This poem was commissioned by the Ajuntament de Barcelona for the Closing Plenary of the 7th Milan Urban Food Policy Pact Forum, held in Barcelona on October 21st, 2021.
My main sources for the poem were, among others, Carolyn Steel’s book ‘Sitopia: How Food can Change the World’ and the Barcelona Sustainable Food Manual for Cities.
Chapter 1: the Garden of Eden If we took the whole of human History up until this very moment and compressed it into 24 hours, one day, we would have discovered agriculture at 11 pm. The industrial revolution would have taken place 1 minute ago, at 11:59 pm. Our mode of life is a historical anomaly. If the Biblical God condemned Adam and Eve to farming (<<by the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread>>), then was the garden of Eden the long era of hunter-gatherers?
Chapter 2: Parasites Ever wished for a world without insects, after an ant attack on your kitchen or that mosquito bite on your tiny toe? I have. Yet in a world without insects, us humans would die in months. The tiny monsters are the life-spreading pollinators, as well as a ubiquitous compost-making squad. Insects also feed the birds. 40% of bird species are in decline, tail-spinning into loss. Fish have existed for 480,000,000 years. Long before we came along. Yet in the last 40 years we have slashed marine populations in half. We are pushing the meteorite. And the meteorite is industrial agriculture. And I wish in exchange for cheap, unhealthy food we were just losing beauty, or companionship, or diversity, or meaning when we lose a species or two. The problem is when we started building our own decks of cards to gamble with, we forgot the cards were building a giant, complex house we stand in, yet not fully comprehend. Our house is a house of cards. Invisible threads binding all species together and us with all species. Every card we remove makes other cards follow suit. And, man, are we removing cards fast! 3 species every hour. Covid just another of… how many? sets of cards crumbling over our heads, because we keep disrupting a balance we don’t understand. We scream blindly yet we can’t speak the Earth’s language yet. My generation is wondering whether to have children at all. My teenage students are terrified about whether they’ll get to grow old. Will we ever learn, Mother, to listen to your rhythms; our lives beating too fast for us to hear your whisper? At the end of the human story, Hercules discovers he is still mortal. We are not Gods. We are not Gods. We omnivorous mammals. We don’t produce the food. The machines don’t produce the food. The Earth does. We have hijacked and twisted our own umbilical cord as if we weren’t connected to it. We still live in the Mother: the atmosphere we breathe from, layers of a womb protecting us. What big-headed parasite can claim to be separate from its victim and source of food?
Chapter 3: Fairies Supermarkets are effectively supplied every day by an army of magical fairies. All the farms in the world are like Old McDonald’s: with a moo-moo here and a cluck-cluck there Ee i ee i o! Yeah. I mean, why let the ugly side of food pro-duc-tion pro-cess-ing trans-por-ta-tion... get in the way of consumption? Ssssh. Let the consumer believe it is all done by fairies. Yes... Fairies grow your food and don’t need social security. The back kitchen our food comes from is not rurality any more — it’s poverty. The ‘fairies’ are not invited to the table they provided for. A living wage is too much freedom when the work being offered is only fit for a slave.
Chapter 4: “the Market Will Take Care of Itself” Recipe for maximum profit: - low cost ingredients from industrial farming, - long shelf life for convenience & long-distance transport - craving-inducing additives (make it addicktive) - evade responsibility (and taxes, where possible) - aggressive marketing! Thank you. We truly are a success. Global sales of ultraprocessed foods have risen 43.7% in the last 13 years. I see a bright future of insulin-dependent children against a backdrop of desertified land that used to be a monocrop. If you factored everything in, like the environment and stuff, the true cost of a burger would be $200. And we’re paying $0.10! Talk about a good deal, huh. Meanwhile, 1 in every 5 euros spent on the Spanish public health system is for treating food-related illnesses. I bet the taxpayers are delighted at having to pay to clear our mess.
Chapter 5: the Apology Letter Last month a twelve-year-old this tall, a student of mine, had to write an apology letter to a girl whose breakfast he had stolen for the third time. ‘Where’s your breakfast?’, I ask. He’s gone into the habit of eating his mid-morning snack way before the break. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the subsidized school canteen, he loots the bread. I call in his mum, she’s very punctual very composed until I bring up the food issue. She breaks down in tears of undeserved shame confesses even eggs are outside her price range mother and teenage son share a room: she is poor. And I wonder who should write an apology letter to whom.
Chapter 6: Common Ground In the playground, as a kid, when the rough boys kicked the heavy ball high I used to believe if I closed my eyes hard enough the ball would not hit me. But of course it did. It so painful to look at the facts with open eyes: how deep the global cut is bleeding, how bad the infection inside it can be; the future holding its breath but we must dare to see. Well-informed hope is not for the faint of heart. So here we are. May we be strong enough to face the facts, embrace the facts; may our eyes and hearts be open as they are hit. Here we are. At the end of the Barcelona Forum, 10 days away from Glasgow, here we are. Helping the wound crack to let the light shine. It’s always darkest before dawn. And that’s why there’s so much work to be done. Dear brave cities challenging the past to write a different future: in this room or online, together, we are standing over fertile common ground.