Terra Madre: Sustaining the Sustainability Champions

On a clear late October morning, more than 5,000 people milled about the Lingotto exhibition hall in Turin, Italy. Traditional costumes from every continent mixed to form a colorful patchwork, and the air filled with the murmur of languages from over 160 countries. The Terra Madre community had returned to Turin. The three days of workshops, conferences, and meals revealed a mosaic of individual actions, and an endless collection of human stories.

A workshop on Cooks and Places saw chefs Adam Bernstein from the U.S. and Abdon Manga from Guinea-Bissau sitting next to each other in a panel. While Adam has completed a complicated sustainability certification for his restaurant, Abdon buys whatever is available in the markets and shops of Buba, and only in quantities he’ll be able to sell during the day (electricity is a luxury in his country).

Chefs Teresa Corçao from Brasil and Bernard Charret from France both felt the need to reconnect cooks with places and producers. Years apart and in different ways, they both implemented projects to do so. Bernard has been sourcing the ingredients for his organic restaurant by developing relationships with independent producers from the French region of Touraine over the past 25 years. “It took time to build trust,” he says, “but they’ve become friends and beyond, a network of solidarity.” More recently, Teresa started the project “Tu me ensinas a receita, eu te ensino a transformar” (You teach me the recipe, and I teach you to transform) in southern Brazil. A new approach to culinary training, it encourages chefs to become intimately involved with local food production. Students spend time with farmers to understand how they work, and then prepare and share one of their family recipes. The following day they return to school and transform that traditional recipe into a professional one.

Political activist, cookbook author, and self-proclaimed democratic cook Wam Kat started to reflect on food while he was a cook on the Rainbow Warrior. Food was essential on the Greenpeace-operated ship, he explains, and food is what sets the mood of a protest. Long grey hair covered by a knitted wool hat and the deep lines on his sharp, angled face suggested many stories in a life devoted to political action. Wam is mostly known for the Zagreb diary, which he wrote during the war in former Yugoslavia. He also took part in various supporting actions in the Balkans after the war, and is one of the founders of Rampenplan, a Dutch mobile kitchen that supports political activists by providing food—once as many as to 15,000 people for three weeks. In 2008, he published a political cookbook in Germany, 24 Rezepte zur kulinarischen Weltverbesserung, which can roughly translate to “24 recipes for culinary world improvement.”

The diversity of these Terra Madre voices gives a sense of the variety of local problems all resulting from a global food system that is suffering terribly. During these days, participants were reminded that they are not alone in this fight for sustainable food and safeguarded traditions. Everyone echoed the same sentiment: Terra Madre gives them the strength to go on despite the adversity. “Terra Madre is our world family,” said Abdul Ahmad Loqmani, one of the eight delegates from Afghanistan.

This diversity provides a perspective that goes beyond food. And here, in this broad vision of the world, perhaps lies the recipe for success – a hopeful vision emphasized by writer, activist, and academic Raj Patel who repeatedly said during the event that if we want social change to happen around food, we need to move away from the exclusive focus on food.

Full article first published in The Atlantic.

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