Interviews with experts on the science, politics, and culture of food
Part 1: Raj Patel, food activist, scholar, and author of two important books: Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and his new book (now on the New York Times Best Seller list), The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy shares his views about our market driven economy, and what he sees as a necessary direction forward for civilization to survive, and people and communities to flourish.
In his previous book, Stuffed and Starved, Patel examined the global food system, and the transnational corporations that ultimately control the price and availability of the food we buy in the supermarket. From giant food processors to goliath food distribution and transportation companies to global agrichemical and seed companies, the bigger the corporation, the greater their potential competitive advantage by managing costs through economies of scale, and through the ability to exercise monopolistic might and political power. In key sectors of the global food system, the cost of entry demands a substantial degree of largesse—money. Do these advantages result in substantial benefits to the farmer, to the eater, to local communities, to the environment?
To Patel, the answer sadly, is a resounding, no! We have created a system that delivers cheap calories, but cheap we discover contains only the illusion of being cheap. The price we pay for this market driven, industrial agriculture system exacts a deferred subsidy from the planet (in the form of increased atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulations, and other forms of environmental degradation), and according to Patel, also, a disproportionate subsidy from poorer nations (the global south), and from women whose work is undervalued and often unpaid. Economists refer to these costs as externalities. These are largely hidden costs that are not incorporated into the price of the final product, nonetheless they represent real costs that eventually come due.
In Patel’s new book, The Value of Nothing, he hones in on what it means to have corporate monopolies that can manipulate both price and supply, coupled with a “free market” philosophy that hijacks government oversight and public protection, where the price of something bears little relation with its true value.
Patel argues that corporations, driven only to achieve profits, do not try to satisfy real human needs. For example, Patel presents us with the true cost of a hamburger, not a $10 hamburger (that would be considered to many, pricey enough) but a $200 hamburger! How can that be? When you factor in all the externalities, including the loss of biodiversity, the clear cutting of vast areas of rainforests to raise cattle to supply ample meat to the fast food industry, the fertilizer and fossil fuel needed to grow and transport corn for animal feed used to feed cattle, and other costs—it adds up to being a real whopper.
Of course, this isn’t just about hamburgers, or the cattle industry in general—Patel explains further, it’s the global south that subsidize the price of food in our industrial food system. The full bill will be presented over time in the form of greater weather variability, increased drought, reduced agriculture production zones, increased food and energy prices, increased poverty and greater food insecurity, and increasing levels of diet related illness: diabetes; heart disease, cancer, and other chronic afflictions. These maladies are not mere future predictions, many of these problems already exist, and have increased in severity over the last several decades, attributed in part, to our global food system.
One of the fascinating elements in The Value of Nothing, how we hold to our ideologies (despite recent, clear, and almost incontrovertible evidence) that the “free market” approach is no substitute for strong government regulation and oversight over industry, and no justification in the belief that markets, left to their own devices, will self-gravitate toward greater economic order and efficiency. Indeed, within the Newtonian world in which our planet is a residing member, where the natural forces of gravity do still apply, the evidence supports the contrary view of unregulated (and nontransparent) markets leading to economic bubbles, disorder and without—just in time—massive government intervention, societal collapse.
The false beauty of unfettered markets, and laissez-faire government policies toward industry—reinforces the decidedly dangerous and misguided belief that corporations will act responsibly within the larger context of achieving their goals and advancing their economic interests; and (voila!) the public good will be served. More realistic a view (at least from the public interest perspective), Patel writes of the Weendigo, a mythical race that consumes everything in its path; never satiated, all consuming, until finally, it devours its own life support systems. Patel argues, the transnational corporation (the artificial man) is the modern day Weendigo, built from the ground up to accomplish one thing: deliver profits, without cease.
There is a unique role for government to play—to set the rules of the game, and enforce those rules vigorously and fairly. To moderate the rapacious nature of the “artificial man”— the corporation. To insure a balance between the pursuit of profit and preserving the equality of opportunity; between overseeing the engine of commerce and work, and the protection of our fragile ecosystems upon which all of life, including our own, depends for survival.
Patel refers to a World Bank study, Agriculture at a Crossroads (PDF) that addressed the principal question posed by Robert Watson, its chief scientist about how to feed the world in 2050 with a projected population of 9 billion people (today we are at 6 billion)? The study concluded, according to Patel, “…a need to shift away from the current industrial system of agriculture because it doesn’t adequately value natural resources.” The point Patel clearly makes thoughout his book, within the larger framework that includes our present day food system, but also the wider economy at large, we need to reexamine how we value our national resources, our communities, the work that women do throughout the world, and in general, how we address the needs of the most vulnerable in society.
This interview was filmed at Powell’s Books, in Portland, Oregon.
Next time: Part 2 Food Sovereignty