Five years after the last Congress at Terra Madre in Turin in 2012, representatives of Slow Food gathered in Chengdu, China for the 7thInternational Congress.
These gatherings of people of all kinds, coming from close to 120 countries, are a good gauge of planetary health and just where we are with food’s role and impact. A bit like a human early warning system.
Many of the signals were not good.
The Senegalese explained how their fisher communities were suffering as climate change drove certain species further and further from their coasts, and led to fatal conflicts with neighbouring countries. The Mexicans described how the dramatic impact of changes in rainfall patterns were being felt more and more quickly with little chance to adapt for cacao producers.
The story that hit hardest for me came from the pastoralists in Kenya.
There, climate change events like droughts have cost up to 70% of the herds that they depend on, a decimation of entire communities who have lived well in that environment for generations. As one senior Kenyan herdsman said: ‘I feel like a dead man.’
Opportunity from crisis.
China was still an inspiration though. An incredible place with wonderful people, tradition and food culture.
Professor Wen Tiejun Executive Dean, Institute of Advanced Studies for Sustainability, Renmin University of China Executive Dean, Institute of Rural Reconstruction of China, Southwestern University of China offered an alternative to the usual image of a hyper-consumerist, over-polluted nation rushing headlong to environmental armageddon.
Yes, China is the world’s top polluter, and the agro-food industry is a leading culprit, but when you produce 700 million pigs and 13 billion poultry birds a year, how can you not be?
But as the Professor reminded us, for the Chinese character ‘every crisis offers an opportunity’.
So the Chinese are turning from policies that are pro-capital to pro-people, with experiments in what they call eco-civilisation, returning to the small village agricultural forms that respect biodiversity, soil, traditional knowledge and ultimate sustainability. What was once old is new again. Agriculture 4.0, they call it!
Oh, and if that’s not enough, proof that the Chinese take food genuinely seriously: every year, the very first government policies and directives of the year that appear in January are about, you guessed it, food and agriculture.
Background to Chengdu.
Over the past two to three years, there has been a gradual realisation that Slow Food has to change as it grows, in order to become more effective and achieve the stated aim of becoming ‘theglobal food movement’.
This ambition was laid out in the Slow Food 2.0 document, but in short it means more openness, collaboration, inclusivity, partnerships and a focus on empowering the grass-roots with support, training and resources. More global campaigns that are shared by the whole network are key too. The current #menuforchange activity is a good example of this.
‘Only by radically renewing the organization of Slow Food, only by making it more open and inclusive, and only by trying out new forms of aggregation, involvement and participation can we address the challenges that await us in the future in the best way possible and thwart those—the very few—who possess power and wealth and decide the fate of the world’s food and of humanity itself. They are giants but we are a multitude!’ (Declaration of Chengdu 2017)
Carlo’s thinking on this and the collective vision for the future can be found here.
Besides myself, Slow Food in the UK was represented by Bob Donald of Scotland, and Claire and Michael Marriage of England. We all voted in the proceedings.
Beyond the ceremonials, a spectacular procession of flag-bearers being a highlight, the Congress included elections of officials, voting on several motions, the official adoption of the Slow Food statutes, and a day of small-group working.
Carlo Petrini was re-elected for another term, as was Paolo de Croce as Secretary-General by the Executive Committee, as proposed by the President.
The executive committee was expanded by two members to represent South America and China. Otherwise the personnel are the same.
The nominated international councillors were also elected. This role has now been more sharply-defined with a proper job descriptions and more will be expected from councillors in shaping and creating the ‘new’ Slow Food over the next three years, enacting a profound revision of the Slow Food organisational structure, to make it more inclusive and open. (More on the organizational guidelines here.) The governance which will be in charge until 2020 is composed of 43 Councilors from 32 countries.
Declarations and resolutions.
There was a general declaration of Chengdu that re-dedicated the movement to ‘good, clean, fair and healthy food is a right of all and that we shall not give up the
fight until every last person and the entire web of life on this planet has access to it’. There were also several Chengdu resolutions which can be found here.
The statutes that govern Slow Food have been changed ever so slightly, with the main thing being the replacement of the term ‘convivium’ with ‘community’ and some adjustment to the powers of the President. You can see them here.
The Saturday of Congress was devoted to a day of working in small groups to discuss ten key topics. For example: how to engage more people, how best to raise funds, how to make alliances, how can we connect traditional and academic knowledge, and how to support leaders. The findings from these groups will be collated and shared through the network.
Besides the regular Congress business, there was a meeting of the Slow Food Europe group that was instigated by Slow Food’s representatives in Brussels back in May. This group has two initial aims. Firstly, sharing know-how and resources on relevant topics (for eg locating an expert on a particular topic that will help a particular country address a problem). Second, mobilise support in the event of a particular crisis or campaign in any one of the individual countries. The current hot topics being addressed by Slow Food in Brussels are glysophates, animal farming, CAP food policy and food waste. It was emphasised that this group is for both EU and non-EU members.
On the road to reform.
Chengdu was, I believe, another indication that Slow Food is involved in a process of reform. Although our values remain rooted in ‘good, clean and fair’ food, the inclination towards a more open movement that can mobilise those beyond our formal organisation is the clear direction for the future.
In my experience, the movement has come a long way from an intensively Italy-centred organisation to one that recognises that globally, the grassroots is where the real work is done and our task must be to give everyone the tools, resources and support to succeed as they forge partnerships and collaborations with those who share our vision and values.
A final word from Bob Donald (Slow Food Aberdeen City and Shire).
‘As a first-timer at any international Slow Food event, what struck me most was the depth and structure of the organisation. Sitting down and talking to other delegates, you are hit with the passion and drive that people have, not only in our shared interest of food, of course, but of the issues surrounding and relating to it.
Global issues that impact all of us in different ways, be it the steady removal of biodiversity by multinational companies intent on maximising profits through sales of GMO seeds and fertilisers, or the impact that climate change will have on our future environment and food production.
And it is the knowledge and experience of the other delegates (and I am sure of Slow Food members who were not there) that makes you realise that if we can channel this so we are pushing together in the same direction on these types of issues, Slow Food could really be more of an influential player in local and national government strategies on food and agriculture. I came back enthused and ready to bring a local focus to push the international campaigns that were set at the Chengdu congress.’
John Cooke, International Councillor for Slow Food in the UK.