by Elisa Cristallo
Image: Aparna Arora
In 2045, a small biotech company had remarkable success with a new fertilising additive called AD.4.1. This additive replaced several more expensive components in synthetic fertiliser which halved the cost of manufacturing the product. Excited by the prospect of such significant savings, fertiliser producers worked hard to have AD.4.1 approved for use. Their lobbying was so effective that the additive was approved in the three largest fertiliser-producing countries without long-term safety trials.
Anecdotal evidence started as murmurs from generational farmers who saw their land crack in a way they swore was not normal. Small patches at first—a strange quirk to mention at the dinner table—but as the years passed, those patches grew to metres, then to hectares and then to entire farming communities. It was hard to pinpoint a reason for this change as AD.4.1 had not been widely publicised.
It was a team of graduate scientists, looking for a research project to make their careers, who identified the link between AD.4.1 and the damage to farming land. They published a paper titled The Future of Food: The Consequences of AD.4.1 Altered Farming Land, which found the additive was poisonous to soil. The paper suggested that land fertilised with AD.4.1 would be unable to produce crops at scale within twenty years. By the time The Future of Food was published, AD.4.1 was in use in almost every country in the world and if true, would mean food production would not be able to sustain even half the world’s population in two decades.
The study received little attention when it was first released and did nothing to help the graduates’ careers, as most of them faded into obscurity. And the findings were wrong, but not by much. The agricultural industry crashed in just fifteen years. At that point grain, meat and produce became unavailable on the open market. All over the world, food shortages resulted in starvation, disease and civil unrest.
At this point, The Future of Food became the religious text of the twenty-first century and it was translated and read all over the world. The greatest minds of the day pored over the study, looking for a solution to the real and horrifying problem—that the earth had stopped producing food. This period in history became known as The Last Famine.
Ally Navarro’s morning walk to the train station wasn’t pleasant. The lift hadn’t worked since 2076 so she had to walk down four flights of stairs and usually step over a rough sleeper or two just outside her security door.
Homelessness didn’t scare Ally. She had been homeless herself during a particularly cold winter when she’d been in high school, but people were starving, and starving people could do desperate things. Since Ally had been held up at gunpoint, she had learnt the art of creeping out of her apartment complex.
Outside, Ally dug her oxygen mask out of her handbag, fitted it to her face and turned it on. Immediately the smell of rot and squalor, the dense smoke and the hot, toxic air cleared to a cool, pleasant but somewhat sterile smell.
It was safer to avoid the main roads, so Ally took the side streets and cut through Albert Park to get to the train station. Technically, the outward appearance of her suburb hadn’t changed much, rather it had been left to decay. Ally hadn’t thought very highly of Ashfield as a child—she had longed to live in a fancy suburb with beautiful houses where people never spat on the footpath—but there were a few things about this place that she had loved. The frangipani trees that used to hang over the footpath and suddenly burst into flowers after the rain and the huge oak trees in the park that she’d thought were the biggest and oldest trees in the whole world.
All that was gone now.
Ally liked to think she’d noticed the frangipani trees sagging, struggling to produce those perfect, pristine buds long before scientists had confirmed the AD.4.1 poison had spread to urban areas. Some flora could survive if it was treated, so there were still a few pockets of Sydney where the Moreton Bay fig survived and streets still blossomed with jacarandas. But Ally’s local council was an EO or ‘Essentials Only’ so there were no services maintained outside the bare minimum and even those were never guaranteed. If you looked at her street, you would say sanitation services and rubbish collection weren’t essential.
On the train, most people buried their heads in a movie or game, but Ally forced herself to look out of the window. To see the dilapidated houses, the gutted cars and the thin, starving frames of people who had no work to go to and did not receive an employee’s ration of food. Every day, she forced herself to look at these scenes, forced herself to acknowledge them, so no one could ever say that she had looked away when others were suffering. No one could ever say that she didn’t see.
Ally got to her desk at the Official News Outlet, Sydney’s last remaining and government-owned media company, earlier than most. She knew she’d have about an hour to work on her projects until her workday started and, more importantly, she had two hours until breakfast.
In Sydney, food supply had been regulated by the Citizen Ration Program (CRP) since 2072, when it became illegal to purchase or sell food except through designated government stores. Each citizen was issued a CRP category that determined the level of access they had to food and it was based on their employment status. The more important the government deemed your job, the more food you got. That was one of the reasons the ONO was the last news outlet; the media didn’t rate highly in the scheme of things. As a journalist, Ally received the minimum ration for any working person—the Blue CRP—for which she was supposed to receive a morning meal of no less than two hundred and fifty calories and an afternoon meal of no less than six hundred and fifty calories. Ally wasn’t the only one who doubted her meals met the minimum, the standard was a bit of a joke to anyone who actually lived on the CRP.
‘Hey,’ Patrick Ng, Ally’s colleague and best friend, called in greeting. ‘Let’s go get breakfast.’
‘Jeez, is it nine already?’
‘It’s ten past, fatty. Come on.’
‘Is Jonathan in yet? I need to talk to him.’
‘When does he ever show up before breakfast?’
Ally and Patrick made their way downstairs and joined the canteen line.
‘Morning, Rochelle,’ Patrick said when they reached the counter. ‘I’ll get my coffee now too. Do you want yours, Ally?’
‘I thought we were going to start getting it later in the day so we’d have something to look forward to.’
‘I know,’ Patrick said guiltily, ‘but I can’t wait. Can you?’
‘No,’ Ally admitted.
They both had their IDs scanned and it automatically displayed the ration plate they should receive. The ID tag, a microchip implanted in their wrists, had caused controversy when it had first been introduced, but as their food ration was only provided once the ID tag was scanned, everyone had swallowed their pride and got it implanted. People learnt quickly that you couldn’t fight for privacy, human rights, or anything else you cared about if you starved to death.
Rochelle, the rations officer, dropped two plates carrying a hard-boiled egg and a slice of toast each, onto identical blue trays and added a cup of black coffee.
‘Oh, egg day!’ Ally exclaimed.
‘Duh. How did you forget egg day?’ Patrick asked.
They took their trays to their favourite seats by the window, where they could see glimpses of Sydney Harbour between the other high-rise buildings.
‘It’s this off-site interview I’m trying to arrange. I’ve been stressing over it all morning.’
‘Well, you know government advice for meal consumption. Push other thoughts from your mind and focus on taking small bites,’ Patrick said seriously while making an unserious face.
Ally laughed but neither of them were distracted from their plates.
‘Does this egg taste funny?’ Ally asked.
‘No,’ Patrick said determinedly, ‘fresher than fresh, I’m sure of it. So, is it a Blue Line interview you want to do?’ he asked.
Patrick laughed. ‘No chance! You know Jonathan doesn’t like to let his journalists out of the office.’
‘I’m aware.’ Ally smiled sarcastically. ‘But if I have to write one more article this week from government talking points, I’ll scream.’
‘Talking points are safe. Talking points won’t cause trouble.’
Ally rolled her eyes. Most of her colleagues, including Patrick, hadn’t left the CBD for a story in years, always staying safe in the secure, air-filtered offices and the above-ground walkways that connected them. Most of her colleagues even lived on air routes, where their apartment complex had a connecting walkway to a train station so they never actually had to step outside. But Ally couldn’t afford to live on an air route and she also couldn’t afford to miss this off-site interview because there was no way her source was going to meet her online.
Ally had been working on a story about Blue Line Transport and Security for almost a year. Blue Line was the company exclusively contracted by the government to carry out food transportation and rationing in New South Wales under the Food Protection Act. They had a complete monopoly of the industry, from the long-distance transportation of food from regional farms to the local deliveries of rationed meals Ally and Patrick were eating now.
Blue Line’s armoured black trucks were the most common sight on the streets of Sydney. Even though they were a private company, the Blue Line had powers greater than the police and could use deadly force against anyone they perceived as a threat to food security. A year ago, Ally had seen Blue Line officers shoot dead a group of teenagers in broad daylight on Pitt Street. Ally had been rushing around the corner, hoping to get back to the office before Jonathan realised she had left the building, when she walked into a scene exploding into violence. She’dbarely had time to take cover behind a garbage bin when the Blue Line guards had opened fire on the small, sad group of boys who couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old. Ally had watched as their skeletal bodies jerked and were ripped apart by the bullets before they fell to the ground.
When it was over and the boys had lain on the street bleeding, some still attempting to crawl away, the Blue Line trucks drove on to continue with their food delivery. It was the crunch of the boy’s bones as the trucks rolled over them that had made Ally’s insides churn. She’d vomited onto the street, but as there wasn’t much to come up, she’d dry-retched until her throat burned.
As Ally had sat there in shock and horror, she knew those security guards had done nothing illegal—this was the law. But that very day, she had begun her research into Blue Line Transport and Security, thinking to run a story on how they had amassed such power.
What she found was much worse, in this society, than shooting hungry teenagers. Blue Line was stealing food.
The accusation was so serious that Ally had not discussed it with anyone but Patrick. She’d told her boss that she had been looking into a story about Blue Line’s rise to power and he’d allowed her to dedicate a small amount of time to it but Jonathan, like everyone else, wasn’t interested in biting the hand that fed them. If Blue Line were to delay in their operations for even a few days, hundreds of people could die, thousands; that’s how close to starvation people were living.