Most sensible people know that fast food - at least in its standardised, American incarnation - is something to be resisted at all costs. But the juggernaut of global agribusiness has an irresistible momentum. How can it be halted - or at least diverted from its course? One problem is that those naturally opposed to fast food and its concomitants (such as the rise of supermarkets and the spread of GM food) have little natural unity or focus. Parents may dislike McDonald's, shopkeepers may hate supermarkets and Daily Mail readers may worry about "Frankenstein foods", but without a coherent cause to mobilise behind, such people are unlikely to join forces. Thanks, however, to the emergence of Slow Food, an Italian-based movement dedicated to resisting the global scourge of fast food, they now have the opportunity to do so.
Slow Food's name makes it sound more like an avant-garde joke than a serious political movement, and this impression is not entirely rebuffed by its manifesto, which speaks forebodingly of "the insignia of industrial civilisation" and the "universal folly of Fast Life". But Slow Food is clearly capable of galvanising a broad range of support. Since its formation in 1989, it has attracted 31,000 members in Italy and 76,000 worldwide, including an impressive 10,000 in the US.
The movement's president, Carlo Petrini, has condensed its history into a short book. Entitled Slow Food: the case for taste (Columbia University Press), this charts the organisation's growth from a network of social clubs in the Piedmontese town of Bra to an international movement capable of taking on multinational companies such as McDonald's and Pizza Hut. As Petrini describes it, Slow Food's method is to combat each strand of the fast-food imposition with a countervailing strategy: "If fast food means uniformity, Slow Food sets out to save and resuscitate individual gastronomic legacies; if haste threatens the enjoyment of tranquil sensory pleasure, slowness is an antidote to hurry and the gulping down of nourishment." By such means, Petrini suggests, the movement will acquire the momentum to impede the progress of global agribusiness.
What distinguishes Slow Food's philosophy from those of other, similar movements is its insistence upon the importance of taste. In Britain, people generally attack the standardisation of food by focusing on the material harm that it causes - the deleterious effects on health, the damage to the environment, the threat to small producers, and so on. The bedrock of Slow Food's case against fast food, however, is aesthetic: it fears for the taste buds of a generation raised on hamburgers and pizzas. The movement's primary motivation, in other words, is hedonistic: it wants to prevent a set of traditional pleasures - those of the table - from being comprehensively destroyed.
This is indeed distinctive, for it is one of the few examples of a left-wing political movement embracing pleasure as a legitimate cause in its own right. In the past, as Petrini acknowledges, "people on the left, no matter how sophisticated and modern they might be, had an odd relationship to gastronomy". The case for pleasure, when it was made, usually came from the right. But by allying itself with the interests of global capitalism, the right has deprived itself of the chance to take a principled stand in favour of gastronomy. For the first time, the left is free to link a philosophy of hedonism with the desire to save the planet - which is precisely what Slow Food has done.
My concern for Slow Food is that its high-minded defence of gastronomy will ultimately hinder its chances of achieving genuine popular success. In a revealing moment, Petrini concedes that "fast food doesn't have to be disagreeable". After all, he says, there are several traditional snacks that are perfectly acceptable, including lampredotto (a type of tripe eaten in Florence); pani ca'meusa (a spleen sandwich from Palermo); and morzeddu (bread stuffed with stewed tripe, from Calabria). Well, just try offering one of those to your average McDonald's-obsessed teenager; I'm sure it will convert him to your cause.
This one reservation aside, Slow Food deserves its current success and has every chance of going on to greater things.