Food Futures: A Poetic Essay

By Pramod Parajuli, Ph.D.
Prescott College

The problems we are facing are linked.
It is not a set of problems.
It is a system of problems.
Now it is time to look at the system of solutions.
– Janine Benyus, Nobel Laureate Symposium, 2011.

A Wake Up Call and a Perfect Storm!

Eleven years of the 21st century, 2001–2011,
rank among the thirteen warmest
in the 132-year period of record keeping.
Thickest part of perennial Arctic ice cap
is melting faster than newer ice.

Has the great “disruption” begun?
as the earth begins to shiver and become feverish
due to our oil-drunk civilization
gulping a billion years of ancient sunlight in a few decades
Amory Lovins calls the ancient deposits the “primal swamp goo”
We have almost eaten them, or burnt them
fast and furious
Causing global warming
Permafrost melting
Oceans swelling
Soils running dry
Rivers surging in floods

Scientists warn, if the carbon dioxide levels reach
500 parts per million,
the average temperature on the planet
will become excessive,
leading to catastrophic consequences.

Can we contain it at 350 parts per million level?
Al Gore and Bill McKibbens are trying
Indeed, fossil fuels, coal, petroleum and gas
Powered the techno-industrial edifice
for the last 150 years

The United States of America currently spends
one-sixth of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on oil.
About $6 billion a day, $2 billion in purchasing oil
and $4 billion in making sure the supply is undisrupted.
This includes the financing of the oil wars,
environmental, and other externalities.

“End of fossil-fuel era” has been announced for a while
But oil-addiction remains deep
in our psyche
as well as in our guts
Fossil fuel supply might still last
But can we end it through the demand side?
Shall we? Could we?

Those who have been growing food
using the current sunlight
Wonder about the future of the earth
of themselves, and the food
The time has come to think
deeply, and boldly
No denial will help
We are running out of excuses
We might have 10-20 years left
to change the course
to cool the earth
Or maybe we are already in it
the “great disruption”

The trickster in the image of Zapatismo
Riding his horse in the Mexican pueblos
Emerging in the day of the dead
hiding in caves in the days of living
living in pueblos, and ejidos,
and among the Raramuris, the Seris, and the Pimas,
the Opatas, and the Oaxacans,
the Mayans, the Navajos, and the Hopis

Finally, in 2012, the Mexican government
did not permit more experimental plots for Monsanto’s GMO
seeds and crops in its fields.
Recently, China has postponed
its enthusiasm for GM crops as well.

The dhoti-clad figure of Mahatma Gandhi
erupting in India in the days of fasting
Weekends, Sabbath, and resting times
fiestas times, and siesta times
Gandhi’s hut was a miracle
of social engineering
in its simplicity
He did his padayatras (foot-marches)
in the Indian countryside
His clumsy spinning wheel whisked
the British empire out of India

Will claiming local and heritage seeds
do the same magic against the corporate giants today?
Occupy food, Occupy seeds!
Occupy land, Occupy water!
Occupy air, Occupy the Commons!

Vandana Shiva of Navadanya (nine seeds)
and peasant women of the Himalayas
Are saving seeds and biocultural patrimony
An ancient forest, a river
and a soil-based civilization
Are showing the way
of an agri-centric, forest-centric civilization

Where the forest is not measured
as a cubic foot of timber
By containing water, providing oxygen
and retaining soil
Forests have nurtured humans
and humans have nurtured forests

They say in the Andes and the Amazonas
Criar y Criar
This is a culture of mutual reciprocity
not of monetary exchanges
Where wild herbs and non-timber forest products
are the lifeline for forest dwellers
Forests attract rain as well as pollinators
Forests restore watersheds as well as foodsheds

Deeper than deep ecology
Much more robust than political ecology
Way richer than natural capitalism, or nature’s economy
ecosystems services or trade in carbon emissions
Healthy forest and farms do not emit carbon
they sequester carbon in the soil
It is an organic part of the cycle

Scientists say soil organic material is about 60 percent carbon.
Soil holds more than three times as much carbon
as the amount found in aboveground vegetation
or in the atmosphere.
If the bank of carbon held in the world’s soils
were to drop by just 0.3 percent,
the release would equal a year’s worth of fossil fuel emissions.

Soil, the mother of all
Pay attention to carbon sequestration
Soils still hold the secret of our future
Will they absorb the effluents of our affluents?
Or punish us for our “hit-and-run” economy
Which overgrew its host, the mother earth
The accelerated velocity of global trade
The volume of goods
Overran the regenerative time of nature
Will soil be the testimony
to the decline of past civilizations?
Or set us for the triumph of a new civilization?

The ancient forest dwellers embodied this knowledge
by keeping hedgerows and woodlots
Shamans, woodsmen, and sages built the bridge
Between the wild and the domestic
Between the farm and the forest
As if Henry David Thoreau (the bachelor of nature) and
Wendell Berry (the homesteader, householder)
are in the same continuum

New economy of place-based foods
Not in having more but in having less
having more in less
Acting like a tree in an ecosystem
Giving more than taking from its habitat

In places, not in spaces
In homes, not in houses
In horizons, not in frontiers
In huts, not in palaces
In milpas, not in factory farms
In ejidos, not in private plots
In wagas, customary laws in the Gamo Highlands of Ethiopia
In Pani Panchayats, Water Councils of India
In human and animal labor
not in tractors, and farm machineries
In chacras, the cultivated fields of the Andes
and the Amazonas

Not the bottled waters from water companies
Wrapped up in plastic, hauled away thousands of miles
This water is from nowhere, disconnected, disembodied
It has a price-tag, yet remains nameless, placeless

In mohis, the butter milk from cows and buffaloes
not in Coca-Cola
In Tesguino, fermented corn drink of the Raramuris in Mexico
In safe drinking water from running streams and aquifers
Waterways that sing and dance
with the surrounding rocks and vegetations

They are energy systems in motion
not tamed for cemented irrigation canals
Alive, breathing, and animate
Like humans, waterways too, need to be recognized, appeased
and embraced in a “kin-centric” relationship

As there are celebratory days for a plant in bloom
Or crops in harvests
Onondagas dance for full 5 days
during the planting and harvesting of the three sisters
corn, beans and squash

Gustavo Esteva from Oaxaca, Mexico
makes a distinction between
Comida and alimentos (edible goods)
Comida is about cooking, eating, caring for, and belonging.
Alimentarse, in contrast, is to purchase and consume
alimentos designed by professional or experts
while being produced and distributed
through market institutions.

“How is it that food may travel 200 miles or 20,000 miles
but comida never moves out of the very place it was born?”
asks, Gustavo.

A comida culture thrives in hospitality and sharing
Like how peasant women may engage in impostura
sharing of every meal they cook
There is no contract or calculation of advantage or loss
“You send me your comida and I will send mine.”
It is about the sociality, affection, and mutuality

My mother who lived her full life as a peasant
in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal
sharing food was about doing the right thing
her dharma
Her purpose in life was to be hospitable to her
guests (pahunas) and relatives (istamitras)
She fulfilled her wishes
by creating abundance in nature around her
In the Himalayas, Sierra Madres of Mexico
or the Andes
Such reservoir of memory
has given birth
to the idea of “food sovereignty”
We used to be food sovereign
Could we be sovereign again?
Not only “food security,” “right to food,” or
“freedom from hunger” but “food sovereignty”
How could we be empowered to decide
Not only one piece in the “Assembly Line” of food
But all the way from “Soil” to “Supper”
And back to “Soil”
What to eat?
Where is it grown?
How is it grown?
How is the food prepared?
Who prepared the food?
Using what tools?
For what purpose?

The peasant and farmers assembly at Nyelini
declared six guiding principles of food sovereignty in 2007:

It focused on food for people in places and cultures.
It valued food growers and providers.
It argued for localized food systems.
It put control of food locally.
where producers and consumers could be “prosumers”
A sovereign foodsystem builds knowledge and skills, and
It works with nature, not against it.

From a “system of problems,” to a “system of solutions”
“Solving for patterns,” not symptoms
A new food economy is emerging
in various places, scopes, scales, and sizes

You name it
agroecology, and ecological agriculture
biodynamic agriculture and bio-char
Terra Preta do Indio and Terra Mulata
The black soils made by the Indians in the Amazon
Agroforestry and perennial polyculture
food-forests and permaculture
in-farm biodiversity and working landscapes
vertical gardening and horizontal gardening
homesteads, foodsheds and watersheds
bioregional foods and bioregional tastes
edible schoolyards and edible landscapes
edible cities, edible trails, and edible rooftops
soil to supper and farm to kitchen
farm to table and farm to school

Innovations are sprouting
Far and wide
Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm
“Grass-fed” this and “Rain-fed” that
Chiltepin preserve in the Sonora desert
Parque de la papa
The Potato Park in the Andean highlands
In-situ conservation of native crops
Not only the fenced parks, sanctuaries
and biodiversity “hot-spots”
But working landscapes
Bio-diversity “hot-spots”
Do not have to erase cultural “hot-spots”
They thrive together in
Living laboratories of peasants and ecological ethnicities

A 2008 United Nations Report claims that
“Organically grown and sustainable food
can feed the seven billion people
and more in perpetuity”
while keeping the soil, water, and forests healthier
enhancing bio-cultural diversity and resiliency
offering people livelihoods
that are fair and just
in gardens, farms, and ranches
watersheds, farmsheds and energysheds

Where the “taste of food” meets the “taste of place”
“terroir,” a French word
sipping the unique qualities of the local lands in wines
top soils, minerals, moistures, and raindrops
pollinators and beneficial insects
the microbes, and the biomes

Not only in grape-vines and wines
Terroir, applies to all food families
crops, grains, fruits, vegetables, tubers, and meats
seafood’s and land-based foods

Biocultural patrimony and diversity is nurtured
In the fences of forest and farms
not in manicured lawns
in edible gardens growing food
Heather Flores tells us
“Grow food, not ornamental plants or lawns”

Perhaps a bioregional breakfast
of mesquite pancakes and agave syrup
in the Sonoran desert
with chiltpin on the side
daal (lentils), bhaat (rice) and mohi (buttemilk)
in the Himalayas

Food is not just calculation of matter and energy
Or the number of calories
as the “chemical-food-nutrition complex”
wants us to believe
“Eat food, not food-like substances,” advises Michael Pollan
Food is about the marrying of culture and nature
Food carries the local labor of love
cross-pollinating with the local flavors
of the flora and fauna

Cooling The Earth while Eating

“We are not eating food; food is eating us”
Laments Carlo Petrini, the founder of
SlowFood, and the Gastronomic University in Italy.

“By eating, all of us participate in inter-species communion”
says, ethno-ecologist, Gary Nabhan, and the founder of
Recovering America’s Food Traditions (RAFT).

“Rights of communities to food, seeds, water, forests, and biomass
are the foundations of earth democracy”
claims, Vandana Shiva, founder of Navadanya University in the Himalayas.

“Delicious revolutions are in the making”
proclaims, Alice Waters, of the Chez Panisse fame
from Berkeley, California.

“As distance in food increases, we loose connection, knowledge, and responsibility.”
alerts Wendell Berry, the poet-farmer from Port Royal, Kentucky.

Away from the global marketplace
How could we
re-embed food in agriculture?
bring food to re-root in the cultures of habitats?
in farms, forests, waterways, and oceans?
not in flooded reservoirs
or lands forcibly left vacant
by ecological and conservation refugees

In places, and not in spaces
because place is a site of identity
Bounded, embedded with
Character and a history of belonging
Space, on the other hand, is dead
it is abstract and is the realm of
boundless extension of the techno-industrial grid

Frozen food and ready-made dinners on the TV screen
If I am what I eat
“I am cheap, fast, fatty, salty, sugary”
“I do not care where my food comes from”
proclaims a bumper-sticker, in front of a MacDonald’s
We have reached a global food disorder
and an eating disorder
between “overstuffed” and “starved”
While one-third of humanity is hungry
deprived of food
malnourished, famished
while the other one-third is overfed
malfed, obese, or overweight

For the last 200,000 plus years
humans have co-evolved with nature
by eating some
85,000 varieties of plants and tubers
fruits, insects, and animals
as food and medicine
for subsistence and surplus
for energy and stamina
for production and reproduction

With no hospitals and doctors
food was indeed the medicine
Who created some 3,700 varieties of potatoes in the Andes?
Who nurtured some 50,000 varieties of rice in South Asia?
Culinary traditions around rice evolved
Celebrating the beginning and ending of seasons
full-moons and half-moons
In different geographic regions
Lowlands, uplands, lakes and swamps
People grew and prepared rice in abundance
Words and images emerged to describe
the tastes, qualities, and quantities of paddy types

“As there is biosphere, there is also ethnosphere
—the sum of human cognition, knowledge, worldviews,
languages and meaning they attach to their habitat”
says, Wade Davis

A repertoire of biological, cultural, and the linguistic
enriched our ancestor’s sense of
becoming and belonging

Recovering food traditions, regenerating culture and nature
have become the matter of human spirit
encoded in our DNA memory
Plants as our witness
Soils as our witness
Waters as our witness
Words as our witness
Arts, and crafts as our witness

Food, farms, gardens, and kitchens
are haunting people’s imaginations and designs
as a gateway to more satisfying
lifeways, waterways, and energy-ways

Not only healthy foods
Could all also eat bio-culturally savoring foods?
By changing the ways we grow and eat food
Could deeper transformations follow?
which are not only “deep” but also “delicious”

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