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The Toronto Star

Hunting For The Seeds of Where It All Started

Slow Food Conference Gathers Royalty, Chefs and Heritage Food Farmers

Pamela Cuthbert

Colette Murphy with the pepper she'll bring to Canadian growers. ( PAMELA CUTHBERT PHOTO)

TURIN - Colette Murphy triumphantly holds up a long yellow pepper. The Toronto urban farmer may grow 180 varieties of vegetables, but there isn't a yellow pepper in the bunch.

"I can't find this in Canada," she says of the Italian vegetable. "There are only the regular bell peppers."

Murphy has come to Italy in search of new networks to supply her Toronto company, Urban Harvest.

"I've found loads of seeds," says Murphy, one of more than 150 Canadian delegates - chefs, farmers and small-scale producers - participating in a major food fair organized by the international Slow Food movement.

The 12-year-old Salone del Gusto, which translates as The Big Tasting Room, and its younger sidekick, Terra Madre, or Mother Earth, comprise the world's biggest event for food artisans.

The running theme over five days of intense tasting and talking is a fight against industrialized foods and globalized food systems, in keeping with the principles of the Slow Food movement that began here more than 20 years ago.

The cause might be marginal, and this eat-local organization has a mere 100,000 members worldwide.

But this biennial cornucopia and conference, which closes today, feels anything but small or slow.

The carnival attracts top culinary stars like renowned chefs Ferran Adrià, of Spain, and France's Paul Bocuse, even eco-agriculture promoter Prince Charles. But the real stars are the artisans across the parking lot in the conference centre called The Oval.

Some 7,000 of them are gathered at Terra Madre, a trade convention, to discuss issues such as climate change, world hunger and the debate over genetically modified foods.

Like bees to honey, these events attract the rare, the lost, the traditional foods as opposed to the manufactured, the modern and the industrialized.

Murphy says being a seed saver is much like being a private detective, since most seeds for food crops today are modern hybrids often sold through multinational giants like Monsanto.

She's on the hunt for seeds from what are known as heritage varieties, or the original versions, before they were hybridized and patented, and grown on a large scale.

Besides the yellow pepper, she collected seeds for white cardoon, a celery-like vegetable popular in Italy but little known in Canada, a red butter-crunch lettuce from California, a Turkish orange eggplant and an Italian white bean called conio de torro, much like cannellini, but with more flavour and "very creamy."

She will grow them in Toronto, see if they are adaptable to our climate, and collect the seeds to pass on to someone else. The point is to protect biodiversity.

Murphy has also travelled to hear Indian activist and seed-saver Vandana Shiva, the vice-president of Slow Food, who is known for working up a crowd, railing against corporate controllers and crying out on behalf of poor farmers in India - highlighting those who have in recent years committed suicide when their genetically modified crops failed.

Shiva did not disappoint at the conference's opening ceremony as she rallied supporters to join "a campaign against biopiracy" that she is planning to launch this winter.

"We are the future," she told the audience. "We can make it happen."

Back at the Salone del Gusto, amid the crowds and banquet of exceptional foods, Shiva's words echoed in the halls.

"I think she's right," says Murphy. "Just look around."

Pamela Cuthbert is a freelance writer and co-founder of Slow Food Toronto.

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