Project Solanum

Last updated / 05.06.2024
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Published by / User / 05.02.2024
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Hiwot

Hiwot is the main protagonist in the movie. As a crop scientist, she is trying to do nothing less than prevent the threat of world hunger. Hiwot will be at the center of the story, which is why we have developed a detailed backstory for her. What stages of Hiwot’s life are still missing to make her tangible as a human being? And which side of the Resolution 19 debate do you think you would be on? Let us know and become part of Project Solanum!

Also interesting: Rosalind Franklin

My name is Hiwot. I was born on 28.7.2033 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Today I am 31 years old. My name means “life” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. My mother Manisha (a Sanskrit name meaning “wisdom” or “desire”) and my father Gaudens usually called me simply “Hiwi”. I spent the first years of my life entirely in my mother’s sling. My parents didn’t live together back then and my mother didn’t think about stopping working. So she simply took me everywhere with her. No wonder, I didn’t learn to walk until I was almost two years old.

My mother worked for the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, EDI for short, in the 2030s. She traveled a lot for the institute. On the one hand, she visited the farms in the country with which she and the institute worked, on the other hand, she presented her work on GMO-free and climate-adapted grain varieties at congresses all over the world and fought on a united front with other initiatives, such as the Indian Navdanya (“Nine Seeds”) founded by Vandana Shiva. They fought against the rhetoric of the multinational seed companies who argued that only their patented high-yield varieties could guarantee food security.

When my mother presented the work of the FDHA at an edition of the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, she met Gaudens, my father. As a Rhaeto-Romanic, he was already a dying breed, but as a polyglot at a time when dozens of languages were disappearing every year, he sometimes seemed like a dinosaur, my mother once told me. My father speaks well over twenty languages and was working as a translator for the World Biodiversity Forum at the time. My father is a loner, a student, a know-it-all. But, somehow, he really does know a lot of things better. There was a spark between them, as there is between people, and soon I was on my way. Without a wish, without planning. Just like that.

My father then made repeated efforts to find a job in Addis Ababa, but my mother didn’t really want him in her life, at least not in the classic form of a nuclear family. My mother could never fool my father. No matter how hard she tried to portray her background, her culture or her work as unique, special or a priority, my father saw right through it. In the end, he accepted that my mother preferred a long-distance relationship. I therefore had a long relationship with my father on screen. I learned Latin and ancient Greek from him and he sent me videos of his travels around the world, which he undertook as a translator for the UN.

Everything changed with YD. Probably every person on earth has his or her story about YD. Mine goes like this: It was 2043, I was ten years old. At the height of the millennium drought, support for the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute collapsed completely. My mother tried for almost two years to keep the work going and save her legacy, but the water shortages, the gigantic migration flows and not least the entry of the ALFA (“African Land for Africans”) troops into Ethiopia and the associated fierce military response from China to protect their infrastructure projects, destroyed the last spark of hope that the smallholder, regional way of working in Ethiopia had a future. As a result, farmers switched to high-yield varieties from the multinationals and no longer produced for the local market, but for the stock exchange. The last bastion of independent agronomists in the world had fallen.

From one day to the next, my mother no longer had a job and life in Addis Ababa became dangerous. On my way to school, I almost fell victim to a skirmish between rebels and the military. Once, a rebel convoy put me on the back of a Range Rover “for my protection” and drove me through the whole city twice until they put me back outside the front door in the evening. I was 13, my father had wanted to bring us to Switzerland for a long time and I wanted to join him. Finally, proper schooling again, reliable electricity and internet access, meeting up with boys; but my mother remained stubborn. At some point, I started to pretend to my mother that I no longer dared to go outside. I stayed in bed, pretended to have trembling hands and slurred words in ancient Greek. I still don’t know whether my mother bought the act or whether my desperation was the deciding factor. In any case, she let herself be persuaded to leave Ethiopia behind.

My father quickly found us an apartment in Zurich - back then, you could just about make it in the city. I started school and suddenly found myself in a completely normal Swiss life. That was wonderful for me. I quickly made friends and enjoyed the structured and tidy life in the city. While I spent a lot of time outdoors in Ethiopia, meeting up with boys to make out and fumble around and occasionally smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol, in Zurich I discovered my father’s life: languages, classical music, antiquity. I soaked it all up. My ambition at school was awakened and I began to compete with my classmates wherever I could. My thirst for knowledge and my ambition did not go undiscovered, which is why I was recommended for a higher secondary school, which ultimately enabled me to get one of the rare places for non-Swiss students at ETH. I was and am not Swiss on paper; after all, my parents had never married and the stamp was not important enough for the rigorous procedure.

My mother did not make the same transition as I did. She never managed to accept that her life’s work in Ethiopia had come to an end. Instead of finding a connection in Zurich, she tried to run things from here in Addis Ababa - a hopeless endeavor. She spent most of her time at home in our apartment. The food in Switzerland didn’t suit her. She was used to getting much of her food locally or producing it herself, but in Switzerland in the 2040s, many foods were already supplemented with synthetic elements and sold exclusively in portions. She lost weight and could no longer sleep. My relationship with my father also deteriorated. I had hoped that in Switzerland they would finally be able to build the relationship I had always hoped for. That wasn’t the case. Today I know that my mother slipped into a severe depression at the time. For a long time I thought she wasn’t making any effort, that she wasn’t open enough. The loss of her home and her job simply weighed too heavily. My father did what he could, but in the end he didn’t feel responsible for my mother’s fate either. At the time, he had accepted that my mother preferred a long-distance relationship and I suspected that now that his daughter had finally become a part of his life, he didn’t want to devote himself to my mother instead. A very bad prerequisite for a romantic rediscovery of their relationship.

In 2050, when I was 17 years old, there was only one topic at school: Resolution 19. The UN General Assembly had been debating the introduction of global regulation of seeds, grain production and primary calories for two and a half years. The 19-point plan was intended not only to determine which seeds could be planted, but also to ban the use of grain for raising livestock as secondary calories. Numerous movements took to the streets against this: those who saw it as a compulsion for a vegan diet, those who wanted to prevent the ban on organic food production in favor of high-yield, those who saw the adoption of the UN resolution as a threat to Swiss neutrality. My class was divided. Half supported the resolution, the other half was against it. My friend at the time - he was a few years older than me and looked like James Dean with his jeans, white T-shirt and (vegan) leather jacket - decided to throw stones and asked me to join in. But I didn’t share his opinion. I had experienced first-hand what a civil war looked like and I would never opt for confrontation. The UN resolution made sense to me anyway, and in addition to regulations, laws and bans, it also included a range of support services: for research, for education and for the establishment of the Hub Initiative: a global network of research centers for the conservation and further development of the most important crops. I saw my future in crop science and felt like I was the right person, at the right time, in the right place.

Initially, my James Dean friend and I could see past our different positions, so much did we crave each other. But we both knew that we had no future. We saw the world too differently. I remember one terribly hot night of lovemaking in midsummer - soon the residents began to leave the hot cities - when we did it so often that we ran out of precious condoms. As if we knew we had to have sex in stock. He because he went to prison soon afterwards and I because I didn’t have time for men’s stories later on at ETH. Today, he sends me an MSNGR request every now and then, but I don’t reply. After all, James Dean was only 24.

My father was happy for me to take up the place at ETH that was offered to me. If he could have wished, I would have gone into the humanities, but I didn’t see a future there. To my surprise, my mother was very relaxed about me joining ETH. She didn’t take part in the protests against Resolution 19 either, but of course the latest developments didn’t match her ideology at all. I had actually expected her to vehemently oppose the strengthening of high-yield varieties and the further technologization of agronomy. But instead she displayed a strange indifference. After all, she had overcome her depression and left the house again, but now she spent most of her time in the great outdoors. Mind you, it was the 2050s and the ozone layer was already almost non-existent. Due to the change in spectral composition, chromosynthesis had begun, the shift in the plant world away from chlorophyll to carotenoids and thus from the familiar green to an eerie red. The world was not prepared for this. Cults took advantage of the change, there were mass suicides, a doomsday mood prevailed. Hardly anyone was happy about this change - not my mother.

She interpreted this change as a demonstration of nature. A sabre rattling, you could say. As if nature was giving us a sign: your hubris will be your undoing. In her eyes, it showed how powerful nature was and how small we humans were. And she could come to terms with that. She decided to completely abandon store-bought food, synthetic calories and food supplements and instead live off the land again. Farmland at that time was about to be nationalized and was weighed in gold, but she got my father to buy her a few dozen square meters and farmed them. She regularly brought me fresh herbs, tubers and beans to the ETH, much to the amazement of my fellow students. She wanted to teach me the supposed secrets of the soil, but I was in the middle of my studies at ETH and no longer had time for her esotericism.

At the end of the 2050s, we all realized that life had changed fundamentally. The cities became deserted and those who could afford it moved to the mountains, where the climate was more pleasant. Private life shifted from day to night as exposure to the sun became increasingly unbearable and hazardous to health. The melted glaciers created space for new settlements. YD also triggered large movements of people in Europe. Initially, it was thought that the migrations would soon come to an end and people would settle down again. But ten years later, the wildly scattered migrants became an organized and culturally united group that continued to stubbornly defy the authorities. Resolution 19 had not brought the success they had hoped for either, and so we were inexorably approaching the day when the first crop would be irrevocably extinct.

In 2057, after completing my studies at ETH and obtaining my doctorate, AGROGON, the Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, offered me a job. A year earlier, the institute had been partially privatized under pressure from politicians. They hoped to get more funding. I was initially assigned to a test field in the Upper Engadine. We carried out jobs for the hubs, but also for the private sector. We grew potatoes, corn, beans, onions and a few types of fruit. The job in the Engadin closed two circles: my Rhaeto-Romanic father couldn’t have been prouder that I was working in his homeland. And in the end, I found myself doing the same job that my mother had done almost 30 years before me - just without the baby in the sling. But it wasn’t just the missing baby that made the difference. Instead of working in the fields like my mother, teaching at the UN General Assembly or talking to agronomists, I was growing delicate little plants in a clinical environment so that they could be genetically manipulated, phytophotically incubated and raised in a greenhouse. My mother would probably have lost it, my daily work routine was so technologized. But I never had the opportunity to show her my workplace. She died shortly after I started work. Despite the high radiation exposure, my mother spent every free minute in nature for years until she succumbed to breast cancer.

The work in the Upper Engadine was strict, monotonous and lacked innovation, but at least we were treated like rock stars by society. After all, back then we were still considered the great hope for the preservation of natural nutrition. When we treated ourselves to a beer and a game of pool on the estate, we rarely had to pay. Those first years at AGROGON were pretty wild. A little revival of my time at grammar school, just without the street fights. Throughout the day, we toiled in the lab to fulfill our workloads while growing our own projects. Everyone had their personal favorite plants that they worked on in their free time, but whether it was potatoes or juniper, in the end it was always just about making some kind of booze from the harvest. Every now and then, a little bit of a hobby developed, but I never met a James Dean again. Although I appreciate the intellectual and differentiated debate with my colleagues, I already had one with my father.

Only one fleeting acquaintance left a deeper impression on me. At a New Year’s party, we celebrated a masked ball with a few other employees from the region. I drank too much and got into an argument with the cheeky bartender. A mysterious guest tried to calm me down and eventually pulled me away. He suggested we get some fresh air. Who knows, we might even see a shooting star, he said. A funny comment, as most shooting stars are falling satellites - a symbol of the decline of our progress. His strong arms, which helped me walk, made up for the slightly sour smell of sweat and once outside, I surprised myself by kissing him without being asked. The man returned my advances. I wished we had taken off our masks next, but instead I threw up in the bushes next to the bar.

AGROGON initially renewed my contract with a kiss on the hand and I was motivated to continue working to do my bit to preserve the crops. But with each year that passed, the demands grew and the resources diminished at the same time. Our mission became more and more economized and the influence of external players increased noticeably. Suddenly we were asked to concentrate exclusively on in-vitro, aeroponics and hydroponics and to abandon field trials altogether. The share of bioinformatics increased and manual work was suddenly considered obsolete. It suddenly seemed to me that I only had the gesture of my bionetic computer in my hand. My colleagues didn’t notice these developments in a negative way. Very few of them had ever experienced anything other than plasticized trees, virtual vacations and synthesized food. Suddenly, memories of home came flooding back to me. My hands searching for earthworms in the ochre-colored soil of a field. The pungency of a real onion. My mother’s flowery white netela made of real cotton. Sometimes, as I lay sleepless in bed, the smell of acid rain evaporating on the hot asphalt seeping in through the open window, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in Ethiopia and resume my mother’s work using the latest technology. But it was too late for that now.

Finally, in 2062, we were commissioned (or should I say forced) to make flowers for the 100th anniversary of the Eurovision Song Contest. The dainty flowering plants cost a fortune and wouldn’t last a day longer than the broadcast date, but for the biggest show of the year, no expense was too great for the organizers. No matter how inappropriate this distraction from my research seemed to me, the beauty of the flowers was breathtaking. But then it hit me like a bombshell: the flowers were blooming, but they no longer smelled.

Was my mother right? Have we alienated ourselves from nature? We have been shaping useful plants according to our ideas and wishes for so long that they are no longer recognizable. No wonder they are perishing. Nevertheless, the synthesization, digitalization, technologization and objectification of nature will lead us to a solution. We may no longer speak the language of nature, but that does not mean we will perish as humanity. Chromosynthesis took science by surprise and still defies a clear explanation. The fact is: we no longer live on a green planet, but on a red one. Hunger in the world is still increasing and expectations that the hubs will find a solution to the crop crisis are growing immeasurably. It is now high time for me to apply my unique skills where I can have the greatest impact. I therefore lobbied AGROGON to appoint me to the position of Crop Scientist for Project Solanum.