This year I attended the Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy, as a delegate of the UK Slow Food Youth Network.

Terra Madre is Slow Food’s bi-annual meeting of world-food communities, and brings together over 200,000 people from around the world. This year, for the first time (apparently), Terra Madre took place alongside the Salone del Gusto – which is the largest gathering of international artisan food producers you could ever care to find in one place, all ready to share their incredible products and the stories behind them.

How have I missed out on attending this event for so long? Well, the truth is that for the 8 years leading up to working for the SFT, I was focused on the day-to-day running of community food projects – and I’m sure many of those that are involved in similar projects will identify with me when I say that it’s hard to find the time to raise your head from the constant day-to-day pressures to look around, let alone travel abroad to do so.

So it is with you in mind that I write this article.  Those involved in the small projects which aim to change our food systems from the ground up.  My aim is to bring a small flavour of Terra Madre to your gardens and kitchens.

I was one of 16,000 people who attended some of the 56 two-hour conferences organised as part of the event, on topics as wide ranging as Indigenous People and Local Food Sovereignty, New Models for Production and Consumption and How to Wean A Gourmet!

Here are some of my highlights, key statistics and favourite quotes…..

Enforcing the right to food

Forty five years ago, the United Nations sanctioned the right to food.  But so far, very few countries have introduced this right into their constitutions, and rather than declining, hunger and starvation has increased. Speakers, included Carlo Petrini – the founder of the Slow Food Movement, who called this the “biggest shame of humanity.”

I learned that only 10% of deaths due to starvation can be attributed to natural causes or conflicts – instead, hunger is caused not by lack of food, but by lack of access to it.  The system of allowing financiers to speculate on food through future commodities markets is a toxic package and speakers encouraged the audience to boycott banks that speculate on food as commodities.

The conference concluded that these issues will only be solved through international collaboration, and a world parliament on agriculture that could define an international food treaty.  It was highlighted however that this idea could only be successful with the support of individuals, and we were left with the thought that:

“If you think you are too small to make an impact, you have never slept with a mosquito in your room!”

Hungry for land: What can we do to stop land grabbing?

Though this topic was not a new phenomenon, the food price crisis of 2008 caused a dramatic spike in large-scale agricultural investments for the purposes of food and biofuels production. In addition to agribusinesses, hedge and pension funds are now also buying-up land in the developing world at an alarming rate, on the assumption that with a rising global population, land value is only set to increase. This is nothing short of a new kind of colonialism. Speakers described it as “making business with hunger.”

During this debate, we were shown examples of small-scale farmers in the developing world who have been displaced from the land that they have farmed for generations, often land they were forced to sell for just the equivalent of a couple of hundred pounds.

Anne van Shaik of Friends of the Earth highlighted the need to target and educate primary investors. They are implementing a direct-contact strategy of approaching banks directly, and have had some success in doing so.

Click: Agriculture

This series of talks focused on an area I am increasingly convinced will play an exponentially increasing role in the success of sustainable food systems:  the role of the digital world in the development of agricultural practices and food communities.

Contrary to the energy-hungry technologies that intensified our food systems in the last century, digital technologies, for me, offer a light touch approach that, rather than disconnecting people, can help to connect people to their local food community, and food heritage. Speakers included; a nomadic pastoralist who blogs about her life as a sheep farmer, an African farmer using mobile phone technology to track production success and share information, a food blogger, and representatives from a company providing a web-based marketplace for farmers to sell food. The balance between the agricultural work that these speakers did, and the way in which they are making use of the technology available to them, described this as the “right dose” of technology. It is exemplified by the belief held by the pastoralist that the act of communicating via the web is helping to support this traditional way of life. She said “If we don’t talk about it, it disappears.”

For anyone interested in exploring more on this topic, I’d recommend this website.

Green economy: The only solution

At this conference, the speakers argued that we can no longer just tack sustainable production practices onto the dominant economic model.  A complete paradigm shift is needed to a green economy. Jim French of Oxfam described a vision in which economic activity is driven towards a “safe and just zone”.

He represented this zone as a space between our environmental ceiling (based on nine planetary boundaries), and our social foundation (the 11 most important social issues identified by governments at Rio +20).

He showed how, whilst we have already exceeded our limit for 3 of the 9 environmental boundaries, we are falling behind on every single one of the 11 social foundations.

There is no country on the planet that operates within the safe and just band.

Finally,  Jim asked us to imagine a world in which companies and governments were driven to manage resources in this way – it could cause a revolution!

Measuring quality

My final event before returning home looked at measuring quality in our food systems, including the sustainability dimension. In conjunction with the University of Milan, Slow Food Italy has derived the Pollenzo Index; a multi-disciplinary and flexible system for measuring quality and sustainability in food production of all sizes and scales.  The index will be ready in just a few short months, so watch this space for further details on how it compares other systems for monitoring and measurement.

In between conferences, I was inspired to spend time with a growing movement of young people, the Slow Food Youth Network, who believe that our generation will be the change that is needed, and they are working extremely hard to make sure it happens.

So with that in mind I will end with the strapline of the Slow Food Youth Network: Food for Change!

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