If we are what we eat, we’re in big, big trouble

Raj Patel is a man who has seen the worst that can be done to the world’s food system — yet retains hope that it’s not too late to rectify the atrocities. It’s a good thing he projects this optimism, because otherwise the information he conveys would be more likely to inspire despair than hope.

Patel spoke on Tuesday evening about his new book, Stuffed and Starved, at another of Pages Books’ “This is Not a Reading Series” events. And the incongruity between the examples he listed and his cheerful, upbeat demeanour, was surreal even while it was comforting.

A former employee of the World Bank, Patel really knows his stuff. And four years of touring the world to research the food situation first hand only deepened his understanding, and raised his level of urgency.

The facts are chilling. For example, a mere four super-corporations control 90% of the entire world’s food production and distribution. The World Bank is happy to lend money to poorer nations for food production — and then sets conditions (such as “liberalization” of the country’s economy) that put farmers directly in the sights of these corporations, which see to it that while the farmers are less and less able to survive on what they’re paid, the corporations become more and more staggeringly rich. The result is currently a veritable epidemic of farmer suicides, all over the world. As Patel puts it, a World Bank loan is “the gift that keeps on taking.”

Meanwhile, remember our mothers telling us, “Eat your dinner because there are children starving in Africa”? Well, because of the “liberalization” of the economy in India, there are now more children starving there than in the entire continent of Africa. India, in fact, is a textbook case for how the capitalist redesign of the food system has devastated the planet. Alongside the 20 million starving people, you have the highest concentration of Forbes millionaires in the world. You also now have the highest percentage of diabetics in the world.

It’s because this Brave New “Liberal” Economy is explicitly designed to make us dependent on “convenient,” unhealthy food. Convenience, says Patel, is “socially constructed.” Our food isn’t being made for us — we are being made for our food. And the corporations happily play both sides: the same company that owns Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream also owns Slim-Fast.

Patel pointed out that for every so-called “famine” in the 20th century, there was actually more than enough available food for everyone. Why the famine, then? No one could afford to pay for food.

The super-corporations and their satellites have more right to become engorged and wealthy than you have to live. Think about that.

But all is not yet lost! Patel is very optimistic, and sets out ten ways we can still redeem the situation, on his Stuffed and Starved website. But he gave his audience some general direction on Tuesday evening, his ideas including changing our own food tastes, frequenting farmers’ markets, joining local Community Supported Agriculture organizations, and affirming every worker’s right to dignity and fair treatment. (Even organic food organizations can exploit workers.) All of these things are linked. The most important thing is to promote “food sovereignty,” since every community has an absolute right to control its own food system.

Patel takes great heart from the workers’ and peasants’ movements that are now mobilizing all over the world. The iron grip of the corporations (and the western governments that support them) has broken in many places, with food riots breaking out and agro-workers organizing to help each other and local consumers. Ideally, Patel said, we would de-fund the devastating World Bank, and remove agriculture from the World Trade Organization.

How on earth can we justify people starving, just so long as the corporations create “shareholder value”??

We shouldn’t have to, and in fact, we must stop it from continuing. Raj Patel has now raised his knowledgeable voice with many others, and inspires hope that it is still possible to break the back of the monoliths and reclaim our own food.

One thought on “If we are what we eat, we’re in big, big trouble

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