Can Slow Food Feed the World?

Why a movement with a reputation for élitism is adopting a more inclusive agenda

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Pat Greenhouse / Boston Globe / Landov

The Slow Food movement is grappling with critics' contention that such methods cannot meet the needs of growing numbers of hungry people in poor nations.

Over Labor day weekend, thousands of foodies flooded a special farmers' market set up by Slow Food Nation in San Francisco's grand Civic Center. But the gourmands who showed up eager to fill their baskets with dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes and muslin-wrapped Cheddar cheeses might have been surprised to find that the first event of the conference wasn't a seminar on artisan bread but an earnest panel on the global crisis of rising food prices. Slow Food--the anti-fast-food, anti-industrial-agriculture movement launched in 1986 by a left-wing Italian journalist--too often has tilted more toward high-class gastronomy than hard-to-solve public-health issues, a criticism the weekend conference sought to address. "This is a coming-out party for a more inclusive Slow Food movement," says culinary writer Michael Pollan, who moderated the panel.

With worldwide crop prices soaring, the élitist charge often tossed at Slow Food groups--which have some 16,000 members in the U.S.--suddenly stings a bit more. Who cares about the perfect mushroom when more people are going hungry? The movement's leaders are responding, however, by putting politics back at the center of Slow Food's agenda and calling for reform of a global agro-industry they say has failed farmers and eaters alike. "How did we get to a place where it is considered élitist to have food that is healthy for you?" asks Katrina Heron, head of the San Francisco-based Slow Food Nation.

The one thing Slow Food and its critics agree on is that something is wrong with the global food system. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2007 50 million more people were hungry than in 2006. At the same time, unhealthy, heavily processed, American-style fast food has spread beyond our borders, eroding traditional ways of eating. The solution, say Slow Food devotees, is to shift to cuisine that is "good, clean and fair," grown mostly organically by local farmers.

Sure, slow food tastes better, but agribusiness has long argued that industrial farming is the only way to economically feed a global population nearing 7 billion. Organic farming yields less per acre than standard farming, which means a worldwide Slow Food initiative might lead to turning more forests into farmland. (To feed the U.S. alone with organic food, we'd need 40 million farmers, up from 1 million today.) In a recent editorial, FAO director-general Jacques Diouf pointed out that the world will need to double food production by 2050 and that to suggest organics can solve the challenge is "dangerously irresponsible."

Of course, most Slow Foodies aren't arguing that we should eat only organic arugula. In its broadest sense, the movement is trying to get people to stop and really think about what's on their plate and how it got there. In the end, Slow Food is more interested in producing better-tasting food than leading a jihad against chemical fertilizers, and there's something to be said for appealing to the stomach to get to the head.