This article originally appeared on Stir to Action and is reprinted with permission.
With the announcement of the surprising and remarkable fact that the obese now outnumber the hungry — both are forms of malnourishment — we need to be looking deeper into our food system and the industry that has created a world that is stuffed and starved. In his recent books, Raj Patel looks at this open secret and the battle between an increasingly aggressive industry and the social movements who are responding to this assault by reclaiming food sovereignty for their communities.
STIR: You have just published the second edition of Stuffed and Starved, a worrying yet inspiring account of the battle for the world food system. Since the original publication, what new extremes has the food industry gone to and what advances have we seen from the social movements who are responding to this assault?
RAJ PATEL: Well, things have certainly got worse in terms of the people who are stuffed and starved. When the first book came out, the figures showed that around 800 million people were malnourished and one billion were overweight. Now, the number of people who are malnourished is around one billion and the number of people who are overweight is, by some calculations, nearly two billion. In the space of six years, more or less, the numbers have gone bonkers. That is a reflection of a number of things.
There is certainly an increase in power in the food system that has accumulated on a number of points. One of the new problems is the rising importance of biofuels — the idea that the way forward is to grow crops, not in order to eat them, but to set them on fire. This energy policy makes no sense in terms of carbon sequestration or sustainability. Sustainability has been confused with renewability: the corn comes out of the ground season after season and so it’s renewable. However, renewable isn’t the same thing as sustainable, and the difference between the two has allowed a few corporations in the U.S. to pass off their energy policies as environmentally friendly.
Basically, you have a situation in the United States where we are growing corn to turn it into ethanol. This has some serious ripple effects for global cereal prices and this, particularly in 2008 when prices were going through the roof, had some fairly dire consequences for the number of people going hungry. So, what is far more important now than when I was researching Stuffed and Starved the first time around is biofuels.
Also, the power of the finance industry has increased. It has been growing for a while, but we only really saw it during the financial crisis when food became a plaything in a global casino and financial entities were speculating on the price of food. They are now speculating on it far more than they ever did. This means that the price of food is far more volatile and, with far less predictability, it has become a problem for farmers and, indeed, for anyone who eats. This is something that people need to know much more about than we are currently discussing in terms of the food system. Most people do not associate banks as part of the problems in the food system. Normally we just think about supermarkets, or Nestle, or something else like that. We don’t think about how Goldman Sachs or Glencore are increasingly a problem when it comes to sustainability in the food system. I think we should pay better attention to them.
It has been exciting to see a range of organisations strike back — and that’s everything from a thousand farmers being recently arrested in India for protesting land grab (a new phenomenon, at least in its current incarnation, since Britain had been doing it with some enthusiasm in the 18th and 19th century). The phenomenon of taking land away from the people who are living on it and taking it as one’s own, this time using market mechanisms, is something that social movements are protesting against right now.
We are seeing a lot of really constructive ideas around the world, at the moment. In North America, for example, we have over 200 food policy councils. They are democratic spaces where people in municipalities can begin to fight hunger and obesity. We are seeing policies that range from soda taxes to restricting the freedom of corporations to market to children. We are not, sadly, seeing much when it comes to the financial side of the food system.
There is, though, much enthusiasm and interest in the food system amongst young people who, quite rightly, feel that political parties have betrayed them. They feel like doing something direct and substantive when it comes to the food system. So we are seeing a lot of organic and urban farming. There are lots of interesting ideas when it comes to redistributing food to people who are not able to afford it. There is everything from Guerilla Gardening to burning fields of genetically modified crops. All of these are advances and spearheaded by social movements. I think that these actions are having a real impact, and the fact that all of the GM companies are moving out of Europe is a direct result of the social movements in Europe.
Take the Flour Back Anti-GM Protest at Rothamsted. Photo used with permission.
S: A group in the UK called Take the Flour Back has called for stopping GM crops at Rothamsted. It is popular argument, often taken as fact, that without GM crops, we will not be able to feed the world. How would you respond to this argument?
RP: Where to start!? We produce more calories per person than any time in human history. Therefore, the people who argue that we need more calories seem not to understand the reasons why a billion people go hungry is not because of a shortage of calories, but because there is something wrong with the way we distribute those calories. If you are serious about feeding people, then the conversation really has to begin around distribution and entitlement, not around production. Now, that is the very easy answer.
That said, there will come a point in the future when population growth, if we keep things the way they are at the moment, will mean that there will not be enough food for everyone to eat well. But luckily, for better and worse, we cannot keep things the way they are at the moment: We won’t have the fossil fuels, the stable climate, and access to fresh water reserves that modern agriculture needs. Luckily, we can move away from that.
We have an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that agro-ecological farming systems will be able to feed the world in the future. The GM advocates are saying, “What about drought resistant and climate change-ready crops?” That seems to be nonsense! To have a crop that is climate change-ready is ludicrous because change is precisely change — it is so many different things. It could be new pests, rains coming at the wrong time; it could be too much rain, or too much heat. It is impossible to have a single crop that is ready for those possible changes. We’ve already seen the limits of that because Monsanto has a product called ‘Drought Guard’ — a genetically modified crop that performs no better than any conventional crop in resisting anything but a mild drought. The problem with this is that climate change isn’t about mild anything but extreme weather events. As we’ve learned from looking at the financial situation, the way to avoid extremities is not to put all of your eggs in one basket and have a broad spread of managed risk. This is why an agro-ecological system is much better than pinning your hopes on a single genetically modified crop. We are also seeing a lot more data from places like Cuba where there are these diversified farming systems that suggest that there are ways to produce more food for the future and be ready for what climate change will throw at us, that are much better than GM crops.
In short, I think the GM argument is specious on many levels: it ignores distribution, it misrepresents what GM can do, and it distorts the conversation towards a monoculture rather than a diversified polyculture that we need for the future.
S: The Zapatistas offer one of the most inspiring examples of food sovereignty to the international community. The formation of the autonomous zone in Chiapas was initiated on New Year’s Eve 1993 as Mexico’s political elite celebrated the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
This has not been the only response from Mexicans, as many, especially since the financial crisis, have returned to subsistence farming — withdrawing their crops from the major markets as part of a shift toward relocalising their economies — and some Mexicans have even been “wiring pesos north” to family members in places like California.
How confident are you about the chances of the country’s social movements in continuing to build an alternative form of globalisation to the neoliberal agenda we have seen implemented?
RP: That’s a great question, but I think it’s like the Zhou Enlai line on the French Revolution where he was asked, "What do you think of the French Revolution?" and he answered that it was "too soon to say." I think it’s the same for Mexico and the Zapatistas who have been fighting for 500 years — it would be premature to say, but it looks good so far. These movements are gathering their forces and, in electoral politics, there is a lot more hope around the possibility of progressive outcomes, but it is too soon to say. I have no doubt that indigenous groups, combined with their allies, are pushing for a transformative politics against a vociferous and much better armed state, market, and narco traffickers who are pushing back.
I do, though, have a great deal of faith in the tenacity of these groups to keep fighting for another 500 years if need be.
S: Is there nothing to say, though, of the fact that the Zapatistas were prepared for the economic attack that came when NAFTA was introduced in 1994?
RP: I do think this is very important and thanks for coming back to this. It is often thought that we — the middle class in the privileged West — have the perspective about how terrible trade agreements may be, but the documents on general trade and tariffs were translated into Punjabi in the early 1990s. These documents were being discussed by peasants in rural Punjab way before anybody knew that the World Trade Organisation would look like the way it does. Even way before the protesters in Seattle in 1999 understood what the WTO was, there were farmers in Punjab who understood what was coming their way.
So, I think the fact that the Zapatistas were prepared is indicative of an insurgent and incredibly well-informed politics amongst poor people’s organisations the world over. This fact is often denigrated and ignored by those who want to stand in solidarity with them. I think it is a reminder to everyone, including me, who want to do the right thing, that we should be listening to these movements before we take a position. Chances are that they are way ahead of our thinking!
S: In The Value of Nothing you reference Alan Greenspan’s (former head of the Federal Reserve) testimony to Congress where he remarked that his “whole ideological edifice was collapsed” by the financial crisis of 2008. Another statement, which also received little media attention, came from Bill Clinton who went further than Greenspan by not only accepting the failure of free markets — in this case, where Haiti was forced to drops its tariffs on imported subsidised U.S. rice — but by also giving an apology to the people of Haiti for destroying their rice farming industry.
We are beginning to hear from some of the fiercest free market advocates that the idea of a self-regulating market has dramatically failed. However, this does not seem to be feeding into public policy in the West. Why is this?
RP: Bill Clinton is a serial apologist. There are few things that you can’t extract a mea culpa and a watery tear form Clinton for in order to continue to do exactly what he is doing now.
When Clinton apologised, he said that we shouldn’t treat food like television sets. Here, he almost channeled Karl Marx in saying that food should not be considered a commodity. That’s great, but the public policy around the food system and even the banks has changed pathetically little. In the United States, the banking system is far more consolidated than it was in 2007 and the food system is equally consolidated. Power is in the hands of increasingly few people and this gives us an indication of why a politician can bewail the fact that they are hostage to big money even as we enter a $2 billion election cycle, but there is painfully little inclination to do anything about it.
It is a fairly simple story to tell about regulatory capture in the United States and the rest of the world: the increasing inequality of a few corporations and individuals to shape entire national and global political agendas. However, I don’t want to be a downer about it. Movements like Occupy have shifted the conversation following organisations in places like North Africa and around the Mediterranean. So, yes, you are right that the great and the good, our wise leaders, have offered a begrudging admission that they were wrong but have no intention of changing policy, but they can be forced to change through popular action.
S: In The Value of Nothing, you give the example of the hamburger to illustrate the book’s argument about the difference between price and value. The price of the average hamburger is $4, but the estimated social and ecological costs — health costs for diet-related diseases and climate change-related disasters — are externalised and can cost anything from $200 upwards for each hamburger. Do you think we have reached the limits of reform as far as lobbying the food industry goes — ‘the polluter pays’ schemes — or should we be putting our energy into relocalising our food systems? Or will it most likely take both efforts?
RP: I think you’re right that it will take a multiple series of efforts. I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend any time asking the food industry to give us stuff — this is just a waste of effort. When you ask Coke, for example, to make their products more nutritious, they will give us Diet Coke Plus (which I don’t believe was ever on sale in the UK). We already have regular Diet Coke which is a semi-toxic soup and then you add vitamins to it — and this is their solution … "You’ve asked for a more nutritious drink and we’ve added vitamins to it! What more do you want?" This, of course, doesn’t answer any of the fundamental concerns addressed to the food industry and so I think the food industry will be brought along kicking and screaming. The answer, then, is not to ask for a compromise, but to demand the world that we want — whether this is the food world or any other. I think we often forget this.
This may seem like a digression, but I was at an Occupy encampment in Canada and some people were asking, "Well, don’t we want the Glass-Steagall Act back?" The Glass-Steagall Act was a compromise, but also a very important piece of banking legislation that was put in place after the Great Depression to limit the size of banks and to put a firewall between retail and investment banking. My response to this was, "No, we don’t want the Glass-Steagall act back. We have to remember that the act was a compromise against a much more potent transformation of the banking system and what the banking system actually wanted." We want to demand the world that we think we can live in and not the world that the food industry can accommodate itself to. It is not our job to figure out their business, but our business to figure out what we want.
So, I certainly think that working on relocalising the food system is important, but merely having a local turn is not enough. We do need to remove the impediments to that by taking on food companies directly. We — those of us in the global north — also need to undo the harm we have done in the global south. You can’t just localize the economies while leaving the wreckage left by colonialism in the global south and walk away from it. We broke it and, therefore, we owe a debt of reparation. I also think the local turn can often ignore issues around labour and gender. When I talk about a $200 hamburger in The Value of Nothing, what the $200 doesn’t include is all of the unpaid work that makes the economy possible. If you were to figure in the unpaid work within our economy, it is more than 50 percent. Our economies rely on care work: the raising of children so that they can become workers, the care of the elderly after they have finished their working lives or building communities. Without that work, capitalism could never function — but capitalism can never pay for that work. I certainly think that merely worrying about eating local food, which is important, of course, also has to be part of transforming the way we think about work itself.
MST: The Landless Workers Movement.
S: You make it clear early on in the book that you are not calling for the end of markets — the problem is not a society with markets, but that we have become a market society. You do call, however, for a reshaping of markets. What would this reshaping look like? And is the Commons as an economic paradigm part of this project?
RP: Let’s take the Commons first. At the Rio Summit, which started on June 20, what is being offered as a solution is the privatisation of the planet in order to save it. The argument is that we have to sell off Mother Nature in order to protect her. This kind of market thinking is a catastrophe in the making and we have seen what happens when you commodify nature and business interests only want to profit from it. These are the same interests that caused the financial crisis.
The mistake at Rio is thinking that the only way we can care about nature is through commodification and privatisation. This is not true. The societies that are really good at managing resources — if we are given the freedom to do so through the idea of the Commons — are alive and well today. There is research produced recently that show that forest Commons — communities that have enough freedom from government and corporations, and have enough land to survive a mistake or bad weather — are much better at sequestering carbon and looking after themselves. The understanding that privatisation is not the answer and that we need to figure out other ways to value together is part of the solution.
In terms of what a market would like if we were free to exchange, I would say that the work of dreaming is still to be done in many ways. The kind of market I like is where people approach each other as equals. If you think of a farmers’ market, a suk, or a Middle Eastern bazaar, there are lots of buyers and lots of sellers and the prices of buying or selling something is much more an exchange than a purchase. The idea of exchange as opposed to purchase is something I am very keen for us all to explore a lot more because, when we turn ourselves into consumers and producers, we hive off from ourselves what it is to be human. When you exchange, it is about trust, reciprocity, and social relations, as well as the commodity and money that changes hands. This is closer to what the future market might look like.
Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist, and academic. He has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics, and Cornell University; has worked for the World Bank and WTO; and protested against them around the world. He’s currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. He is currently an IATP Food and Community Fellow.
He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the U.S. House Financial Services Committee and is an advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he regularly writes for The Guardian, and has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, NewYorkTimes.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mail on Sunday, and The Observer. His first book was Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and his latest, The Value of Nothing, is a New York Times best-seller.