Terra Madre 2008: Grist reports from Italy on the slow food scene

Turin, Italy — Perhaps the most surreal — and newsworthy — moment of Terra Madre came during the closing ceremony last Sunday, with some 7,000 to 8,000 people packed into an Olympic stadium. As with other large-scale gatherings during Terra Madre, the speeches were translated into eight languages on the fly, into little headsets.

That’s when we learned that the Italian government had maneuvered to get an audience for Terra Madre officials at an upcoming meeting of the G8 nations. We found out in a dramatic and even comical way.

A youngish guy wearing a dark, sleek suit played emcee for the evening. It was kind of like watching an Italian variety show — he zipped back and forth across the stage, cracking little jokes as he introduced speakers.

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Everything was going swimmingly — until he introduced Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini, who would address us not in person but via taped video on the large screens suspended from the ceiling. The address would last 1,000 seconds, the emcee informed us with jarring specificity; we should listen especially to the last 100 seconds.

The Frattini video opened to polite silence. He said some nice and banal things about Slow Food, regretting his inability to attend Terra Madre. Then he began to drone on about the global food crisis, and you could feel the audience getting tense. At some point, he seemed to praise the G8’s response to the crisis — the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money it had pledged.

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Now the crowd turned restive. To roughly sum up the prevailing assessment of the G8’s performance with regard to the global food crisis: the rich nations had come up with too little aid to make much of a difference, and taken no action to reckon with the crisis’ core causes, such as Western biofuel programs, unfair trade, the systematic squashing of small-scale farmers, etc.

As the minister — i.e., his projected image — went on about the G8, isolated whistles began to cut the air. Soon, loud jeers rang out from around the auditorium, punctuated by shrill whistles, scornful hand clapping, and the loud stamping of feet. Some folks theatrically turned their backs; one man sitting near me, an aging Italian hippie, thundered again and again, "No!"

Before you knew it, the hapless minister’s 1,000 seconds were up — and the final 300 or so had been drowned out by the collective outburst. Despite the anger, the mood was jolly; people were cackling at the spectacle of the politician’s ill-received speech.

Retaking the stage, the poor emcee seemed in a panic. "Don’t jeer me," he beseeched. "I’m just the announcer!" He quickly summoned Carlo Petrini, who took the role of a scolding but indulgent uncle.

He shot a mock glare at the crowd, more amused than angry — but clearly disappointed. The politician had spoken for too long, Petrni admitted, because that’s what politicians do. But we should have listened!

Then came a lecture about the importance of listening to people you don’t agree with. And then: If you had listened to the end of the speech, you would know what the minister had announced: That Terra Madre representatives would be invited to address the G8 on behalf of the Italian government.

He hinted that Vandana Shiva and Alice Waters would be giving speeches before the G8. Shouldn’t we accept this invitation, he intoned? The crowd roared again, this time in approval.

Perhaps learning a lesson from the politician, Petrini kept his remarks uncharacteristically brief, and turned the stage over to a series of excellent musicians from all over the world. For the next hour or two, Terra Madre turned into a frenetic dance party.