Terra Madre: Celebrating farmers, food and the land that sustains them

Thirty years since its founding, the Slow Food organization has grown to over 1,500 global chapters, including 150 in the U.S. In September, contributor Simran Sethi attended Slow Food’s most recent gathering in Turin, Italy.

Photo by Alessandro Vargiu / Archivio Slow Food.

“Food,” Grammenos Mastrojeni, the coordinator for the environment and head of the Science-Policy Interface at the Italian Development Cooperation, says, “is both a problem and solution.” This simple comment started the panel discussion on “Food as a Response to Crisis” that was part of Slow Food’s Terra Madre Salone del Gusto gathering in Turin, Italy last month.

Photo by Alessandro Vargiu / Archivio Slow Food.

Mastrojeni’s words seeded a dialogue on the ways food and land are foundational to how people center themselves during, and after, political and economic strife. The conversation—featuring farmers, researchers, advocates and documentarians focused on food and farming from Syria, Venezuela, the
United States, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Palestine—exemplified the overarching theme of Terra Madre, an event chockful of tasting sessions, panel discussions and exhibitions exploring the idea of “food for change.”

Photo by Alessandro Vargiu / Archivio Slow Food.

Over four days, 7,000 delegates from 150 countries explored diverse ways to make food a force for positive transformation. At the core of each response was an intention to understand, and celebrate, every strand in the food web: soil, seed, pollinator, plant, animal, fish, people. During his session on mole and cacao, Mexican chef Eduardo Garcia argued that this change can be brought about through reverence and care. “In Mesoamerica, we ate from the earth,” he said as he prepared a mole negro with cacao, lard, chiles and, for a local twist, smoked garlic that he served with chicken and risotto (instead of the traditional accompaniment of rice). The dish was inspired by his mother who took three days to prepare the mole, slowly and carefully cooked in earthen pots. “The recipe comes from joy.”

Photo by Alessandro Vargiu / Archivio Slow Food.

The change happens when we see, smell, taste, touch—and listen. For Victoria Tauli-Corpuz—an indigenous leader from the Kankanaey Igorot people of the Cordillera Region in the Philippines and special rapporteur to the United Nations on the Rights of Indigenous People—it starts with understanding the plight of pastoralists and herders. These indigenous communities graze animals (who know no borders) on every continent. The geographic delineations made by governments have resulted in the criminalization of these nomadic people, Tauli-Corpuz says.

And while livestock production is often (legitimately) cited as a significant contributor to climate change, the reality is nuanced. Different production systems—and animals—generate different levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Small farmers and livestock producers tend to generate much lower carbon footprints but are increasingly vulnerable to global warming. “Winters are getting shorter and impact reindeer herders in the North, while the cattle who normally seek shelter in forests during summers in Asia are now threatened by areas that are perpetually burning,”Tauli-Corpuz said. “And water is scarce.” She explained that grazing lands actually keep carbon in the ground. And because these pastoralists manage breeds that are endemic to the areas in which they are herded, they are actually at the forefront of managing biodiverse livestock that can respond to changes in the environment.

The other major challenge facing smallholder farmers and indigenous peoples in general is land grabbing, generally understood as the seizure of large tracts of land for investment or development. While these purchases are often described as a way to create jobs and improve infrastructure, a 2010 report from the World Bank stated that “investors are targeting countries with weak laws, buying arable land on the cheap, and failing to deliver on promises of jobs and investments.”

And this isn’t limited to industry. In June, Slow Food issued an Appeal in Defense of the Rights of the Palestinian People, stating: “Israeli authorities have uprooted over 800,000 olive trees since 1967, while settlers uproot, steal, burn or otherwise vandalize thousands of trees with complete impunity every year. Additionally, thousands of acres of groves are destroyed beyond the segregation wall built on Palestinian land.”

These challenges have contributed to a lifelong struggle for Doha Asoos Mona, a 55-year-old farmer who lives with her family in Burin, a rural village of 3,000 people, in the West Bank. Her daily experiences living in the occupied territory were documented by The Recipe Hunters, two filmmakers who travel around the world in search of traditional recipes and the stories behind them. The filmmakers shared Mona’s story during the “Food as a Response to Crisis” session.

These difficulties have no nationalities or borders, explained researcher and activist Raya Ziada as she concluded the session. “By 2050,” she says, “we will need double the amount of food, but we are losing 50 percent of our farmland.” And that is why she insists people must work together to find creative solutions to making food a force for peace. She closed with a final anecdote about farmers tending to land in Ramallah that they know could be seized any day. Despite these uncertainties, she said that Palestinians endure—and resist. “We do not allow the Israeli occupation to occupy our imagination.”