Sunday, November 29, 2009
Raj Patel - Stuffed and Starved
This is a superb book. Rarely do I come away from reading a non-fiction book feeling as satisfied as I did when I closed Stuffed and Starved.
Raj Patel has produced an amazing investigation of the problems with the world's food system. Starting from the very bottom - the men and women who produce the world's food, he shows us a system that has become dominated by multinational interests, profiteering and ruthless capitalist actions. The consequences are impoverisment, soaring suicide rates amongst farmers, unemployment and food that is geared to maximising profit, rather than improving diets.
We see the ruthlessness of the seed companies, forcing and tricking farmers into using GM seeds. We see the power of the supermarkets determining what must be grown, despite what is best for the farmer. And finally we see how this comes together in a world food system that creates hunger in the midst of plenty, and simultaneously obesity on a mass scale.
Patel is rightly cynical about the multinationals being able to solve these contradictions. He points out how supermarkets for instance rebrand themselves to appeal to an era when more and more people are worried about what's "behind the label". Yet in a system where the problem is agribuisness as a whole Patel doesn't believe that this sort of reorientation of the food giants helps.
"To turn agribusinesses loose on organic food is to legitimate their rule, to concede that no kind of food system is possible without their participation, just as to choose between high-pericide farmaing or GM farming is to admit that, either way, the pesticide companies are a part of our food system. But there have always been alternatives."
It's when Patel is looking at the alternatives that things become really interesting. He discusses various food co-operatives, or shops aimed at bringing local, cheap, healthy food to communities. Pointing out that when people to have access to decent food it is very popular. (He also makes the point, having discussed how supermarkets destroy such local shops, that were supermarkets don't exist at all, were there is no easy access to food, obesity shoots through the roof as people survive on a fast food, high fat, high sugar diet).
But at the heart of Patel's argument is that its a lack of control over the food production process that is the fundamental problem. He shows how things improve once people start to take control of their lives - the MST in South America, creating collective farms based on solidarity for instance - but what is true in rural societies is also true of those of us living in towns.
"If the quality of food we eat is shaped by work and play, by the neighbourhoods we live in, the jobs we can get and the time we spend travelling between them, then we might want to consider poor diets as a symptom of a systemic lack of control over our spaces and lives."
Such a conclusion can only serve to underline the argument that if we are truely to improve our lives, then fundamental social change must be part of the solution.