In 2050 there will be 9.7 billion people on earth. In order to feed them, the global food system will need to produce 70 per cent more calories than it currently does and must do so in a way that is equitable, nutritious, ecologically sustainable and carbon negative. Yet agriculture is already responsible for a third of total greenhouse gas emissions. How will this work?
Agriculture has always terraformed but it is not only landscapes and food that are produced. Crop rotation, annual harvests and cattle domestication gave the world writing, taxation and urban settlement but they also gave us a semiotics of agrarian simplicity and limitless nature that is the veil behind which geochemical meltdown is disguised.
Born from the tradition of farmer’s almanacs that reaches back as far as ancient Mesopotamia, Black Almanac embraces artificiality and the chemical-materialist potential of food as a locus for planetary transformation. Named for the fertile soil of the Nile River Delta, from which systematic agriculture and the words “alchemy” and “chemistry” descend, Black Almanac is a plan for 2050 that plots 31 fundamental steps – from infrastructure to institutions, one per growing season – to construct a viable food system by the autumn of that year.
By eating we translate the planet and the planet in turn translates us. Black Almanac’s goal is not merely the piecemeal replacement of outmoded tools, malfunctioning chemopolitics and a reactionary food culture. It is the production of a new earth.
2020 Philosophy I: Culinary Materialism
Cooking is planetary, even cosmic. It’s a read-write process which only humans engage in, at the root of which lies chemistry, a science singular for its reliance upon participation in synthesis and production. It’s possible the food preparation might offer a way for artists, thinkers and researchers confounded by limited options for political engagement with the environmental killswitch that is the anthropocene. Instead of simply knowing, observing or representing, the culinary world’s investment in the transformation of matter signifies a step beyond the epistemological into actual effects. Stating what should be obvious, artist-chemist Sean Raspet (see Overcoming Market Neophobia) writes in ArtAsiaPacific: “At the root of the gap between an artwork’s imagined and actual effects is, perhaps, a more general tendency to confuse artworks and cultural endeavors that are about something for being the thing itself.” We incorporate the world not only by recognizing its geochemical manifestation but also by eating it.
Food is 1 percent chemistry and 99 percent culture. It is the ritual ingestion of food that singles it out as a special category of matter with complementary habits and processes we define as gastronomic. From nature’s point of view, the same reactions, spillages, mixtures and combinations take place constantly at the level of matter, within and without what we may or may not consider food. How this plasticity is rendered, especially as it pertains to the usefulness of “waste,” is where culinary materialism steps in. Food has endo- and exo-relational qualities, that is to say, a life that is non-human. And yet much of the “normal” or “traditional” food products in the supermarket are reconstituted. In the long run, all fruit and vegetables have been processed: cultivated for pigment, shape, texture and transportability. Carrots are orange because the Dutch made them that way. All food aims to satisfy human expectations.
Culinary materialism rejects the naturalistic fallacy which draws an arbitrary distinction between “natural” and “artificial.” It also rejects the notion that humans cannot consciously engage with the means of industrial supply – an assumption soon exploded by the realization that the farming culture we believe ourselves to be attached to is no more than a composite hallucination with its roots as much in film and television as in existing agricultural practice. Vegetables grow in soil – this much is true. This is a miracle heaped upon so many in our tiny corner of the cosmos. But those same vegetables are tested for corruption, stored in refrigerated warehouses, shipped and stocked in depots near your home – or sold to restaurants where they are diced and grilled to taste. These are the strands of automation that explain why you are not a farmer. Why not simply count your blessings?
Solve et Coagula, the motto of medieval alchemists, is a recognition of the dissolution and recombination of matter that lies at the heart of (al)chemistry but is also the defining methodology of cooking. As Reza Negarestani and Robin Mackay note in their introduction to Collapse: VII (Urbanomic, 2011), a volume to which Black Almanac owes a substantial debt, culinary materialism represents a “de-rigidification” of thought, an application of the full chemical spectrum as a truth from which a new geophilosophy may be built. In place of the binaries of realist or idealist, synthesis and analysis, integration or difference on which western philosophy rests, it looks to the “compositions, mixtures, contaminations, decompositions, transitions of nature to culture, cultural fusions and transits” of cooking as a process of thinking as practice.
Do not be deceived: beneath the everyday art of growing, cooking and eating lies the potential for a new universalism, an expansive mathematico-chemical horizon that stretches well beyond the finite sentimentalism of bourgeois gastro-culture. There is no condition of pastoral innocence to which we can return. In fact, liberating food from the performance of an idealised past may require more alienation rather than less.
02 Agriculture is Terraforming
Agriculture has always terraformed but it is not only food and landscapes that are produced. For thousands of years, farmers have collected rain tables, seed cycles, and lunar charts in almanacs: portable databases of earth science and prediction modelling that standardized agricultural practice and became sites for speculation about man’s place within the cosmos.
Almanacs were, in a sense, the first attempt at a plan: proto-computational devices that encoded observation and practice into a systematic, artificial intelligence. When crop rotation, irrigation and domesticated cattle were adopted in Ancient China, the Indus Valley, Mesoamerica and Mesopotamia, they brought writing, taxation, urban settlement, and labor specialization with them, establishing dietary staples and farming models that remain in place today. In Sumeria, cereals were offered to the gods and stored in granaries outside the temple. When the gods didn’t eat, the people did, establishing a connection between ritual ingestion and societal complexity that persists at every kind of table.
We regulate our bodies, our lives, and the environment by eating. Grocery shopping, food preparation, and scheduled meal times represent a metabolic bureaucratism that we employ in the service of communal and self-administration. As a result, the transformation and ingestion of food is intrinsically linked with how we understand time (as well as how we regulate labour, social roles or simply who gets to be where when.) The structural intricacies of the bourgeois dining experience, itself a historical agglomeration of pseudo-aristocratic signalling fused with a fantasy of languid ruralism, has been interrupted by the chronological smoothie of an “always on, flexible and albiently present” globalised work culture.
It may be a stretch to say that eating is resistance – given the fact that so much earth-oriented consumerism and dietary practice is simply thinking the world of oneself in disguise – yet eating remains the primary means by which we seek to orient ourselves in time and space. So afraid are we of the void that lies behind these routines we have put the planet on our clock. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty describes precisely this hijacking of geological time, aligning planetary geophysics with the short-term cycles of intelligent apes. Integral to this process has been the cultivators, ploughs and crop dusters, centrifugal seeders and drones, multispectral satellites and other tech used to sense and shape the soil and oceans for food. And yet humans have spent 95 percent of their career on earth as hunter-gatherers, familiar with an encyclopedia of naturally occurring edible plants, mushrooms, and seeds. Who has the right to say we cannot live according to a different clock?
The textureless face and blade-like edges of corn and cattle fields are a portrait of our current relationship to food: outdated modes of production kept alive by zombie payments despite the protests of almost all stakeholders. If we lack the imagination to upend the present we cannot expect much from the future. Elon Musk’s 2017 keynote on Mars colonization revealed an orderly if predictable series of agricultural projections. Diets are protocols for transformation but they are also codes for the production of identity. What would it mean for our food futures to look less like the uninterrupted surfaces of Dragon’s cockpit and more like the messy but productive garden that is the condition of real eating, digestion, and biodiversity? What might this resemble?
There are already glimpses on earth. Chernozem, or “Black Earth,” is the most fertile soil on the planet. It can be found in southern Russia, on the Canadian Prairies, and the Amazon Basin where it is known as Terra Preta. Terra Preta is dense in mineral and microbial life. It is resilient and regenerative, and was anthropogenically formed when indigenous farmers threw bones, waste, and shattered pottery outside their homes and enhanced the dark soil with charcoal. Black soil, then, is artificial: a process of terra-formation that was managed, designed and beneficial to humans and the land. Is it a model for a different kind of chemical imaginary, one that is striated not smooth – productive and regenerative. It is essential because now another clock is now ticking.
03 Survey of Current Infrastructure
Fecon “Bull Hog” Mulching Tractor. A key instrument in land clearing, a “mulcher” or “masticator” is used to cut, grind and clear any kind of vegetation.
Ted Captive Bolt Stunner. Animals ranging from sheep and pigs to horses are “stunned” before slaughter using penetrating, non-penetrating and free bolt guns. Penetrating bolts are uncommon due to disease risks as brain parts enter the bloodstream.
Refrigerated Truck Isuzu. Freezing and refrigeration lies at the core of current production and preparation methods, and is the most energy intensive element of handling, processing, and transportation.
Micro Food Plots Cultipacker. A segmented, ridged roller designed to smooth the topsoil layer into a flat seedbed by breaking down clods, removing air pockets and pressing down stones.
Cargo Ship. Almost 60 percent of food is shipping by sea with road in second place on 30 percent and rail on 9 percent.
John Deere Agricultural Machinery: Combine Harvester. Named for the combination of reaping, threshing, and winnowing in one mechanical operation. No single tool has been more crucial advancing the scale and speed of grain agriculture.
Center Pivot Irrigation System. Electric motor-powered irrigation sprinklers pivot and spin on a 360 degree axis as an efficient means to grow crops. Often referred to as crop circles, they produce a circular anomalousness visible from space.
John Deere Sprayer. Ranging in size from portable guns to boom-mounted tractors and drones, sprayers are the means by which herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers are applied to agricultural crops.
Air Tractor AT-602. Cloud seeding is a process of weather modification which involves dispersing silver iodide, potassium iodide or solid carbon dioxide onto clouds to serve as condensation or ice nuclei and increase levels of precipitation. In January 2020, cloud seeding in the UAE led to flooding.
Helios gene gun. This device is able to transform almost any type of cell by firing particles of a heavy metal coated with a gene of interest.
04 Damage Counter
The processes by which we convert the biotic surface of the earth and make it edible are responsible for almost a third of total greenhouse gas emissions, 75 percent of all deforestation and the vast majority of biodiversity loss. Agriculture uses 70 percent of total freshwater withdrawals and has already degraded half the planet’s soil. At the same time, at least 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year and one in three people are malnourished. Three quarters of all birds alive as you read this are farmed poultry. The accumulation of chicken bones in landfill sites since 1950 is considered a large enough entry in the fossil record to signal the commencement of the anthropocene.