|Stuffed and Starved
Patel began with a fact that SHOULD have been obvious to us all. We've been in a food crisis for a long time. We gave it that name in the past year or two - but we had 800 million hungry people (and another billion who are overweight) before we saw food riots and record high prices. According to Patel, we're now up to 1 billion hungry (that's news to me but not hard to believe).
And while many of the overweight billion live in the US and many of the starving billion live in Africa or other developing countries, it's not that black and white. Over 10 percent of Americans are hungry. He says every country has these vast inequalities. [I can add my own experience here. The place where I've seen the most destitute poverty in the world was Egypt, but the tour guide showing us the Sphinx was doing quite well, thank you. The extreme inequality made far more of an impression on me than did the Pyramids.]
What's in a Snickers
Patel held up a Snickers bar (with an ingredient list of "one mysterious thing after another, a concatenation of obscure, weird stuff") and pointed out a few of the ingredients in particular. One of those was lecithin, from soy. In this case, the lecithin gives the Snickers a long shelf life. But 3/4 of our food contains soy (and nearly 100% of fast food).
The trouble, Raj argued, is that this wonderful plant gets mangled and destroyed by the technologies of modern industrial farming and capitalism. "It's not a surprise," he said, "that one of the first soy acolytes in America, Henry Ford, was also the godfather of modern industrial capitalism."
Where does the soy in the Snickers come from? If not the US, most likely Brazil. (It's news to me, but according to Patel, Brazil is the world's largest exporter of soy.)
In Brazil, soy has an immeasurable human and environmental cost. The largest force of deforestation in Brazil, by which farmers cut down vast swaths of Amazon rain forest to grow crops, is soy. These soy farmers are also draining one of the world's largest sources of underground fresh water at unsustainable rates. And there is also a huge human cost. According to the International Labor Organization, in Brazil today there are 40,000 slaves working in agriculture, the majority working in agro-fuels, but many working in soy production.
Farmers and Consumers: United in Getting Screwed by Multinational Corporations
"Who wins from this?" Raj asked. Low labor and externalized environmental costs may help the bottom-line of some farmers, but the biggest winners by far are corporations. Pulling an image from his book Stuffed and Starved that shows how the world economy works, Raj told us to imagine an hourglass: Wide at the top, narrow in the middle, and wide again at the bottom. At the top are millions of farmers, and at the bottom are billions of people who eat food every day. In the middle is the choke-point where just a handful of huge corporations mediate between the farmers and consumers. These corporations are the agents of power in the food system today. In every major agricultural sector or commodity, more than 50% of that market is controlled by a few companies. Of course, it varies by commodity: 90 percent of the world's tea, for example, is controlled, grown and distributed by Unilever. Most Americans have never heard of these gigantic companies -- Cargill, Bunge, Archers Daniel Midland -- that exist in the background controlling our food supply.
"So it's important to ask: Why do we let them exist at all?" The reason we're given is that when we have corporations competing against each other head-to-head, they'll drive prices down and the winners are us the consumers. This is capitalism at work, this is the dividend, this is why we let it all happen. The trouble, of course, is that it doesn't work that way.
Anyone else as mad as I am about this? And if you aren't mad yet, keep reading...
As evidence that the competition-inducing rationale of corporate capitalism is merely a well-worn propaganda myth, Raj cited a revealing admission by Duane Andreas, the former chairman of Archers Daniel Midland: "The customer is our enemy and the competitor is our friend. There is not one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market, not one. The only place where you see free markets are in the speeches of politicians, and people who are not from the Midwest do not realize that this is a socialist country."
"The way markets work," Raj explained, "isn't really about markets: It's about the government giving large stacks of money to its favorite corporations.
Patel then notes that it used to be a lot harder to explain this to Americans. And then we had the bailouts...
"And we shouldn't be surprised that corporations like Archers Daniel Midland are badly behaved." We shouldn't be surprised that Archers Daniel Midland and a few of its so-called competitors were involved in one of the largest cases of fraud in US legal history, where they colluded to drive up the price of lysine, a corn-based meat additive by 75%. We shouldn't be surprised that they cajole our elected representatives, that they buy the Department of Agriculture, that they insist that their genetically modified crops are safe. They're doing what they ought by the rules of the market. The CEOs of these corporations are committing capitalist acts because they have to; if they didn't, they'd be fired.
"So the really interesting question is not why do we let these corporations exist, but rather: Why do we have markets in food at all? Who do we have global food markets in the first place for corporations to take the bottleneck of?"
Too bad all of the dumbasses out holding tea bags and protest signs didn't read Patel's book. Then they would know why they should REALLY be protesting.
Stuffed and Starved, Explained
"But when you introduce markets in food, you introduce two very simple rules," Raj said. "The first rule is that if you have money, you get to eat.
And when you introduce global food markets, the second rule is that if you have no money, you will starve."
It's all as simple as that. Although I would argue that many of the world's overweight people are ALSO starved for nutrients. The ones who are really stuffed are the corporations.
And about those Indian farmer suicides I've been ranting about? Patel reminded his audience that the farmer suicides are an international phenomenon. That's hardly surprising because when I bring up Indian farmer suicides, American farmers tell me that it happens here too. Patel says:
This wave of suicides began in the United States with the economic liberalization that reached its zenith under Reagan.
Figures. Seems like everything bad began under Reagan.
At the same time that India is experiencing a catastrophe of farmer suicides, hunger and malnutrition there are skyrocketing to the highest levels since 1947 (when the British left). Simultaneously, India is the country with the most billionaries (four) on the Forbes 'top ten' list. And India is now the country with the largest number of people with type 2 diabetes. All of this has common cause in the financial policy of economic liberalization that Mohammed Singh, now India's prime minister, introduced in the early 1990s. Corporations from the outside like Monsanto and Coca-Cola were welcomed with open arms, farmers were exposed to the unfair whims of the "free market," and government services and subsidized food for the poor were slashed.
Until 1990, India had no Coke or Pepsi. Raj joked that while Pepsi came in hiring the Bollywood A-list and "stole the march in the soft drinks market" with commercials that were an "orgy of powder and dance," Coke went with their global adverts with polar bears kicking back and staring at the Northern Lights. "Polar bears are not big in Indian iconography. Indians were thinking: What the fuck is that? It was like Alien vs. Predator, a clash of the titans, because whoever won, India lost. Indian bodies are spectacularly bad at dealing with the Western diet." There's not a British Asian family, Raj claimed, that hasn't dealt with the trauma of blindness, amputation and heart disease from diabetes that is the cataclysmic consequence of spreading free markets in food and consumer snacks. This is killing Americans too: Life expectancy in the US is falling for the first time in many generations, particularly among women and in rural areas. "By some estimates, American kids will live five fewer years than you will because of the shocks that their bodies are absorbing as the result of the American diet."
"What's happening in India is happening around the world, because of an organization that I hate to admit I worked for once, the World Bank. Although the World Bank claims to be at the vanguard of providing solutions to the food crisis, we ought not to trust them." Raj likened the World Bank to a scene from the film Time Bandits in which God's disgruntled workers rob Napoleon, jump through a hole in the universe, and meet Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. While Robin Hood sets out distributing Napoleon's bounty to the poor, next to him stands a big hulking thief who takes whatever Hood has given from the poor and punches them in the face.
That's how the World Bank works. Since whatever the World Bank gives is in the form of a loan, it's always taken back. The World Bank's punch in the face comes in the spread of certain kinds of economic philosophy, centered around agricultural commodity export and resource extraction, that emphasize liberalization of trade and exposing farmers to the economic violence of the "free market."
To see the consequences of this fraud, you need look no farther than Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. At the beginning of the 1980s, Haiti grew the majority of its own rice. It had the farmers, land, and technique to grow rice sustainably. But because of trade policies pushed by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who both insisted on World Bank and IMF "structural adjustment" loans to Haiti, Haitian rice farmers were forced to compete directly with US rice farmers. The US rice industry gets a billion dollars every year in subsidies, while Hatian rice farmers were prevented from getting anything. So therefore it's no surprise that Haitian rice farmers were destroyed by this trade policy. And it's not surprising that in Haiti, as the result of US policy, there have been food riots, including the food riots there just last year. The bitter irony is that when there are food riots in Haiti, the people are fighting over bags of rice printed with the stars and stripes and labels that say "Gift of the people of the United States."
"So what are we going to do?" Before giving the answer, Raj tore into the fallacies of green consumerism. "It might be tempting to go into Whole Foods, a sponsor of tonight's event, and find the products that are labeled organic, worker-friendly, child-friendly, butterfly-friendly, locust-friendly: a long list of certifications that in some way will be a balm to your guilt. But the minute you step into a supermarket, you are in the food system's gound zero."
Supermarkets are the new giants of the food system. Walmart, of course, is the easy target and the biggest target. Until recently, they were responsible for 2% of the USA's Gross Domestic Product. They are the world's largest grocer and they have the world's second largest computer, after the Pentagon, which they use to manipulate and drive down prices to farmers. They've been responsible for some of the largest labor violations in US labor history.
"But let's not pick on Walmart. Let's think of any supermarket, even Whole Foods. Supermarkets are in the business of logistics and supply that places them ideally at the bottleneck of the food system. And supermarkets themselves are designed to make us consume more." For example, why is milk always at the back of the supermarket? The reason is that milk is the product that we're most often in the supermarket to buy, and there's a golden triangle between the entrance, the milk and the checkout line as we impulse-purchase our way through the store. Why do supermarkets have bakeries? They're not profit machines, but they've discovered that the smell of baking bread tends to make us buy more stuff. There's even a rumor that some unscrupulous supermarkets, if they have no space for a bakery, are adding the smell into their air conditioning systems.
The point is that we find ourselves continually going back to supermarkets, because they're so "convenient." But convenience is socially constructed. How deep does the rabbit hole go? How deep are the problems with our food system? Clearly, the problems are very deep and they're embedded within us. We go to supermarkets not because they're "natural" but due to very human forces.
Diving straight into the rabbit hole, Raj sped through an example of how convenience was constructed in apartheid South Africa, where people resisting apartheid invented a food called "bunny chow." Apartheid required laws, one of which was the Separate Amenities Act, meaning that white and black people could o't eat together. Bunny chow was a loaf of white bread with the top cut off, the insides scooped out, and filled with curry. You take the bread, dip and eat, dip and eat, dip and eat, and when you get to the bottom, it's all gone, there's no cutlery and you haven't broken any laws. If you're a black person, you can eat bunny chow on the run without being in the same space with white people. It's a kind of government-sponsored fast food. There's nothing truly convenient about a loaf of white bread with curry inside; if you don't eat it quickly, the curry will seep through and create a complete mess. "It's not convenient unless you factor in the speed of our working lives and the rules that regiment how quickly and cheaply you must eat."
"If you don't think this impacts you, just look at working Americans who are forced to eat their meals in cars." In the US, 20% of fast food is eaten inside cars. When Raj tells this to Europeans, they can't comprehend it. They ask, "But why? Is it because Americans love their cars?" They don't understand that working Americans, particularly now, are working so hard to achieve the things that Europeans take for granted: Health care, pension, affordable housing, pension. The choice that working Americans face is not between organic greens and McDonalds but between McDonalds and Burger King -- and that's no choice at all.
"So the solution is going to have to address much more than just how we shop. There's something very wrong with that uniquely American fantasy believing that we can, together, change the world though shopping."
The Solution is Food Sovereignty
"The most inspirational solutions to this problem of bottlenecks in the food system and the dominion that coroporations have over markets in food," Raj finally affirmed, "are coming from some of the most impoverished farm workers in the world today." These solutions come from an organization called Via Campesina, the international peasant movement that is 150 million people strong worldwide. In the Unitied States, the Via Campesina member is the National Family Farm Coalition. Their vision is an idea called food sovereignty.
"We have to bring democracy back into our food system by transforming the ways that we farm. We do this by farming agro-ecologically, by taking back control of markets, by re-injecting democracy into the ways that food get distributed, policies get made, and markets get apportioned or not."
"Agro-ecology is the idea that rather than destroying an ecosystem and then replacing it, you work with what's there including the seasons, the environment, and social factors. You work with the way society is, changing society along the way. Agro-ecology is more than a farming technique or something you can put on a label; it's a way of life and a political philosophy." Food sovereignty is about starting where we are, with the environment and social context that we live in, but then addressing and challenging inequalities of power.
"It's very interesting that Via Campesina, in their recent meetings in Mozambique, came up with a series of recommendations." They said that the World Trade Organization needs to get out of agriculture. They said that governments need to support sustainable agriculture, because the world's best scientific minds have said that sustainable agriculture is the only way we can feed the world by 2050. They also said that we need municipal policies that support sustainable agriculture, like the Food Policy Councils that have spread to hundreds of cities throughout the United States.
But it's not just about governments and municipalities: Even at the household level, we need to challenge power, says Via Campesina. "And they're right. Above all, the food crisis is a gendered crisis." 60% of the people going hungry today are women and girls. Women in developing countries grow the majority of food that is eaten there, and yet own less than 10% of the land. And so it's very instructive and inspirational to hear the slogan that Via Campesina adopted: Food sovereignty is about an end to violence against women.
"With that political trajectory, it's not just about how you farm, although how you farm is critical. It's not just about how you force government to listen to you, although that will be tremendously important as we go forward under the Obama administration and Vilsack as our Secretary of Agriculture."
"We've got work to do, but the good news is we've come so far. Under the Bush adminstration, when things were bleak, we've come incredibly far. In 1999, it would have been impossible, for example, to imagine New York Times article after article calling basically for a revolution in food and agriculture, yet that's what we got at the end of 2008. This happened not by magic but because each of us was out there recruiting, educating, transforming, being activists."
"That's what we need to build on over the next four years. The image of Obama as the agent of change is double-edged. There's one image of Obama being the pizza delivery guy of change. Now that we've elected him, we wait for him to come bringing hot, steaming change in 30 days or less. That's not the vision we need. We must redouble our activism efforts. While an organic garden on the White House lawn would be a great thing to see, we need more transformation than jmerely one plot of land on Pennsylvania Avenue. We need a revolution."
"And that's what food sovereignty is about: an approach to democracy that the majority Americans are still far removed from." The kind of democracy that most of us experience is the poor cousin of consumer choice, a gimmick epitomized last year by PepsiCo's online Dewmocracy contest in which consumers were invited to play a game involving a series of "mythological experiences to virtually design a fantasy Mountain Dew drink."
"If we're taking food sovereignty seriously, we're going to have to take our democratic engagement very seriously, from the household all the way up to international institutions. But it's a fight well worth winning. Breaking that bottleneck of power is the only way that we're going to be able to feed the world and have justice at the same time."