In a world dogged by conflicts and wars, the key to peace and reconciliation lies in food, say chefs, small-scale producers and Slow Food campaigners at the world’s biggest food fair in Turin.
Among the thousands of stalls which line the fair with spices, fruits, wines and delicacies from 100 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa, springs a huge African food garden with pumpkins, berries, bananas and trees.
The plot represents the 25 countries involved in the “Thousand Gardens in Africa project,” which aims to preserve traditional foods and unite communities in the continent where civil wars and conflict often aggravate food crises.
“The Thousand Gardens is helping bring about conflict resolutions,” says Noel Nanyunja, a young regional coordinator for the project from Uganda.
“It brings communities together and changes attitudes, especially among the young. We have lots of initiatives to make people self-sufficient and help them fight off hunger — often one of the biggest sparks for bloodshed,” she said.
Rogers Sserunjogi, who cheerfully shows the garden off to visitors wearing a traditional Ugandan costume, said: “where slow food is concerned there is unity: people forget about politics, their religion and discrimination.”
The project was launched two years ago by Slow Food, a movement founded in the northwestern Italian region in 1986 in reaction to the rise of fast food.
“There cannot be peace without a good agricultural model throughout the world,” said Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, adding that the 2012 fair brings together small-scale producers from vastly different or conflicting cultures.
“This event is an event of peace: seeing Palestinian farmers alongside Israeli farmers, Syrian ones alongside Turkish ones, has a significance that goes beyond tensions, wars and conflicts between governments,” he said.
In an international tasting hall across from the garden, Sri Lanken chef Duminda Abeysiriwardena rustles up spicy chicken and chutney with a sumptuous vegetable side for visitors which include a gaggle of curious school children.
After nearly three decades of a devastating war in Sri Lanka, he says the country’s young are enthusiastic and ready to grasp new cultural ideas — but warns that rapid modernisation has led to a boom in fast, cheap and poor food.
“When a country develops quickly people forget about qualities and traditional values and think about the money aspects,” Abeysiriwardena said in the fair’s bustling kitchen, cooking alongside chefs from Tunisia and Algeria.
“After everything that’s happened in Sri Lanka, we need to go back to basics, to nutritional food. That is the real value which bonds communities.”
Slow Food does not only inspire hopes of conflict resolution among its members, it also gives small-scale producers from countries shaking off the dust of dictatorship or state control the chance for international exposure.
Jamilya Ekeyewna, 39, who works for a family-run company producing dried melon in Turkmenistan, smiles shyly as she hands out samples of the fruit to passing visitors, many of whom come back for a second helping.
Turkmenistan suffered a period of political and economic isolation until 2006 but has since grasped the chance to develop trade links, she said. “We are a poor country, but our food is simple and good. Here we show what we offer.”
Slow Food can be revolutionary, Petrini says, if people at a local level use the movement’s networks to share knowledge and build bridges with neighbours.
“This edition of Slow Food is about foods which change the world,” he said.
It’s no one-answer-fits-all approach, but “if every country has the strength to act,” then food can be a key to bettering relationships on a wider scale.
Or as Sserunjogi puts it: “everybody loves to think about food. They’re excited, it brings them together. They become proud of local and regional foods and culture and want to protect them, so they begin collaborating for peace.”