March 19th, 2012

Food Futures: A Poetic Essay

By Pramod Parajuli


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

That 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 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 chiltpine 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?

that are not only “deep” but also “delicious”


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Comments (1)

  1. Spaniard says:

    Nice blog! I´ve been reading for more than an hour!