We've lost control over what we eat

2007-11-14 00:00

IF you don't believe there's anything amiss with the global food system, consider this: in 2000, within hours of buying the famous Vermont-based ice cream partnership Ben & Jerry's, corporate conglomerate Unilever acquired Slim-Fast Foods, then the fastest-growing sector in the United States health food business.

This means that if too many half-cups of “Brownie Batter” original ice-cream at 1 302 kilojoules a shot turn you into one of the planet's one billion overweight people, you can turn to the powdered diet drinks made by Slim-Fast. In both cases, Unilever wins. The multinational controls both the source of modern food and the “solutions” to the problems it produces. In other words, it pays Unilever to make you fat.

This is one example in the rich arsenal collected by San Francisco-based author, activist and academic Raj Patel to defend his view that “global hunger and obesity are symptoms of the same problem”.

In his book Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Patel shows how the global food system is driven by “forces that are hidden from us and to which we almost never pay any attention”. In other words, we've lost control over what we eat.

Canadian activist and writer Naomi Klein calls the book “dazzling”. And it is - in its sense of urgency, breadth of its subject matter, level of detail and delivery. The book traverses the globe in a bid to challenge the veneer of choice presented by the modern food system (as in, Pepsi or Coke?) and its powers to distract us from questions which go to the heart of democracy (as in, “Are we in control of the markets or do the markets control us?”).

Along the way, Patel points to links between the food system and famine in Asia and Africa, and farmer suicides around the world. He deftly unpacks the workings of a so-called “free” market-driven global system to explain why more black people than white people are overweight in the United States, why poor women in northern KwaZulu-Natal are being squeezed out of farming by their local supermarket chain which trucks in produce from distant regions and why none of us really know what's in our food anymore.

“This book is for everyone,” Patel says, when I meet him in Durban during his recent visit to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he worked as a fellow of the Centre for Civil Society. “It's especially for people who enjoy getting under the skin of things.”

He's tried to keep the book as readable as possible. “So you don't need a degree in sociology to follow it.”

Which is just as well, because it has a big message for ordinary consumers for whom the connection between what's on our dinner plate and the toil and sacrifice of people and animals around the world has become so obscure as to be virtually forgotten.

Nowhere is this amnesia more profound than in that “highest temple of the modern food system” - the supermarket, which nurses our profligate demand for plastic-wrapped processed food or out-of-season produce - at the lowest possible prices. Patel traces the history of the supermarket, its placement, and its meticulous design, which guarantees that shoppers will buy more than they need. For Patel, the supermarket is the place where “we learn to forget how things are produced and learn the guilty and addictive pleasures of purchase”.

But, as he shows, there are consequences to such pleasures. In the U.S., the arrival of a Wal-Mart retailer signals the demise of the local economy. In the global south, supermarkets are “sprouting” everywhere, partly as a result of the World Bank-inspired eradication of government-controlled marketing boards. In Zambia, farmers threatened to burn down the new Shoprite supermarkets because they were seen to be “stealing all the market”.

But supermarkets are a single link in the global food chain, which on the whole, argues Patel, is living on borrowed time, if only because of its dependence on fossil fuels. There's also the ecological footprint: the world's livestock industry, says Patel, produces 18% of all CO2-equivalent emissions and contributes more to climate change than cars. And there's the drain on water reserves: the rampant Brazilian soya industry is destroying the South American Guarani aquifer, the world's largest underground water source. Patel describes the food system as a “machine gun”. So far, he says, we've managed to dodge a few of the bullets like mad cow disease and bird flu, but others are coming.

“The correct response is anger,” says Patel when I ask how individuals should respond to a system which produces obscene inequities and treats consumers like automatons. “A collection of discontent and anger is often what changes the world for the better,” he adds.

For someone who advocates anger, I detect few signs of the angry young man in Patel, although his convictions are clear. “Jamie Oliver can make a pizza from scratch in the time it takes to order one and have it delivered,” he replies to my suggestion that convenience food is tempting because it is well ... um ... convenient.

More expensive? Yes, but as the movement's founder argues in an interview with Patel, we should actually be paying more for our food. “A living wage is an integral part of food policy,” says Patel.

At the heart of the book is a commitment to change. So Patel gives guidelines for personal choices around food and highlights a number of initiatives successfully challenging mainstream food production. All of them are fighting for “food sovereignty”, he writes, a “vision that aims to redress the abuse of the powerless by the powerful”.

None of them - from the landless rural workers movement (MST) in Brazil, to community-supported agricultural initiatives in the U.S. - want to do away with markets or innovation or vigour. “They merely want to put markets under their control, rather than be controlled by them,” says Patel.

• Focus on World Diabetes Day on page 10

Raj patel's tips on changing our world

• Change our tastes. We've accepted processed, energy-dense foods as normal, but they're not.

• Eat locally and seasonally. Food grown closer to home costs less to make and has a smaller carbon footprint. If we want to eat meat, fish or animal products, we must pay for sustainably raised animals.

• Eat agro-ecologically. This is a farming philosophy that develops soil fertility, produces a variety of crops and matches farming to the needs, climate, geography, biodiversity and aspirations of a place and community, and encourages people to grow their own food.

• Support locally-owned businesses. Local growers and businesses employ more people and charge less for fresh produce than supermarkets do.

Who is Raj Patel?

Born in London, Patel says he was brought up surrounded by “crap food, cigarettes and magazines”, which stocked his family's shop - the English equivalent of a spaza. Today, he's a member of the international Slow Food Movement, which “fights for the right to choose food differently and savour it fully”.

Educated at Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, and now based at the University of California, Berkeley, Patel is as much the activist as he is the academic. He's been tear gassed on four continents protesting against former employers such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations.

As a fellow of Food First, the global think tank which seeks solutions to hunger, poverty and environmental destruction, Patel is at the forefront of the movement to change the food system.

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