That alarming sculptor, Time, and the Long Food Movement [by José Duarte Ribeiro]


Peasant woman, Alentejo, Portugal, circa 1950 Photo: Artur Pastor

Source: Twitter @RuralPortugal


Marguerite Yourcenar’s essay That mighty sculptor, Time grasps the ambivalence of time with a mastery only reserved to the very few that with a timeless contribution can mean much by saying less. Every meaningful act and movement require timelessness; a continuity to set in stone through the ages a human effort shaped message. That is the effort of a sculptor giving life to a statue, on the metaphor of Yourcenar, and the first phase of its life. Although time can be petrified, its silent motion, or the second phase of erosion “will bit by bit return to the state of unformed mineral mass out of which its sculptor had taken it” [1].


Yourcenar’s essay is influential because it successfully portrays both the heritage making capacity of time but also its side of eroding all that was ever created. When we think about our own times, human caused erosion over nature has reached levels that rivalry with time itself. The ways by which we speed up that erosion have come to define predominately the human-nature relation: to the point that the current Anthropocene is the first proposed geological epoch dating human impact on Earth’s ecosystems.


Technology allowed us to bend time at our own favour and human development has never been potentially higher but the negative consequences on what has been bended are now more destructive than ever before. We can make out of a rover landing on Mars a live social media event to millions of people around the globe (21.5 million people according to NASA’s Youtube channel) while COVID-19 added around 130 million people to the world’s hungry, estimated 690 million in 2019 [2]. I know these are not related and yet they are. It is all a matter of political agenda, resources allocation and which fundamental (or radical) changes take, or not, place.


The fastest historical changes in human history emerged from global scale historical disruptions which considerably threaten our existence, by war or global health risks. On the 14th century, early conceptions of public health emerged from the plague. The 1918 pandemic led to new concepts of preventive medicine as well as expanded access to healthcare for general population. The current pandemic saw a global technological effort which developed several vaccines in record time. Nonetheless, the political economy of production and access to vaccines has only worsened already existing geographies of inequality.


This is precisely one of the key premises of the International Panel for Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) report “A Long Food Movement: Transforming Food Systems by 2045”[3] which brings to public discussion two main scenarios for food systems. That key premise can be found on the first scenario “Agribusiness-as-usual” where the authors imagine unchanged power relations and a civil society capable of preventing the worst but not fundamentally changing the course. The current global scale historical disruptions have been showing that.


Most recent assessments to the threatening impacts on global food systems are directly related with, perhaps, our century’s greatest erosions: biodiversity loss and declining soil fertility. They are also linked to a “new wave of land, ocean, and resource grabs”[3] by powerful governments under the guise of flagship corporations or corporations which are often more powerful than states. If the pandemic brought more discussion into ethical consumerism and blossoming short supply chain, localized producer and consumer liaisons and cooperatives, accelerating already existing urban food policies or new patterns, regulations and support to urban agriculture, it also brought novel downsides to alternative and sustainable farming and food systems.


Proof of that is the fact that retailing giants that tremendously benefitted from national-wide quarantines and lockdowns are investing massively to control food supplies through digitalization of farming and engineering ecosystems through data control – which amid a pandemic and future health risks proves quite persuasive to policymakers, as IPES-Food reports. Furthermore, even when considering policy drivers and enablers of global debate on alternative food systems, we must not forget that their geographical origins are dominan