In 1989, Carlo Petrini started Slow Food in reaction to the fast-food phenomenon that was beginning to spread through Europe.

He regretted how local production was being threatened by global commercialization and worried that a homogenized marketplace that relied on industrialized mass production would threaten the survival of certain local products.

If farmers increasingly were required under contract to purchase seeds, often genetically modified, only from corporate food conglomerates, then what would happen to the old seeds local farmers had been planting for centuries?

Slow Food, then, was meant to promote "food sovereignty" and support local economies, Petrini said during a Feb. 23 visit to Charleston, where he attended a reception at McCrady's and signed copies of his new book, "Terra Madre."

The Slow Food movement has grown over two decades to include 100,000 members in more than 130 countries. Since its founding, the Food Network has burst onto TV screens and can be viewed in 90 million households. Regional cuisine has taken hold, pushing aside old concepts of food preparation. Chefs have become superstars. Farmers markets have made a comeback. Young people have opted to grow crops and raise livestock. And the words "local," "sustainable" and "seasonal" are widely used, and not only by foodies.

But Petrini wants to take these terms to a new level. He wants to build a global movement that promotes local autonomy, reinforces local identity, builds sustainable local economies, respects the Earth and produces healthy food.

"Every country, region, community can choose what to grow and what to eat and how to reinforce their own food cultures," he said. "Food is the most important thing for the identity of a community."

Transformation

Before it was a book, Terra Madre was an event: a huge conference in Turin, Italy, held in 2004. About 5,000 people from 130 countries attended, donning headsets through which simultaneous translations were transmitted. Guest speakers included Prince Charles and Vandana Shiva, a well-known, India-born environmental activist.

The gathering brought together independent farmers, showing them that they were not alone in struggling to maintain their businesses, according to Emile DeFelice, a South Carolina pig farmer who was a delegate at the first meeting.

DeFelice, who ran for state agriculture commissioner in 2006, said the conference was an unforgettable experience.

"It literally did change my life," he said, apologizing for his use of the cliche.

Before the meeting, he was merely a struggling farmer, like so many others, just trying to get by "with a modest set of little goals."

But seeing thousands of other farmers, many of whom struggled even more to keep their businesses alive, put things in perspective, DeFelice said.

"When I saw farmers from all over the world and the challenges they faced, whether political, environmental, geographic, on and on, it really made my problems seem so puny and my complaints so ridiculous; it made me come back and change the way I do things," he said. "I was talking to a Mongolian yak herder who spent months on the Siberian tundra ... and existed on two things: an awful little bitter hard cheese, and he would prick the neck of horses and suck the blood out of them."

So DeFelice decided he was not ambitious enough, he said. He began to challenge himself.

He decided to run for office (he lost to incumbent Hugh Weathers). He decided to be a better farmer. He decided to become an advocate for good agricultural practices and healthy living. He lost weight and began to exercise. He started the All Local Farmer's Market in Columbia. He joined Slow Food's National Ark and Presidia Committee, which identifies historic foodways throughout the U.S. and promotes them.

"I thought, What's stopping me there?"

'Glocalism'

But Terra Madre is more than a book and more than a 2004 conference. It is what Petrini called a network of thousands of communities in 153 countries, a movement that develops ideas based on sustainability, local autonomy and food sovereignty, a mechanism that organizations, restaurants, cooks, writers and farmers can leverage to promote best practices, seed conservation, environmental, social and economic justice and more.

"Terra Madre is a concrete way of putting into practice what has been defined as 'glocalism': a set of actions carried out on a local scale to generate major repercussions on a global scale," Petrini writes in his book.

It is an updated version of the "Think global, act local" slogan. "It has evolved over the course of time and now has a policy of its own, shared values, and medium- and long-term objectives."

Petrini argues that government is not always the best arbitrator of global economics; sometimes communities must take charge, working with political representatives, nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits and one another to promote change. It is, in other words, a grass-roots movement writ large.

The conference convenes every two years in Turin, Italy, and now "Terra Madre" has regional meetings -- in Brazil, Argentina, Tanzania, Austria, Sweden and other places, according to Shayna Bailey, a Slow Food International staff member and conference development director.

The Lowcountry has its share of sustainability advocates. Many of the independent restaurants feature local products. Slow Food has a Charleston chapter run by Carole Addlestone. And Lowcountry Local First is working to strengthen community support for local farms. Its Sustainable Agriculture Initiative connects farmers to the community, said Executive Director Jamee Haley.

"We've seen a great increase in the demand for local and sustainable food in our area," Haley said. "A wonderful example of that is that two years ago we had no CSA (community supported agriculture) programs in this area, and now we have over 1,700 people participating in CSAs, with more than five farms participating, as well as local meat producers that have started CSAs and seafood producers that have started CSAs."

Food education is critical, Haley said. The more people know about the importance of sustainable agriculture and local economies, the easier it will be to ensure they flourish.

The conversation

DeFelice said he is a Terra Madre enthusiast, but not a revolutionary.

"I don't want to overturn the agriculture business," he said.

He only wants to see an alternative system develop and mature in parallel with it. "A safe and secure food system is like a honeycomb: there is room for all sizes. I don't want everyone to raise pigs like me."

Diversity in the marketplace is the key, he said. Large producers can coexist with small growers. What's still needed is popular advocacy, he said. Everyone has an opinion about health care or education, "but somehow agriculture got a free pass." It's not very exciting to think about vegetables.

But attitudes are changing.

"Now, thanks to Michael Pollan and other writers like him, the American public is now a member of the conversation," DeFelice said. "It's a total miracle."

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or aparker@postandcourier.com.