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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 dominantly embedded in path dependence inequalities, which means that they mostly take place in already privileged topographies of overconsumption over others of overproduction, where underconsumption, malnutrition and hunger also takes place. This is not the mighty, but the alarming sculptor of our times.

I do not write these words out of cynicism. All positive initiatives happening at the developed world are not directly to be blamed for lacking impact on other geographies. But then again, they are. When we look at the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit as the first world summit ever to embrace farm-to-fork issues we are also seeing numerous civil society organizations, voicing the summit’s “corporate takeover” by agribusiness[4].

Here we find the sword of Damocles over the scenario 2, “Civil society as Unusual” of the IPES-Food report. Despite incremental successes of agroecology, nature rights and food sovereignty’s operational narratives and agendas, governance structures must be transformed, and the transformation must be at the highest levels to reach all geographies of food. The report acknowledges so on Pathway 2, aiming at the fundamental need to review, reform and reconfigure the UN’s agri-food agencies. That is why, whenever fears of corporate takeover are voiced, boycotting and opted-out parallel discussions are, although a legitimate strategy, mostly sharpening the sword. James Scott’s art of not being governed lesson provides a powerful tool for state avoidance when state avoidance is needed to empower local and community level decision making, but does not apply when transnational governance structures (where major budget lines, subsidies and tax policies are designed) need to be reformed from within.

This remains and will remain more fundamental. Even at governance levels, such as the European Union, where perhaps there is more permeability to financially support agroecology and small-scale family farming than elsewhere, the ‘Farmers for the Future’[5] report was heavily criticized by civil society organizations for including on the 12 profiles of farming styles for the future, some that do not take in account climate crisis or are even associated with land-grabbing. Furthermore, the report refers to “the large majority of the 10 million family farms that exist in the EU” under the ‘adaptive’ and ‘patrimonial’ pejorative terms [6]. In Portugal, my home country, over 100 scholars (among which I include myself) from almost all domestic universities recently delivered at the parliament and ministry of agriculture an open letter calling for the Portuguese government to strategically use the financial package of the Common Agricultural Policy 2021-2027 under the premises of the ecological transition of Portuguese agriculture, sustainable agricultural practices and rural development as well as food sovereignty [7].

Civil society and social movements in their work to challenge agribusiness and striving to shift the current direction of our food systems must not forget that the adjective “Long” is what matters the most at the “Long Food Movement” project. Persistence and continuity from within are perhaps the ingredients to deal with time’s erosion at its own pace. Its passage is inevitable, but our interference is not, and that is after all agroecology’s utopia. Although time is not on favour of civil society and social movements, we all know that this utopia has already many topographies around the world.

José Duarte Ribeiro

PhD candidate, Middle East Technical University

Rivar Editor in Chief, Universidad Santiago de Chile

[1] Marguerite Yourcenar, That Mighty Sculptor, Time, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1992, p.57.

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