Carlo Petrini: 'This global food system is criminal and does not hold up. It’s time for a revolution'

The harangue of the founder of Slow Food in São Paulo, Brazil: 'There are still people dying of hunger, it’s a disgrace. And a billion hectares of land and 250 trillion litres of water are used to produce food that we throw away. But change is possible'

18-11-2022
by Gabriele Zanatta
Carlo Petrini, 73, in Sao Paulo on the stage at Me

Carlo Petrini, 73, in Sao Paulo on the stage at Mesa SP, the most important cooking congress in Brazil

‘I will speak in Italian because I want what I say to be clear. I am happy to return to Brazil, a country I love. I came here for the first time in 1981: it had half the population of today. After the pandemic, here I am again'. This was the soft beginning of a 40-minute speech with which Carlo Petrini drew open applause from the audience at the Espaço Unimed in São Paulo, the scenic venue of Mesa, the most important congress in South America's most populous country. Here are the key passages.

 'The theme chosen this year by my friend Georges Schnyder [curator of Mesa] is the kitchen of embrace. We must recover dialogue, willingness to listen, fraternity, essential values to realise the ideals of freedom and justice. And oppose the logic of economic liberalism, which only privileges the rich. In the recent electoral contest in this country, we took a position from the outset: we are Lulists'. The audience applauds. ‘And we are aware that this new historical phase demands a new behaviour. Cultural, political, social.’

He continues: 'Let's say it loud and clear: the global food system does not work. It is a criminal system and we must do everything to change it. With determination and capacity to make an impact. With dynamics that must involve millions of people'. Why doesn't the system work? asks the Slow Food founder: 'Because 800 million people, in fact 900 million after the pandemic, suffer from malnutrition. And there are still people dying of starvation, a disgrace for the whole of humanity. A disgrace in the 21st century. At the same time 1.7 billion people suffer from overeating. That generates childhood obesity and cardiovascular diseases, caused by over-processed food'.

But there’s also food waste: 'We produce the equivalent of food for 12 billion living beings. But there are 7.8 billion of us on Earth: that means 30 per cent of food is thrown away. We are talking about 1.5 billion tonnes of food [he underlines the figure several times]. Which takes up 1 billion hectares of fertile land. One billion hectares and 250 trillion litres of water to produce food that we then throw away. A great problem, the greatest shame, an enormous drama'.

There’s more: 'Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have lost 60% of our biodiversity: plant species and animal breeds. An enormous heritage that our ancestors entrusted to us and that we will not leave to the new generations. Once again, the culprit of this tragedy is the food system, which privileges strong animal breeds and abandons those that are not very productive. Just think that of the entire planetary diversity of the bird kingdom, 70% is farmed poultry. Madness, madness, madness. And let’s not think of how they are bred. It’s a criminal system, which we must change with all our might'.

The auditorium of the Espaço Unimed in São Paulo, home of Mesa

The auditorium of the Espaço Unimed in São Paulo, home of Mesa

Carlin intercepts the problem: 'The rights of those who work the land are not recognised but only those of the large multinationals, whose interests are untouchable. Just think that 80 per cent of seeds are patented by multinationals and only the remainder is in the hands of the people. If we do not start a profound revolution now, we will soon all be at the service of these interests, which determine how much and what we have to eat. We must shout with all our might that this system does not hold'.

In what way? 'By relying on educated, informed people who can become active agents of change. Gastronomic science is not an elite but a right for everyone. There is a ruinous schizophrenia going on: on the one hand we talk about good food, taking on gourmet garb; on the other we dress up as trade unionists. But the two cannot talk to each other: you cannot talk about changing agricultural policies and, at the same time, magnify the delicacies of food. So, I would like to call for a liberation movement from schizophrenia, which would prevent people from talking about haute cuisine while, on the way here from the hotel, I counted six people living on the street, desperate and without food. The truth is that many politicians sign food policies without understanding anything about food: the helm needs to pass to the gastronomes, those who have the knowledge of things.

The embrace mentioned at the beginning must involve three levels.
"First point. We must strive to pay farmers and producers what is fair, and here we are just not there. When a great chef uses indigenous products, the first thing he or she must care about is recognising their economic value, so they acquire the dignity they deserve. Supermarkets here in Brazil are a disaster: they overflow with over-processed and expensive products. We must instead forge an alliance between citizens and farmers, without intermediaries. Because if young people don't work the land, we accelerate the catastrophe'.

Point two. And here I address food journalists: I ask you, please [he repeats it twice], stop writing reviews, and write more informative articles. Let us turn this great circus of awards and stars into a great work of mass education. Then we can steer public opinion and ask governments to include nutrition education in schools. In my country there is no such thing. And so the rich will eat more and more excellent products from the farmers, while the latter will remain poor and instead eat the over-processed products of the rich companies, the ones that are harmful to health. They will eat shit. And this is deeply unfair.’

Third point. The restaurant industry around the world needs to be reformed. These days I hear a lot of talk about the 50Best but it is absurd because this is supported by a multinational and instead in the kitchens there remains endless suffering, the legacy of an approach that has a precise culprit: Auguste Escoffier, the man who codified work in the kitchen according to military rules. With the result that in today’s kitchens there is no embrace or fraternity but violence and suffering. But these must become productive communities. Not barracks, but places of sociality and training'.

‘It is time, therefore, for activists to get active but without losing the goodness of things, because we cannot change the world with gloom or sadness but with joy’. And here Petrini tells a curious anecdote: 'Some time ago I talked with Pope Francis: I asked him why the church has always mortified the pleasure of food. He replied: 'If we did, we did wrong because the reality is that Our Lord wanted to sow pleasure on the two things useful for the reproduction of the species: eating and making love'. The Pope said it, do you understand?’.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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