Stuffed and Starved

The arrival of Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved in U.S. bookstores could not come at a more appropriate time. Global food distribution is suddenly big news, as a result of poor populations rioting over dramatic price increases in rice and other staples in Cambodia, Indonesia, Egypt, Haiti, and in countries throughout Africa. The predictably superficial U.S. media discussion of this rioting leaves an enormous vacuum for Patel’s book to fill.

A former policy analyst with the U.S. progressive think tank Food First, Patel spent years pulling together the research marshalled in this book. He shows how giant companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland helped push policies which created an enormous surplus of corn, which ADM and others then turned into high fructose corn syrup, one of the key contributors to the obesity epidemic now plaguing the U.S. Today, that corn surplus is feeding government-subidized ethanol, which takes more energy to produce than it releases and produces more CO2 than it saves.

Along with tracking the rise of global food conglomerates, Patel introduces us to peasants and poor farmers confronting those giant corporations. Some of the best sections in the book are Patel’s reporting on the landless peasant movement (MST) in Brazil and on poor farmers in India connected to the international Via Campesina network.

Patel zeros in on the crux of global food conflicts when he quotes the daughter of the founder of a farmers group in Karnataka, India. She tells him, “All we want is a fair price. We’re not asking for anything more. My father called it a “scientific” price — a price that includes the cost of growing, the costs of labour, the cost of land. Nothing more.”

Another Karnataka farmer tells Patel, “Our message is this to the world: we the farmers need to stand on our own two legs. We don’t want financial assistance, we know how to do this with our own resources. We don’t want to be dependent on the WTO, the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank. What they give, they give to spoil us. We’re not beggars, we’re creators. We have self-respect and we can be self-reliant. We can control our own resources.”

A farmer in Haryana state responded to Monsanto’s request that he grow gentically modified (GMO) crops by saying, “It’s not good for the farm, for the environment, for human life; I’m happy to see it burn.” Given that in most cases other avenues of resistance have either been blocked or exhausted, increasing numbers of farmers around the world are taking the route of the Indian farmers’ association which in 1998 launched “Operation Cremate Monsanto” and burned GMO crops.

Frustration with low yields and decreased productivity brought on by GMO crops have led to suicides of Indian farmers, most of whom took their lives by eating pesticides provided by agents of global agribusiness. Patel connects this tragic development to the wave of farmer suicides which began among U.S. farmers, especially black farmers, in the 1980s. Not coincidentally, that trend began when “Big Agra”, with the help of taxpayer subsidies, was taking over markets that used to sustain small farmers.

Patel’s avoids the obfuscation which too often plagues mainstream analysis of these issues. On GMO food he writes: “The technology presents itself as a feel-good solution for politicians who’d rather not face the more profound, persistent and difficult questions of politics and distribution. […] The plain fact is that the majority of children in the Global South suffer and die not because there is insufficient food, or because beta-carotene is nationally lacking. They are malnourished and undernourished because all their parents can afford to feed them is rice.”

He continues, “It is absurd to ask a crop to solve the problems of income and food distribution, of course. But since that is precisely the root cause of vitamin A deficiency, the danger of crops such as [the genetically modified] Golden Rice is not merely that they are ineffective publicity stunts. They actively prevent the serious discussion of ways to tackle systemic poverty.”

Patel’s book is a call to go beyond “ethical shopping.” In a recent interview, Patel argued, “People do need to get their hands dirty by getting involved in social change. There is a particularly American fantasy that we can together create a better world by shopping. It’s absolutely a case of thinking we can go to Whole Foods, choose the right thing, shop here, pay for this and all of a sudden we will lift the righteous above the impure.”

In the U.S., the political activism Patel was referring to will have to involve more than simply replacing Republicans with Democrats. The Democratic Party played a key role in pushing a new Farm Bill through the U.S. Congress which will continue disastrous policies of deregulation and massive subsidies for ecologically and socially destructive mega-farms.

The first step in moving beyond the disastrous status quo which Patel describes is to counter the propaganda that says it is not only acceptable, but necessary. Patel’s Stuffed and Starved is a crucial tool for that work.

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Counterpunch, Lip Magazine, and other publications. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Ben, or visit Ben's website.

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  1. GL Rowsey said on June 10th, 2008 at 4:33pm #

    This is an excellent book review, and its emphases are more than appropriate. Another review of the book I read several days ago stressed a couple of complimentary facts: the world is simultaneously undernourished and over-nourished. The Green Revolution did occur and is still occurring. But America is filled with MacDonald’s slobs while most of what used to be called the underdeveloped world is…as Ben Terrall describes it in this review.

  2. Jeremy Wells said on June 11th, 2008 at 12:32pm #

    This excellent three part article from the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) at explains WHY there is a world food crisis. Follow the links
    to the full article.

    The world food crisis and the capitalist market

    By Alex Lantier

    Part One: (June 7, 2008 WSWS)

    “As the June 3-5 Conference on World Food Security of the United
    Nations? Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began in Rome, FAO
    Director Jacques Diouf said of the explosion of food prices: ?It is
    touching every country in the world. We have not only seen riots and
    people dying, but also a government toppled [in Haiti], and we know that
    many countries…could tilt to one way or the other depending on the
    discontent or satisfaction of their population.?

    Part 2 (June 09, 2008 WSWS)

    “The central problem underlying the current food crisis is not a
    physical lack of food, but rather its unaffordability for masses of
    people due to rapidly increasing prices. Among the immediate factors
    driving the rapid worsening of the food crisis, a major role is played
    by the explosion of speculative investment in basic commodities such as
    oil and grain, itself bound up with the difficulties facing US and world
    financial markets and the decline in the US dollar. Rampant speculation
    by hedge funds and other big market players has increased costs,
    encouraging private firms to further bid up prices in a competitive
    drive to amass as much profit as possible.”

    Part III: (June 10, 2008 WSWS)

    “The current food crisis reflects not only financial events of recent
    years, but longer-term policies of world imperialism. Instead of
    allowing for a planned improvement of infrastructure and farming
    techniques, globalization on a capitalist basis has resulted in a
    restriction in many parts of the world of farm production. This has been
    carried out in order to lessen competition and prevent market gluts from
    harming the profit interests of the major powers.”