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December 1, 2010

Then I went to Rome. And, yes, I did many of the things that you’re meant to do in Rome. I queued up for hours to look at the Vatican museums and go inside St Peter’s. I wandered around and looked at fountains and old buildings. I loitered in piazze. I bought chic black Italian knitwear. I stayed in a scummy hostel near Termini station. I ate rather a lot of gelato.

And then I just snapped. I moved from the scummy hostel to a rather wonderful women-only hostel in funky Trastevere, which was a) hygienic and b) cheaper and had breakfast included, lots of exciting books to borrow (though this was easier if you spoke Italian), Georgia O’Keeffe prints on the walls, and an organic bar/café where the woman working there let me take some leaflets about women in agriculture (and one called the ‘A, B, C of Agriculture’ which may have been a comment on my Italian skills). The day I moved there it rained, solidly, all day. I darted around the cobbled streets in sodden ballet pumps, had lunch at a lovely restaurant, and found a café where I could linger over a pot of tea and avoid the weather. Having adapted well to the Italian custom of drinking about 4 espressi a day, it was no coincidence that the day I chose to revert to tea for the first time was the day it was pissing it down and I was feeling pensive. The hostel also had wifi and, by some weird turn of events, I had read about the Browne report for the first time and also received an email about an exciting project on food movements which I applied to do next year, although for various reasons this didn’t work out. I have options, I told myself. Options. I can take my language skills and social science degrees somewhere else. If I’d not gone to Italy, if I’d been at home when I heard, it would have been a completely different experience. It was depressing enough as it was.

I don’t believe that these things happen for a reason, but some of the narratives we concoct to make sense of the world are certainly more convincing than others.

So, I spent a lot of time engaged in reflection, martialling my experiences into some sort of coherent life-plan for the next few years. I won’t bore you with the details, but the biggest thing I took away from Terra Madre was that in terms of the technical knowledge necessary to build a more sustainable food system, we have had all the answers since the 1960s. (Well, longer, technically, but the food-as-counterculture movement emerged around then in opposition to the postwar industrial food system.) What I want to know is, why haven’t all the people who’ve known all the answers for years changed the world yet? What’s stopping them? How can social movements get food right this time around? Since getting home, my dissertation has started to take shape and I have a clearer idea of what I want to do with my MA. I also want to get more involved with TFP, who have some very exciting projects.

All of this means that I was less excited about the FAO conference on ‘Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets’ which was far more relevant to my previous, much more development-oriented life plan. Although it was interesting and did link nutrition with whole diets as well as just individual nutrients, contextualised in cultural and biological diversity, it was disappointing after Terra Madre. Admittedly, I had just randomly turned up for no reason and it was a conference intended to Get Things Done, but the process of getting said things done was rather slow and tedious, and not particularly inclusive. And I made a complete fool of myself in front of Tim Lang, and then got locked in the FAO and had to climb over a gate to get out. (I simply exude professionalism.)

Perhaps the most inspiring/terrifying part was the fact that the FAO building overlooks the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus. It was gloriously sunny, and the second day ended at lunchtime and I was meeting a friend from the summer school for lunch. I spent a fair bit of time gazing out of the window. It put me in mind of this quotation from The Subsistence Perspective (on my to-read list!), which I came across via Sharon Astyk:

I looked at the audience: all young people with worried faces. They had come on this Sunday morning to get some orientation from these famous speakers for their own future. But they only painted an apocalyptic picture gloom and hopelessness. The gist of their presentations was that there was no alternative, that we could do nothing. I could not tolerate this pessimism any longer and said, “Please, don’t forget where we are. We are in Trier, in the midst of the ruins of what once was one of the capitals of the Roman empire. An empire whose collapse people then thought would mean the end of the world. But the world did not come to an end with the end of Rome. The plough of my father, a peasant in the Eifel, used to hit the stones of the Roman road that connected Trier with Cologne. On this road where the Roman legions had marched, grass had gown, and now we grew our potatoes on that road.”

To compress several seminars from last year into one sentence, state power depends on the ability to control the food supply. The Roman Empire depended on grain (and other foods) grown elsewhere and shipped around Europe. They even had battery hens. While taking part (shyly) in a symposium that was taking baby steps towards a more holistic view of nutrition and a more sustainable agricultural system, I was looking out across the road at the ruins of the Roman empire. It didn’t last forever. Nothing lasts forever. A food system so unsustainable and unjust as ours cannot last forever. Change is terrifying. We don’t know what’s going to come next. ‘But the world did not come to an end with the end of Rome.’ And it won’t come to an end when the current food system collapses. We’ll find other things to do.

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