In his new book Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel, former policy analyst for Food First! and now a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies, gives a startling exposé of the global food system and how activists are gaining ground against corporate control. Patel conducts a global investigation, traveling from the "green deserts" of Brazil to protester-packed streets of South Korea to bankrupt Ugandan coffee farms to barren fields of India.
GRUBACIC: Where did the inspiration for Stuffed and Starved come from?
PATEL: The inspiration comes from social movements, specifically Via Campesina, the international peasant movement that has, by some estimates, over 150 million members. Their struggle against neoliberalism has deep roots. I first met some of Via Campesina’s members at the Peoples’ Global Action gathering in Geneva in 1998 and then saw them in all their glory on the streets of Seattle, resisting the World Trade Organization’s meeting there in 1999. But, in common with most of us living in the Global North at the end of the millennium, I was behind the times. The movements behind Via Campesina had been resisting the WTO for years when it was still called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos recently wrote about a process of social exclusion, misery, and inequality under neoliberal capitalism that implies the emergence of "social fascism." The most painful example of this, according to Santos, is the growth of hunger, showing the contradiction between life and profit. I like this line of argument because it takes us away from the usual Malthusian explanations of food crisis ("there is not enough food"). Have you encountered "leftist Malthusianism?"
I’ve given a few dozen presentations about the book and I’ve been struck by how many folk who identify as left find themselves attracted to Malthusian explanations about the current food crisis. This surprises me because I’d thought we’d moved beyond Malthus.
Malthus was the world’s first paid economist and his explanations of hunger and famine aren’t far from the front lines of bourgeois thinking, from the 1800s to today. He saw that food supply was able to increase at only arithmetic rates, while populations were able to increase at geometric rates, leading to demand for food far outstripping supply, leading to famine. The result is to transform people like you and me into "problem populations." When worries about population have been expressed, they’ve usually been expressed by middle class white people about, in Malthus’s time, working class white people or, more recently, about people living in the Global South. No one would dream of saying, "Those Italian Catholics have too many children," but it’s somehow acceptable to say exactly the same thing about darker Catholics or darker people of any and no faith.
I find it troubling that these ways of thinking about people in other lands should persist so strongly among groups that I’d have thought would know better. Certainly, there’s something to be worried about here. But that thing isn’t population so much as women’s ability to control their own lives. If you care about population growth, you should be a vociferous advocate of the single policy that has been demonstrated time and again to empower women—education. That education and women’s rights more generally have been cast aside by neoliberalism is a critique of the current food system that far too infrequently makes it to the front pages of radical analyses. Yet sexism, racism, and class domination are built into the interpretation of hunger and famine that I’ve heard in North America.
The class element is perhaps both the easiest and hardest to see. If you ask a rich person why there’s hunger, you’ll get a Malthusian answer of "there’s not enough food." But ask someone who’s hungry and you’ll get a different answer—"there’s not enough money."
The problem of hunger today arises because of poverty. There’s more than enough food around to feed everyone, and to feed us well. But because we distribute food through the market, those with more cash, whether in the Global North or Global South, are able to command a greater slice of the food supply. They’re able to divert it to things like biofuels or meat or highly processed products or, indeed, to buy so much food that leftovers are thrown away.
Precisely because it is the market that distributes food according to ability to pay, the poorest don’t get to eat. This manifests itself in a range of ways and is folded into other structures of power. In the United States, for instance, 35.5 million people went hungry in 2006. In Oakland, California rates of food insecurity are at 29 percent and rising. It’s telling that the areas in Oakland that are most food insecure are areas with large communities of people of color. The African American areas of West Oakland, for instance, have no major supermarkets, but are pock-marked with liquor stores and fast food joints. Across America, working families often pay more than middle class families for the same basket of goods because their communities have been red-lined by supermarkets.
The current food crisis is hitting women across the world hard—women and girls make up about 60 percent of those suffering acute hunger. Within the United States, it is poverty, a poor diet, and smoking that are responsible for declines in women’s health. Between 1983 and 1999, women’s life expectancy fell in 180 counties.
How can we move towards a real democracy?
Capitalism has a solution all set for us—if we just shop in the right places and buy the right things, we’ll make a better world. This solution is seductive to the extent that we have been transformed from full human beings into mere consumers. But if we assert that we are much bigger and better than consumers, we can move to a more progressive politics.
Particularly around food, we’re induced to feel guilty about our shopping choices. The way to respond is not with guilt about our choices, but with anger at the poverty of those choices. Some of these deceptions are utterly craven. PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew brand is deciding which of three new flavors of soda to unleash on the market: Revolution, Voltage, or SuperNova. You, dear consumer, can decide in a process that they’ve dubbed "DewMocracy."
That’s just horseshit and we need to get angry, organized, and democratically involved in making change happen. To some extent, this is about winning short term gains from the state, around increasing the minimum wage to a living wage, for instance. You can’t talk about food policy without talking social policy, particularly around wages, health, and education. But to make the state do these things requires an active and vigilant citizenry, and involves us organizing locally, autonomously and in connection with one another across the planet. It’s a long fight and one that I’ve certainly been inspired toward by the Via Campesina movement, and the millions of people past and present who’ve committed themselves to ensuring that we can all eat with dignity.
What other policies do you suggest?
Via Campesina has laid out a comprehensive strategy for agrarian reform as part of their vision of food sovereignty. It’s a suite of changes that include, for example, women’s rights, land reform, a complete overhaul of the international trade system, the removal of agriculture from the World Trade Organization, the abolition of the World Bank, the establishment of democratic mechanisms for determining the contours of food sovereignty, and the sharing of agroecological technologies that move us away from industrial agriculture towards an agriculture that will feed, rather than destroy, the planet.
We’ve already seen what energized citizens and a responsive government can do. Look at Cuba. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba imported the second highest amount of fertilizer and pesticides in all of the Americas. They had more tractors than they knew what to do with. Their agriculture system was fully industrial, geared to growing sugar cane for the Warsaw Pact, fuelled by Soviet oil.
When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba was faced with impossibly high fuel costs and little cash with which to import goods. It was the Cuban people who demanded both land reform (not private property—the state still owns the land, but people can give land to their children) and agroecological science to boost soil fertility and yields.
The challenge that faces the rest of the world is to extract a similar commitment from their governments. This won’t be easy, but look at what many developing country governments are facing right now—impossible oil prices, skyrocketing food prices, and an increasingly restive and angry population—similar circumstances to Cuba’s in the early 1990s. There’s everything to gain in the current crisis and while capital is proceeding with its own disaster trajectory—their solution is GM crops, more trade, and more open markets—there are reasons to maintain a strong optimism.
I think it’s helpful to remember that while this is a long haul, it’s a struggle with some fairly immediate gains. I don’t want to underestimate the scale of the task ahead. The domination of corporations over the global food supply goes back at least to the Dutch and British East India Companies and is a grip that will be difficult to crack. But the pleasures of good food, grown and eaten in communities, are a joy that almost anyone can share. Social change is about creating a world where we can be fuller and richer human beings. Modern capitalism has diminished our sense of joy and sensuality in food. Part of the social struggle is the fight so that everyone, including ourselves, gets pleasure from food. It’s a pleasure that can’t be bought or sold—only shared. That’s a pretty revolutionary idea and one that can fuel us through the tough and dark times ahead.