Take it Slow: Thousands descend on Turin, Italy, to discuss the uncertain future of food

When strolling the fluorescent aisles of your local mega mart, the future may indeed look bright, but look closer. We’re satisfying our hunger, but a growing number of people are worried that the food we choose to eat does not properly nourish our bodies. Nor does it support an economic model that respects the ecosystem or the value of the small- and mid-sized farmer.

More and more, Americans are eating foods that have been bred for maximum yield. Industrial farming is booming, but is that a good thing? We can have tomatoes shipped to us in January, but do we want to? As a society, we are increasingly asking these questions as headlines shout about the soaring levels of bacteria in grocery store chicken and E. coli-infected fast-food lettuce.

“Eating fast food and not knowing where your food came from, not producing it yourselves or knowing who produced it, or having it be part of the essence of who we are, but something that we do just to sustain ourselves, it separates everybody,” said Sara Hale, St. Louis Slow Food convivium co-leader and chief designer at Schlafly Beer. “It makes food unimportant. It has become about money and not about feeding ourselves.”

As a member of the Society of Brewers, Hale went to Turin, Italy, in late October to attend Terra Madre, a conference organized by the Slow Food movement to discuss the future of food. She was one of almost 9,000 people who attended the event from 150 countries.

The goals of the meeting were to, first, create relationships and “[strengthen] the network of food communities, cooks and universities and [establish] communication channels within this network.” The secondary goals were to discuss and encourage sustainable farming practices and to allow small-scale producers to find new avenues for the distribution of their products.

The Slow Food movement began in 1986 when founder Carlo Petrini saw a McDonald’s being opened at the Spanish Steps in Rome. At its heart, the organization is a reaction to fast-food culture. It strives to encourage people to slow down and simply enjoy the act of gathering together to eat well. By extension, it also seeks to preserve food culture and heritage breeds and seeds and support nonindustrial farms.

With everyone from the Carrube Flour Producers of Argentina to the Chon Alaj Yak Breeders of Kirghizstan to Makoni Tea Producers of Zimbabwe to Dave and Barb Hillebrand of Prairie Grass Farms here in Missouri in attendance, the conference made it clear that even though one farmer might grow rice and another herd camels, the struggles of nonindustrial farmers are similar and cross cultural lines. It also shed light on why industrialization was embraced by so many farmers: Farming is an extremely difficult way to make a living, and if you can guarantee yields and control the process and the outcome of your farming, why not take advantage of the help?

The problem is that industrial farming practices have created a monoculture system where heritage breeds have been pushed aside in favor of a small number products that more reliably make it from the farm to the table. “[Take] the Arkansas tomato: It used to come out in June; it used to be the most beautiful tomato,” said executive chef Lou Rook III of Annie Gunn’s, who was a delegate to Terra Madre. “I can remember serving that in my dad’s restaurant because my uncles had farms down there. Well, now all those tomatoes have been changed for shipping. So they’re hard, they’re insignificant. … It’s a beautiful tomato, but it has no flavor.”

Tim Grandinetti, executive chef at the Renaissance Grand Hotel who also attended Terra Madre, agreed and said, “We want to get away from the standardization, the homogenization. What’s really happening right now is seed saving, getting back to heirloom vegetables. I saw in the market just last week varietal apple ciders. So you have an apple cider made from just one variety of apple. How cool is that?”

“The ability for food to be made in a distant place and shipped all over the world in a uniform pattern … is somehow inherently wrong,” said Stephen Hale, co-leader of the St. Louis Slow Food convivium along with his wife, Sara, and Rebecca Marsh. “[During the growing season], there are half a dozen farmers’ markets in a week’s time in St. Louis. That wasn’t the case when I moved here 15 years ago. It is changing. The revolution has begun for people to consume the food they deserve to be eating.”

Marsh agreed, saying, “I joined [Slow Food] because I thought, ‘Oh, this is food, and I enjoy food and I’ll learn about all different kinds of food.’ Then once I started to read, I was discovering things about food that I was not happy with. … I think more and more people are becoming cognizant and are seeking [sustainable] producers out.”

Barb Hillebrand said that people feel better about buying meat from an animal that’s been humanely raised and slaughtered, but they seek out Prairie Grass Farms’ lamb for its superior flavor. “[Customers] come back to us time and time again and just say, ‘What is it that you’re doing different?’ And it’s the grass-fed [lamb] and the variety of grasses that we feed.”

Health concerns are also motivating consumers to turn to smaller producers. With mad cow disease, E. coli concerns and other issues surrounding the meat industry, many producers are looking at how they can give consumers a better-tasting product while also bettering the treatment of the animals and making the resulting meat healthier. Patricia Whisnant, a veterinarian, co-owns American Grass Fed Beef with her husband, Mark; the two also attended Terra Madre. On their ranch in southern Missouri, the Whisnants pasture-raise cattle rather than confining the herd to a feedlot and a diet of corn and grains.

“From the aspect of the animal’s health, ruminants are intended to graze grass. That whole system and that whole cycle, it just makes total and complete sense,” Whisnant said. “Grass-fed products are higher in omega-3 fatty acids, higher in conjugated linoleic acid, higher in vitamin E [and] beta carotenes, lower in saturated fat. But also, it’s a safer product. Without having to go through these aberrant diets that [cattle are] given in the feedlot, [grass-fed beef] contains no antibiotics, no hormones and has a million-fold decrease in the number of E. coli.”

It’s the relationship between chef and farmer that is bringing the freshest food to your plate; the names of local and regional farms are increasingly popping up on menus across St. Louis. But because of the nature of farming, a lot of planning and preparation must go into laying the groundwork for a successful partnership. At Annie Gunn’s, Rook buys 90 percent of Bob Lober’s crop at St. Isidore Farm.

“Bob and I sit down … in the middle of December and we map out the farm for the year,” said Rook. “He really tells me what can happen and what can’t. I give [him] the wish list and say, ‘This is what I want, can we do this, can we try this, this went over great last year.’ That’s how we do it.”

Rook said that the chefs who attended Terra Madre came to understand just how integral they are to turning people on to local foods. “When we sat in that room with a thousand chefs … and talked about the importance of all this stuff it really does make sense,” he said. “And it makes sense where we are in the chain to get the word out. And not just the word, but get people to understand. I really do think that people, when they try these products, … see the difference. They taste the difference.”

Grandinetti said that it’s also important to consider the overall impact that’s made by purchasing sustainably raised products. “It’s about preserving our culinary history. It’s about saving the medium- to small-scale farmer,” he explained. “[And] it’s not just the farmer. It’s the land, it’s the water, it’s our environment, it’s our children’s children’s environment. It’s much, much deeper than just having a brown egg on my breakfast buffet, you know?”

Whisnant noted that it’s the relationship between the customer and the farmer that allows sustainable farms to thrive. “I love the way [Slow Food] refers to the consumer as a co-producer,” she said. “Because truly, when you choose what you’re going to eat, you’re voting for that sustainable system or you’re saying that you don’t care and you are indeed voting for that industrial system.”

Marsh noted the additional benefit to the local economy. “There was one farmer that I spoke to from Silex, Mo., that said that he had a dollar that was marked with something and he used it in the community. It passed through his hands two or three times that week,” she said. “So, the money stays in the community and doesn’t immediately go to some corporate entity.”

But Rook said that as much as he supports the goals of Slow Food, it’s not practical to throw away some of the advances brought by the last century’s industrial progress. “You can’t come in here and say, ‘We’re changing everything. Get rid of this, get rid of that, we’re going totally natural. We’re going totally organic.’”

Still, Rook added, “Any time you can buy local and you can support your local farm, it’s better than mass-produced. There is a difference and it’s worth it. Vitamins, flavor and quality of product are all better.

“It’s something we can always improve on,” Rook said, “and the education process is the No. 1 tool.”

That’s where Slow Food’s 80,000 members from all over the world come into the picture. Terra Madre offered attendees workshops on topics ranging from the threat to traditional Belgian beers in the Netherlands to farming practices that conserve water. Not every topic spoke to what farmers and chefs struggle with here, but beyond strictly giving professional guidance, Terra Madre created a feeling of connection and gave delegates a sense of purpose.

“I’m a businessman first and foremost,” said Grandinetti. “But if I can do business and do it in the right way, I mean, why wouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I?”