The following is an excerpt from Terra Madre: Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities by Carlo Petrini. It has been adapted for the Web.
Food: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?
If I want to eat well, I’m an elitist. If I respect tradition, I’m glued to the past. If I obey the rules of sound ecology, I’m a bore. If I acknowledge the importance of the rural world, I yearn for bucolic pleasures.
It’s hard to talk about food and agriculture, sustainable food production and consumption without having to bear the brunt of this kind of cliché-ridden criticism. At Slow Food, we have noted that, now that things are starting to move, this kind of talk is rising in volume and frequency. For a whole variety of reasons, eating is increasingly in our thoughts and in our conversation. But instead of bringing pleasure and joy as it ought to, it generates uncertainty, unrest, anxiety, and fear. Eating, without which we can’t survive, is turning into a problem.
In the world of today, the act of eating is pregnant with paradox. World hunger and malnutrition and the pandemics of obesity and diabetes are all sides of the same coin. We demand quality, yet we complain because it costs money. Then we go and spend the same amount on junk food or trashy consumer products. We watch TV programs that churn out recipes all day long, yet we’ve forgotten how to cook. We have all the food we could ever wish for at our disposal, yet we sweat buckets to slim down. At the same time, those of us who fight to protect fauna and flora on the verge of extinction, to promote the goodness that our countryside still has to offer, and to educate others about the pleasures of food are written off as elitist. It’s as if, for cultural and economic reasons, it were no longer possible to combine pleasure and commitment.
How have we allowed this to come about? Food is our link with the outside world and nature: eating it makes us part of the complex system that the ancients described as “the breath of the earth.” Metabolism is what distinguishes living beings from inanimate objects. We have a metabolism, what we eat has a metabolism, the earth has a metabolism, and all vital processes are closely interconnected. Arguably, at the root of the problem is the development model that has had the upper hand in all human activities, the eating of food being no exception. Industrialization and the primacy of a reductionist-mechanistic vision have heralded the triumph of consumerism. We have evolved into Homo consumens.
Human beings have convinced themselves they live outside the natural cycle. They think they can use nature to suit their whims. By virtue of their confidence in their own ability to produce anything, they think that even forms of production most closely bound to the natural world can follow the same laws. Once a badge of identity—a miracle of nature turned element of culture—food has now become a product like any other and, as such, complies with the laws of consumerism: meaning the laws of the market and of waste.
Our common store of practical knowledge—traditional and ancestral wisdom and the capacity to live in tune with nature—has suddenly been erased and forgotten, as if the baby had been thrown out with the bathwater. Not that the cultural heritage typical of rural societies is the only thing to have been swept away by modernity. It is precisely our relationship with food—summed up in the verb “to eat”—that has been cut off from its traditional role in the history of humanity. The link between us and the world that surrounds us, the one that holds together the complex system of our existence, has snapped. This is why, irrespective of their relative degrees of modernity and wealth, traditional societies that, albeit unconsciously, have always lived profitably in a holistic way still have a lot to teach us.
Today eating generates uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. By barring nature from the human sphere, we have ultimately excluded food as well. We have forgotten the importance of an action that we perform at least three times a day, every day. The production and processing of food has left our kitchens to be taken over by third parties. Now that we have mislaid the secrets of food, we have to buy them back with money, just as we buy everything else we need—or think we need.
Food today is more a product to be sold than to be eaten. Reducing our relationship with what we eat almost exclusively to a series of market operations is both the cause and effect of a system that has removed value from food and meaning from our lives. It’s a system that has turned the meaning of the verb “to eat” from active to passive for many inhabitants of the earth. Food has become as ambiguous as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; given its complexity, it possesses “split personalities” in the way it appears and the way it is perceived. And split personalities are a sign of its unsustainability.