You can find a McDonalds on every continent in the world except for Antarctica and you can buy a Coca-Cola almost anywhere, including any country in Africa. In fact, Coca-Cola is among the largest employers in Africa and its reach is so great that, ironically, health experts have turned to the company to better distribute medicine.
Given corporate America’s attempts to establish itself in the diet, and the consciousness, of people around the world, a recent United Nations initiative to promote traditional, indigenous cuisine to address food security is laudable. The U.N. has joined forces with the Slow Food movement to promote what is being called the “gastronomy of liberation.” This rather high-falutin’ sounding term embraces a down-to-earth idea.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Slow Food movement will be supporting small farmers as well as advocating for the central role of indigenous cooking that uses native ingredients, all as part of efforts to combat global food insecurity.
Slow Food vs. Fast Food
The Slow Food movement specifically seeks to provide an “alternative” to fast food and to preserve traditional and local cuisines. The movement began in Italy when an earlier group called Agricola (which means “farmer” in Latin) resisted the opening of a McDonalds near the iconic Spanish Steps in Rome. This effort was ultimately unsuccessful (a McDonalds adorned with mosaics opened in that location in 1986) but the Slow Food movement has continued to put its support behind centuries-old traditions of gastronomy and food production. It also strives to fight against “Big Food,” the industrialization and globalization of the food industry.
Slow Food has tended to be associated with “foodies” in developed countries so the movement’s efforts to apply its agenda to addressing a serious problem like food insecurity is welcome. Slow Food’s founder, Carlo Petrini, has also spoken out against the phenomenon of land grabbing in Africa, when governments or private companies buy up huge plots of land at very low prices from local communities. Many then find themselves without land to farm or to graze their animals on.
Fighting “Gastronomic Colonialism”
The FAO and Slow Food aim to promote the indigenous cuisine of Africa, which has been subjected to a kind of “gastronomic colonialism” in which local cooking was cast aside for British, French or Italian cuisine. Rather, the goal is to promote traditional food crops including cassava, yam, plantain, sweet potato, millets, sorghum and legumes. Some traditional crops — yams in Nigeria and the grain teff in Ethiopia — have become so scarcely planted that they are now considered a luxury.
It can be argued that gastronomic colonialism is very much still continuing, as companies introduce the very aspects of the Western diet — packaged and processed foods, soft drinks — that many in the developed world are seeking to wean themselves from.
As studies have shown, younger people in Japan who prefer a Western-style diet instead of one based on traditional foods (sushi, seaweed) have health problems (obesity, high blood pressure) like those of people in Western countries. In Mexico, eating fast food is regarded as a “sign of status” and not among the wealthy, but the middle class. China is certainly wary of Western beliefs regarding free speech and human rights, but its citizens (especially those who have recently joined the middle-class) have not hesitated to embrace fast food.
As Petrini says, “gastronomy is not just about beautiful food.” It is also about eating good food in the sense that your diet is beneficial for your health, whatever it looks like. We know that a Western-style diet can be detrimental to health. Efforts like the UN’s and Slow Food’s to stop the spread of “gastronomic colonialism” are worth getting behind.
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