Stuffed and Starved

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* Book: Raj Patel. Stuffed and Starved. 2nd ed. 2012

Book about the struggle for the world's food system and Food Sovereignty


* 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 are malnourished and 1 billion are overweight. Now the number of people who are malnourished is around 1 billion and the number of people who are overweight are, by some calculations, nearly 2 billion. In the space of 6 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 US 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 spearhead 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 are a direct result of the social movements in Europe.

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 20th, 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 to 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." (