Click here to find at a library near you!
How did the implementation of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) displace 1.3 million Mexicans from their land and simultaneously decrease industrial wages in Mexico by 10%? Why is “food aid” of commodity surplus foods given by the US and other wealthy nations to poorer nations ultimately detrimental to those it is purported to help? How have genetically modified Roundup Ready crops from Monsanto lead to a dramatic increase in suicides among India’s poor farmers? Raj Patel investigates these questions, and many more, in his 2008 book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.
Anyone who keeps up with Farmbrarian book reviews is probably plenty cynical about the food system. Many of us, however, probably have trouble articulating exactly what is wrong, either locally or globally, and we can’t exactly articulate how to improve the situation. We can point out that most people don’t know where their food comes from and that we eat too much processed food. These accusations are certainly true, and as a result, many of us are choosing to shake the hand of a farmer, or to eat less processed food. Both of these changes are helpful, but it takes authors like Patel, Michael Pollan or Vandana Shiva to think bigger. Patel points out, for example, that “organic” food is perfectly aligned with large-scale, monoculture farming that can still line the pockets of Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (although it may cut Monsanto out of the loop). The point is that changes like this will have very little impact on obesity and global food security. It is quite clear that we are producing plenty of food to feed the world, yet the distribution system is such that as many as a billion people don’t have enough. Furthermore many people have diet-related chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. At its core, this book seeks to understand how such a huge proportion of the world can have problems related to nourishment when we have developed the ability to grow anything and ship it anywhere.
Ironically, the capitalist system that provided the ingenuity necessary to create such a powerful and diverse food system is also largely responsible for the considerable flaws in the system. It is likely that families in Rwanda would rather grow food for their communities instead of growing just coffee, which must be traded for nourishment. We might feel proud to buy such coffee with a “Fair Trade” label on it, thinking we have helped provide a good life to these Rwandan farmers, but don’t believe for one moment that this is a system put in place or preferred by the people working on a farm or in a processing plant. Having the ability to choose between farming coffee and farming vegetables and meat requires that you own the land. Corporate farm ownership and contract farming are disruptive to food sovereignty, an idea presented by Via Campesina, an “International Peasant Movement,” which essentially states that people, communities and countries should be able to decide for themselves what food to produce and eat. That this idea even has to exist is a sad reminder of how corporations, countries and “free trade” have truly dominated and enslaved many of the world’s poor.
Readers gain from the book, above all, a global perspective on the broken food system. Though it is rather long and verbose, it never felt like a chore to read. In the end Patel offers readers a broad outline for changes that includes ten items like supporting local business, living wages for all and “eating agroecologically,” which sum up the book nicely and provide important actionable items for anyone involved in the food system (hint: that definitely includes you).
You might also like: Stolen Harvest by Vandana Shiva