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Food For Thought

March 2009
Food For Thought

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

by Raj Patel, Melville House, Paperback, 448 pages

By Poornima Apte

The abundance of bad choices at the supermarket?the increasing obesity epidemic among the poor?increasing rates of farmer suicides in the developing world. The story of food and its consumption is filled with anything but the tales of pastoral bliss we are fed as children, writes Raj Patel in his wonderfully incisive and well-researched book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.

While the reasons for many of the problems that plague the food system are complex, one picture in Stuffed and Starved powerfully sums up the root cause. Labeled “the hourglass,” it shows how just a few companies both in the United States and Europe serve as conduits of food between the farmers (the producers) and the public (the consumers). This bottleneck in the food distribution chain, where power is concentrated in the hands of the few, is a huge problem. “When the number of companies controlling the gateways from farmers to consumers is small, this gives them market power both over the people who grow the food and the people who eat it,” writes Patel, who is a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

Take the example of coffee. Coffee farmers like Salome Kafuluzi in Uganda, who make only pennies per pound of coffee sold, are flat broke. On the other end of the spectrum is food giant Nestlé, whose profits are unstoppable, Patel points out. Even if the company can afford to pay Kafuluzi more, it will choose not to, Patel argues. “Nestlé isn't a charity—it's a corporation in a world of other corporations, guided by the cardinal rule of market capitalism: ‘buy cheap, sell dear.’ By virtue of its size, Nestlé can dictate the terms of supply to its growers, millers, exporters and importers and each is being squeezed dry.”

The same game is played around the world. In many countries, farmers are being “squeezed dry.” Mounting debts borne by farmers in India, for example, has lead to a spate of farmer suicides. With heartbreaking clarity, Patel details the complex trap that farmers fall into: the initial debt taken on to get into what promises to be a profitable business, the difficulty in switching cash crops around, the problems faced when farmers organize and the factors beyond their control when farmers buy into an international commodities market. “India has skipped past industrial development, to become a software giant, a knowledge economy in which one third of the population is illiterate,” Patel says. This means that farmers who are out of work can't always move to the cities and be assured of manufacturing work. The image of Shining India overlooks these harsh realities, Patel points out. What's worse, the goalpost by which poverty is now measured has been shifted by the government authorities, Patel says, making India look more “shining” than it really is.

Patel also sheds light on the many aspects of India's Green Revolution that have largely been left untold. In the North of India, where land was fertile and irrigation was provided, the Green Revolution indeed did increase yields. Yet the new miracle seeds that were used came at too high a cost, Patel points out. The seeds needed the perfect set of conditions: adequate water, soil fertility and access to fertilizers to work. For many farmers across the rest of India, this was not the case. Even worse, the “Green Revolution monocultures also expunged indigenous biodiversity,” Patel writes. In India and across the world, giant companies like Monsanto sell farmers seeds with insecticides already genetically built into them. Then there are the “RoundUp Ready” seeds, which yield plants that can survive being sprayed by another Monsanto product—the insecticide, RoundUp. “It's a seduction that traps farmers and ultimately offers only a cycle of addiction from which there is little ability to escape,” Patel writes.

Stuffed and Starved details not just ways in which farmers are shortchanged at one end of the system but also how we, as consumers, are held hostage to food options which present little more than a choice between two poor solutions: the Coke or Pepsi choice. “Convenience anesthetizes us as consumers. We are dissuaded from asking hard questions, not only about how our individual tastes and preferences are manipulated, but about how our choices at the checkout take away the choices of those who grow our food,” Patel writes. As it turns out, even choosing organic food at the supermarket is not necessarily the best. Most of the organic food, too, moves through the same conduits that perpetuate the injustice and do little to truly overhaul the system.

The solutions? Buy local, Patel advises. “Eating food that has been locally grown makes it easier to nurture a social connection with the producer, to know how and where and why things are grown the way are. It's a kind of eating that is transparent and socially embedded in a way that industrially-produced food can't be,” he writes.

Second, be aware of where your food comes from and what its true costs are, Patel suggests. His wonderful book will surely help us do that. Sometimes the sheer volume of information in Stuffed and Starved makes for daunting reading. It is also easy to be overwhelmed by what seems like the gargantuan tasks that lie ahead of us in making the food system more transparent and just. But for all the problems laid bare, Patel also shines light on some hopeful developments: the rise of La Via Campesina (a farmers' movement), and the growth of the Slow Food movement, which advocates the preparation and appreciation of fresh food, among others. Raj Patel's excellent book makes us think, react, and most important, become more aware of the complexities of the world's food system. Like healthy food, Stuffed and Starved is truly good for you.


“Although we might not be aware of it, there are millions of people around the world advocating and living more sustainable ways of eating,” notes Raj Patel in an interview with Khabar.

One of the many revelatory findings for the reader is the fact that the Green Revolution heralded many years ago in India is really not all the success it claimed to be. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has hinted that India needs another such green revolution. Are there any good lessons that can be learned at all from the first one?

The first Green Revolution was the result of mixing U.S. foreign policy, Indian reluctance to redistribute land from rich to poor, an aggressive U.S. fertilizer industry, and geopolitics. The increased output of grain from some areas in India came at a tremendously high social and ecological cost. Because of environmental degradation and economic debt, farmers in Punjab—the epicenter of the Green Revolution—are today, in the words of the United Nations, facing “a crisis of existence.” Among the beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, suicide rates are through the roof.

The Second Green Revolution being proposed by our leaders is similarly divorced from concerns about sustainability—the proposals on the table are designed primarily to swell the coffers of agricultural pesticides companies, which control the genetically modified seed industry, and are looking for new markets. The lessons seem clear. To increase productivity and human development, India should invest not in science governed by profit, but in science driven by agro-ecological concerns. India is well suited to this low-capital but high-tech type of agriculture—it's proven, it's effective, and all it requires to make it widespread is the political will to do it.

In the book, you have brilliantly talked about farmer suicides in India. A couple of years ago, the Manmohan Singh government cobbled together a hasty rescue package for farmers and a promise to waive interest, expand rural credit. When the problem seems more complex than merely granting waiver of interest fees, these solutions seem like temporary band-aids. What solutions would you recommend be instituted to reverse or even at least halt the tide of farmer suicides?

The debt forgiveness deserves closer examination, particularly since it accrues only to farmers with loans from banks secured on land they can prove that they own. Since the majority of farmer suicides are associated not with formal credit but informal money lenders, and when land tenure is disputed, it's easy to see how the debt holiday is nothing more than an election year stunt. The best solutions to the profound problems in Indian agriculture invariably come not from politicians but from farmers and farm workers themselves. So it's important to listen to them—which is easy to do because in India they're well organized and tremendously articulate. They're demanding land reform, investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure, and a fair minimum support price for crops which is paid promptly. It's not revolutionary, and all of these ideas are tried and tested. But, again, they demand a commitment to agriculture from the government that's more than lip service.

Last year, farmer protests in West Bengal delayed the opening of a Tata plant—one scheduled to produce the world's cheapest car. Is the vision of “Shining India” by its very nature (cheapest product at cheapest cost, overlooking more subjective costs), overlooking the plight of the average Indian farmer?

Absolutely—the Nano is the vanity project of Ratan Tata, one of the world's richest men. It's not surprising that his concerns don't often match with those of India's poorest people. Despite all the hoopla about the stock market and information technology, India remains a rural country, and while its wealthiest residents are building their towers in Malabar Hills, levels of hunger and poverty are starting to creep up to levels that haven't been seen since the British left. Unfortunately, from afar, it's much harder to see that rural suffering, and much easier to see the public relations exercises around Indian resurgence.

In one of your recommendations, you call for support for a sustainable architecture of food, encouraging readers to deal with “local markets, currencies and CSAs (community supported agriculture).” As Indian Americans, are we then violating these principles when we buy and cook daal (or pickles or even mango pulp) that is trucked thousands of miles from India?

The short answer is yes. I'm not saying we shouldn't have international trade, but I'm saying that we should pay a fair price to compensate for the environmental damage that we cause. When we demand food be freighted from South Asia, for instance, there's a very big environmental and social footprint. If we did pay the full cost, I imagine it'd only be a short while before enterprising farmers closer to home were coming to market with Indian daal varieties grown a little closer to home.

It is hard not to feel depressed when reading the book. It feels like a Cat in the Hat situation: “This mess is so big and so deep and so tall, we cannot pick it up. There is no way at all.” What gives you hope that there might be a way out—to a healthier approach to the consumption and purchase of food?

It's true that we're in a pretty dire situation at the moment, and I think it's important that we not kid ourselves about quite how much of a mess we're in. India has the world's largest number of people with Type 2 diabetes, and increasing levels of hunger and farmer suicide. This is a tragedy that we cannot close our eyes to. But the book is also filled with the inspirational movements around the world that are fighting for change. The reason that the subtitle to the book talks of the “hidden battle for the world food system” is because, although we might not be aware of it, there are millions of people around the world advocating and living more sustainable ways of eating. Despite the enormity of the challenges ahead, I'm quietly hopeful.

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