In early October, a unique gathering took place of young farmers and food producers from across the globe, who came together in Milan for an event entitled We Feed The Planet organised by the Slow Food Youth Network, an alliance of young people working to make food production and consumption more sustainable.

The Slow Food Youth Network crowdsourced the funds to bring these young farmers together, with the help of an advertising campaign from Saatchi & Saatchi. The campaign used artisan craftsmen from St Gregorio Armeno in Naples, to create miniature models of farmers and food producers from around the world. The network raised more than €350,000 for their cause – a remarkable feat for a youth organisation developed and run by university-age activists.

For those who are familiar with Terra Madre, Slow Food’s bi-annual meeting of world food producers, the event sought to create a similar gathering of indigenous food and farming communities – those who, according to the World Health Organisation, are still responsible for producing 80% of the planet’s food.

The aim was to bring together young farmers with chefs and food producers, as well as students and community activists, for cross-cultural exchanges in the form of workshops, lectures, hackathons and social gatherings.

The event, however, also had a specific political aim: upset by the involvement of multinational corporate sponsors, whom they felt had dominated the dialogue of the Milan Expo 2015, the farmers were there to show the world exactly who is really responsible for feeding the planet.

Speaking in advance of the event, Joris Lohman, chairman of the Slow Food Youth Network, said:

At the opening of the Milan Expo 2015, we saw a ‘No Expo’ movement in Italy, protesting perceived corruption and huge spending for a one-off event, when the young people of Italy are facing high-levels of unemployment and a financial crisis. The theme of the Milan Expo is ‘Feeding the Planet’, but the focus has been on industrial and technological solutions to global food issues. We believe that the question of how to feed the planet is impossible to answer without input from young farmers and small-scale food producers.

At the opening plenary session, chef and food activist Alice Waters spoke about her life and work at Chez Panisse, and read aloud from a letter she had written thanking farmers for the produce on which she had built her career. Without passionate farmers, she argued, there would never have been Chez Panisse.

Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden, also attended the event and participated in a workshop on ‘Small scale agriculture versus global trade agreements’. During this he described the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership as a “dinosaur”, arguing that it may never come to fruition with increasing opposition from citizens and young farmers around the world.

Panel discussion at We Feed the Planet, featuring Patrick Holden

Panel discussion on Global Trade Agreements vs. Small Scale Farming

In a lively workshop entitled ‘The Business of Good Food’ I teamed up with the international organisers of Food Assembly to discuss the impact of running a farm enterprise that creates financial, as well as environmental, sustainability. We explored what it means to be a farmer in a globally connected world and the support required for farming communities to speak out about the passion they bring to their work.

In a moving plenary on the final day Patrick Holden chaired a discussion called ‘Farmers in the Spotlight’, in which he encouraged young farmers from the global south to share stories about the reality of their farming. What was abundantly clear from this exchange was that it doesn’t matter if you’re an organic dairy farmer from Wales, an established figure of the international food movement or a passionate young beginner from the global south, there is a moving connection between all those who commit to farm in way that respects the land and people of a particular place.

Overall, the breadth and diversity of both topics and nationalities at the gathering was impressive. Events ranged from regional meetings on how groups of countries could expand the network, to a hackathon where new food initiatives pitched their food and tech ideas, with the winner – Britain’s Nigel Ackhurst from Indie Farmer – staying on in Milan to pitch his idea for an ‘AirBnB for farming’, a platform that would facilitate farm-stay and knowledge exchange experiences.

We Feed the Planet

The final day of the conference saw 2,500 young farmers march through the Milan Expo with banners held high and messages that read “Vote with your fork” and “Farmers are cool!” Gathering in a packed auditorium, the delegation was welcomed by Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who said he had been very impressed by the “energy, creativity and commitment” of the Slow Food Youth Network and We Feed the Planet. Asserting that the meeting had been one of “the great successes of Milan Expo”. With 800 million people suffering from malnutrition in rural areas around the world, he argued, the idea of small-scale, sustainable agriculture was not niche but rather the solution to our common global climate problems.

Tying things up in raucous and inspiring style, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini took to the stage. He said that the gathering had brought “the heart and the legs of a new generation into Slow Food’ and expressed his commitment to supporting and expanding the youth network as far as possible.

So it was, after four days jam-packed with information, hearing from industry experts, making new friends, sharing problems and exchanging common solutions, that 2,500 exhausted but exhilarated young people marched, shouted, danced and sang their way through Milan Expo to the Slow Food Pavilion, throwing their forks in the air for good, clean and fair food every step of the way.

Photograph: Nigel Akehurst

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