Unless you’re a corporate food executive, the food system isn’t working for you.
-Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System
It’s amazing how a 300 page book can be summed up in thirteen words, but the quote at the top of the page succinctly describes what Raj Patel lays out in Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.
However, there is a lot of value to be had in not assuming the message of the book is as simple as those three words. You must read this book because it gives you the context and nuance behind why the food system does not work anymore unless you are an employee of the large industrial agriculture or food companies. Heck, executives at Monsanto probably get a copy of this book as a detailed list of the things they believe that they did well as a company.
Primarily, this is one of the few books that you will find readily available that puts the food system in a global context. It’s one thing to write a book about the decline of the family farm in the rural Midwestern United States. There are sympathetic audiences to that story across the political spectrum from MSNBC to Fox News. But talk about cotton farmers in rural India or Brazilian farmers trying to work out from under the thumb of the industrial soybean regime and you will find the task increasingly difficult. Nonetheless, Raj Patel has done a commendable job in describing the global disaster that is our modern food system.
One of the major takeaways, in my opinion, from this book and the many talks that the author gives is that the problem in the modern food system is its “hourglass” shape. That is to say, on one end you have many producers who funnel the raw ingredients of our food system to a few companies who control production, distribution, and retailing. These few mega companies, in turn, sell the products to many consumers. The constriction in the middle is what has allowed the policies that shape our modern food system to become so warped.
This constriction also removes us, as consumers, away from any true understanding of what it means to actually grow food. The author puts it bluntly:
If we ever think of fields, our thoughts about the countryside are benign, passive, and vapid. To become and remain idyll, the rural is forgotten, sanitized and shorn of meaning to fit the view from the city. For our purposes, airbrushing the countryside serves us badly. [Page 299]
It’s Currier and Ives or Norman Rockwell visions of farmers on small homesteads. Or, if you are in Iowa, Grant Wood’s ideal landscapes of rolling hills and young corn.
If our perceptions of rural landscapes and farmers are deluded, then we should shudder at the delusion we are under when it comes to choice in the supermarket. The supermarket may be convenient, but the products on the shelves do not represent true or meaningful choice. It’s the Coke versus Pepsi choice that is artifice embodied as independence.
Do not even think certified organic is somehow freeing you of guilt. One of Patel’s most stunning indictments is of certified organic:
Think of it as a kind of culinary taxidermy, in which the living social relations are shot, stuffed and mounted on the shelves. Never having experienced a direct connection to the people who grow our food, we’re tricked by the simulacrum, mistaking the dead green “Certified Organic” packaging for a living connection. [Page 252]
Furthermore, the supermarket is another of the great constrictors because it removes many local producers from being able to access local markets. It also turns local farmers into racers in a competition to the lowest rung on the ladder of price because the foodstuffs they now produce are commoditized ingredients in processed food. Speaking of women farmers who wanted to have the capability to grind their own corn for meal rather than selling their whole corn at low prices and buying meal at higher prices, Patel writes:
This way they could be independent of the supermarket, but still profit from the technology that made it convenient. In other words, the women wanted control of the means of production. [Page 245]
And I thought that Karl Marx’s theories were dead.
I may have made the book sound like Debbie Downer, but the tone is more hopeful than that. The proponents of the modern food system may be powerful. These proponents, however, share the fatal flaw in that there policies are killing people on both ends of the hourglass. Between suicides of farmers and diabetes in consumers there is a growing consensus that something is fundamentally wrong. The number one rule of marketing should be “Don’t let the consumer know you are killing them.” How did it work out for the cigarette manufacturers when people found out they had hidden evidence of the harmful effects of smoking for decades? People were a smidge pissed.
Okay, he is probably not the messiah but he has very profound things to say about the global food system. If you get a chance, check out his talks at UC Berkeley’s Edible Education course in 2011 and 2012.