I am a teacher working in a small school in Sliema, Malta. Seven years ago I returned to my country of birth, having lived in London and Scotland for 21 years. Much as I loved teaching in both London and Scotland, it is good to be in a Maltese school once again. There are reverberations of my childhood days but also the childhood days of my mum, aunts and uncles who attended this school. Somehow, as I walk through the school corridors every day, I feel connected to the past.
Our school has an active eco-school committee. In 2015 we participated in the We Eat Responsibly EU funded project. Eco-Schools from 9 EU countries participated, each organising its own little projects, aimed at educating their school communities on the issues surrounding Responsible Eating.
Last October, I was one of the teachers from a selection of the 550 participating eco-schools across the EU, together with NGOs, academics and environmental activists, who descended on Prague for the Menu for Change Conference .
The conference kicked off with Aurèle Destrée, Head of the Food Security program at Glopolis, telling the story of a kolibřík (Czech for hummingbird) carrying water, drop by drop, in its beak to a forest fire. Nearby, other animals, like the elephant, which could carry so much more water, watched and said: “It’s useless, the fire is too big, you are too little, your beak is tiny, it’s only a drop, what do you think you are doing...”
To which the hummingbird replied: “I’m doing what I can.”
The conference struck many chords. One of the most memorable came from Su-ming Khoo, a Lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She introduced George Ritzer’s sociological concept of “the globalisation of nothing”. As the conference progressed, the unifying theme of ‘Connections’, identified by Aurèle Destrée, came slowly into focus.
A major theme of the We Eat Responsibly project explores the issues surrounding the use of palm oil. Huge swathes of rainforest, mainly in Indonesia, are being burned to make way for the non-indigenous palm tree in order to produce palm oil, which is found in 50% of all packaged materials. It is of no great nutritional value, but is used to make products last longer, so it is shipped all over many food miles to be used in shampoo, toothpaste, detergents, packaged foods... so that these can sit on supermarket shelves for years instead of months.
Is this worth sacrificing our planet for? Deforestation, forced eviction of indigenous rainforest tribes, climate change, soil erosion, loss of habitat for endangered species like the orang-utan, the pygmy elephant, the Sumatran tiger...? Is this what we want? This is the “globalisation of nothing” – the perfidious, perverse creation of a ‘need’ by big corporations, which has far too many catastrophic implications for it to even be contemplated, let alone be so widespread a practice.
Is it the case that we are not aware of this issue at all? As consumers, we have huge power, but only if we are informed and discerning. The power of a few hummingbirds is not enough, but imagine if we had a sky dense with hummingbirds, each carrying a few drops of water? Imagine if we could persuade the watching elephants to help us in our mission?
We live in a toxic world of misinformation, where the agendas hide vested interests of obscene greed and nihilistic egotism. It is difficult to zone out the noise, and separate truth from lies and distortions.
It is key that we educate our children - the future - to be global citizens. We need to equip them with the ability to evaluate the information that they are bombarded with. They need to ask questions like: Do different sources provide the same data? How reliable are these sources? What questions do we need to ask?
This conference brought home the importance of our education system valuing the skills of critical thinking and global citizenship. We have to create a system where our students are able to join the dots – from food producer to end product to consumer. Are our food systems working? Are our food producers treated fairly? Do we know their working conditions? Are they paid a living wage? What is the impact of our food production on our planet? Is it sustainable and equitable?
Many of us identify strongly with the story of the hummingbird as we live in our own little worlds, doing the best we can but maybe feeling that our best is not quite good enough.
If we joined forces, however, made spaces - like the Menu for Change Conference - for us to meet and share and connect, then maybe, just maybe, we will not only have a sky dense with hummingbirds, but a ground heaving with trumpeting elephants as we all moved towards the water.
Back at my school, I look at our students and I feel hopeful. The past, present and future - all intermingled.
This is a link to the We Eat Responsibly project website: