrial scale do indigenous, traditional food varieties stand a chance? Navdanya, which works to protect biodiversity based food heritage, has in the past 20 years conserved more than 3,000 varieties of rice, 75 of wheat and hundreds of millet, pulses, vegetables, etc. These old varieties of seeds have developed climate resilient properties through hundreds of years of farmer selection. It is crucial to plant such varieties to deal with agriculture crises in these changing climatic conditions. For example, after a cyclone in Orissa saline resistant seeds can be used while drought resistant seeds can be used in Bundelkhand and flood resistant seeds in Bihar. Change in seed preferences from genetically modified seeds to traditional ones could significantly help in bringing down 2,50,000 farmer deaths that have been recorded in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab since 1997.
Slow Food revolution is slowly beginning to enter large commercial kitchens too. Thomas Zacharias, executive chef at the Bombay Canteen, says, “Slow food philosophy is natural to us.” The menu in Zacharias' restaurant lays emphasis on regional cuisine and changes seasonally. This gives them a chance to bring forth the underexplored world of foods from all corners of India. Zacharias says patrons regularly ask for recipes, indicating they want to take home a slice of India to feed their families.
A similar scenario is playing out in the city of Dimapur in Nagaland. Chef Joel Basumatari at his Smokey Joe’s restaurant is trying to bring forward old favourites like smoked pork with axone (fermented soya bean) and pork cooked in pork blood. He thinks only if he goes back to his roots to know the original cooking styles will he able to experiment in modern techniques. North-East is a fascinating region where every village is a community which has its own way of cooking food. The Ark of Taste program of the Slow Food movement protects forgotten and endangered local food. India currently has 106 products listed under the Ark like the Khasi Mandarin variety of oranges found only in Meghalaya.
For a nation that intends to gallop towards double digit economic growth, the health of its human resource along with how it utilises its vast abundant spectrum of natural resources will be a deciding factor. Non-communicable diseases, like hypertension and diabetes, now account for 53 percent of total deaths in the country. To feed a healthy generation of manpower, India would do well to learn from old foods based on our history and treat its soil and water with respect.