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Food for Thought

A conversation with Raj Patel

The world food crisis, wrote author and activist Raj Patel in his acclaimed 2007 book Stuffed and Starved, is not a problem of the market, or even one of technology. It's a failure of democracy: The global companies who control the food supply get richer, even as the environment suffers and the poor lose the ability to feed themselves. This year, Patel and co-authors Eric Holt-Giménez and Annie Shattuck expanded on those ideas in Food Rebellions, published by nonprofit group Food First!, where Patel is a fellow. In January comes his book The Value of Nothing, further exploring the global economic crisis.

Patel speaks Oct. 21 at Just Harvest's 21st annual fundraising dinner. He spoke with CP from San Francisco, where he lives.

Why is there a food crisis?
If you look at the amount of food that was produced last year, there was enough to feed the world one-and-a-half times over. If we have more food than we need, why are people still going hungry? You could say it's because of poverty. The problem is around the political power to command purchasing power to be able to get that food.

Even after we have an economic recovery, there will still be over a billion people who are hungry, and that will happen at the same time that a billion people are overweight. (Hear Patel suggest a policy change that would help the U.S.address the global food crisis.)

You've criticized Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation for their approach to world hunger. Why?
It is an entirely noble aspiration to want to address the problem of world hunger. But the way Bill Gates has gone about it has been characterized by the kind of approach that he brought to Microsoft, where you have a bunch of very clever people who get around a table, decide how it's going to be, and then through a model of sort of proprietary technology and a kind of technology-can-fix-all kind of mentality, take those ideas out to the world and market them very heavily. 

There are some things that the Gates Foundation is doing that are unambiguously good. They are funding research in Africa so that African agricultural students don't have to come to the United States. But the trouble is, there used to be all these things -- there used to be research institutes in Africa, there used to be a great deal of food security in Africa. The reason those things were driven away was because of economic and political policy that was set by the United States and by the European Union. And those deeper political roots for why Africa is synonymous with hunger are not really addressed by the Gates Goundation.

Why are technological fixes for hunger -- like genetically modified crops -- often misguided?
What technology does is try to smooth out some of the effects of bad policy. But it doesn't address the bad policy. And second, the choices around technology that the Gates Foundation is making obscures what some of the world's leading scientists have said is the best route for ensuring African food security. The kind of approach the Gates Foundation is pushing involves subsidizing fertilizer, and hybrid crops, and basically exporting the U.S. model of agriculture. 

What's wrong with that?
The U.S. model of agriculture isn't sustainable. We use way more water than we should. The average American uses 200 liters gasoline-equivalent in their food every year, just to bring the energy that you need for irrigation, for tractors, all of this sort of thing. Africa doesn't have the money to import all that fertilizer, all that energy.

What's the alternative?
There are existing models in Africa that are doing amazingly well, models that involve agroecology, for example -- ways of growing crops side-by-side that increase the total amount of crops produced, compared to even the best conventional agriculture system.

Those models of agriculture won't bring the bucks in for big agriculture, though [they] will bring the bucks in for small agriculture, for small-scale farmers. Those systems are being overlooked in favor of the sort of magic solution that will be discovered by a bunch of scientists hidden in a lab somewhere.

Can you elaborate on "agroecology"?
It's both older and cutting edge. It's the sort of things that's had thousands of years of field experience. But it's the sort of thing that can be continually updated and renewed.

One of the major breakthroughs is the "push-pull" system in African agriculture, which has been developed very recently, a way of fighting a couple of the major pest problems in African agriculture. [The system involves planting some species that repel pests and others that attract them elsewhere, while building soil fertility and providing fodder for livestock.]

And that's not an idea that's tens of thousands of years old, that's in the past decade. But it's cutting edge, and it's free, and it's the sort of technology that required a great deal of science to make it work. It's the kind of science that the Gates Foundation doesn't seem to be funding.

Some contend that moving to more organic and locally based food systems will lead to mass starvation.
The way to answer those concerns is through science. Let's get 400 of the top experts together, let's get them to ask the question, "How will we eat in 2050 when there are nine billion on earth and we've passed peak oil and there are water shortages?" Give those scientists five years to figure out the answer and let's see what they say.

And in fact a report came out by the world's leading agricultural scientists championed by the World Bank, which is not a terribly radical institution, with the U.S. and the UK and a bunch of other countries and the private sector all chipping in (2009's Agriculture at a Crossroads, by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development).

They said that in the future, we are going to need to rely much more on regional food production. And we're also going to need to rely much more on regional food democracy. We're going to have to make these decisions about production and consumption far closer to home because the diet that we have at the moment is clearly unsustainable. We don't have the resources for everyone to eat as much meat, for example, as the average American does. You'd need seven planets if everyone were to eat the same amount of meat that Americans do. And we don't have seven planets, we've got just one.

It's a vast report that was written about in newspapers around the world -- but not in the United States. The myth that localizing food democracy and regionalizing food production is going to starve the world is one that still persists in the United States. What would it take to convince people that this is a lie? We've got peer-reviewed science. We've got increasing, viable local examples of this happening. But somehow the myth still hangs in in the air because there's  a lot of money behind making sure that it doesn't go away.

What about consumer initiatives -- buying local, organic and fair-trade?
Don't get me wrong. I buy fair-trade coffee, because what's the alternative? Blood on Your Beans coffee? Coffee with the Bones of Small Children Inside? 

But I think it's a little deluded to think that simply by shopping we can change the world. That's a fiction that our consumerist selves might like to believe. But I think all of us, at the back of our heads, understand that shopping isn't going to fix the problem. And it's a little scary to realize that shopping isn't going to fix the problem, because we've become so denatured in the way that we do politics and think about our lives, that shopping feels like the only tool that we have to be able to make change.

The good news is, that it isn't. There are other things that we can do. For the changes that need to happen within the third world, we need political changes to happen in this country. A lot of the policies that are wreaking havoc in the Global South have been authored here and authored in Europe. 

How can people get more involved at home?
There's stuff that we can do locally -- stuff like food policy councils, for example, are cropping up all over the United States. They started in Toronto, as a response to long lines outside food banks in the rcession in the 1980s. People in Toronto said, "You know what, it's just not OK that there's so many people in our town going hungry." And so they appointed someone who would be within the government whose job it would be to make sure that whatever the government did it increased the access to food for people living in Toronto.

From this emerged a swath of farmer's markets, of purchasing policies for the city and for local universities and a range of initiatives that have increased the availability of good clean safe food -- and affordable food -- for people living particularly on the bread line. 

Everything from that to changing the way that school dinners work to looking at the farm bill, and thinking about how we might want to farm in the next 50 years. It's all happening, and it's right beneath our noses.

What's The Value of Nothing about?
The arguments in the new book are really trying to take some of the ideas and food policies that are in Stuffed and Starved, and adding new ones to get us to an even sort of bigger-picture question. Which is why do things cost what they do, and why do we value things through markets? Because there are other ways in which we can value things, other than by sticking price labels on them.

Within the food system we can see the failure of price labels adequately to value things just by looking at the price of a hamburger. The $4 hamburger has an environmental foot print that is so expensive that actually a hamburger should cost nearer $200.

Markets are not very good at bringing those kind of costs in. So Value of Nothing is a book about the other ways we can value stuff, and exploring the economics and politics of that.

So again, food leads us to political questions?
We teach personal hygiene, we teach clearing up after ourselves ... but we've lost the art of cleaning up after ourselves politically, and I think if we're going to take responsibility for ourselves, that's part of what it means to be a good citizen, to take political responsibility.

That's very different from the democracy we have now, which is a sort of complainocracy, rather than really understanding what it is to govern ourselves.

In the book, I suggest that this economic crisis is a sign of our handing off politics to big money. And the way to get out of this economic crisis is to take our politics back. It's easy enough to do. We just need to be brave enough to step up to that plate.

(Hear Patel's take on visiting Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit.)

Raj Patel speaks at Just Harvest's Harvest Celebration Dinner 6:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m. reception and silent auction). Omni William Penn Hotel, 530 William Penn Place, Downtown. $45-75. 412-431-8960 or

click to enlarge For better eating, better democracy: Raj Patel.
For better eating, better democracy: Raj Patel.

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