A Thumbs Up Book Review
Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System
By Raj Patel
Melville House Publishing, 2008
Review by John Moody
Question: How is it possible that the world contains over 800 million starving people. . . and over one billion obese people? How is it that the overweight outnumber the underfed? Answer: Because the food system suffers from a waistline problem.
Scholar, journalist and activist Raj Patel takes readers on a journey not just across Iowa’s cornfields or through California’s produce-laden vales, but around the world and through its recent agricultural history. While Patel gives a modest outline for the book’s trajectory, from field to fork, it is more like a Tour de France of the global food system.
As the journey unfolds, Patel reveals the “how” and “why” of starvation and obesity, an answer that is stunningly simple: it just so happens that the food system suffers from a “waistline” problem. This waistline is not like the robust and growing one of the developed world, but is akin to the cinched, famine-stricken waistline of the Third World.
This constriction at the connection point between farmers and consumers—occupied by multi-national food conglomerates like Cargill, Monsanto and others—gives these companies a position of tremendous influence and control over every facet of the modern food system, from Argentine farmers in their fields to American families trawling the aisles of their local supermarket, usually without the participants’ knowledge, and certainly without their say in the matter.
Patel’s figures, diagrams and other visual aids help the reader grasp just how “narrow” the waistline between farmer and consumer has become—the world’s millions of farmers and billions of consumers have just a few thousand, or fewer, points of connection, and almost no viable ways to bypass this corporate bottleneck. He also lays out the astonishing repercussions of this bottleneck—cheap soy and corn as inputs for highly processed concoctions, suicidal farmers from the Midwest to India, degradation of land and despicable treatment of animals and workers, starvation for hundreds of millions of people, and degenerative diseases for even more.
These “waistline” occupants also wield unprecedented inf luence over countries and governments—manipulating, bribing and sometimes blatantly violating laws when these laws stop them from engaging in harmful or suspect practices, such as with the spread of GMOs in Brazil. The end result is that these companies keep the world food system’s waistline “thin,” reaping incredible profits and shoring up their control of the world market, while others suffer.
One of the most moving stories in all of Patel’s work comes from South Africa, where local women lament the invasion of a grocery store chain—pointing out their accompanying loss of excellent health and fair incomes for themselves and their children and community—and yet at the same time express how much they enjoy no longer having to hand-grind their own corn. Sadly, some of the same people who suffer most from the encroachment of the modern food system are the quickest to support it with their scant resources because of its “convenience.” While people may be tempted to blame the corporations or governments for their ill health, environmental pollution, unfair wages, and a host of other woes, they often overlook a key fact: we are the ones who empowered these companies and governments with our money in the first place. We are Wal-Mart. Thus, one audience that may especially benefit from Patel’s work is more conservative churches that have a hard time understanding the connection between catchy phrases such as “buy local” and “fair trade” and biblical instructions to love our neighbors as ourselves. Patel makes these connections crystal clear.
Opportunity and Responsibility
While Patel’s book is often grim, there are glimmers of hope appearing around the globe, from the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil to America’s growing farmers’ markets and CSAs, models that Patel sets forth for others to emulate. One of the best facets of the whole book are his recommendations—he gives few, focusing primarily on what people choose to eat, along with who and where it comes from and how it is raised. Such recommendations are sound, since rightly addressing the first concern goes a long way towards both simplifying and improving the others.
Patel also points out that the food system needs, of all things, fattening up at the waistline, at the point where those who raise food and those who eat it should meet face to face (more grass-fed raw butter for all, including the corporate elites!). The best way for this to happen is for consumers to connect as directly with farmers and food production as possible, and for governments to enable (or at the very least stop disabling and stop those who seek to disable) this basic freedom.
Patel’s work deserves two thumbs up. It merits the first thumb because no review could begin to do justice to the book’s quality and breadth—the import of his work is accessible to the average reader yet full of detailed information useful for citizen activists. The second thumb salutes Patel’s personal experience, involvement, and participation in these issues which are evident throughout the work. He writes as both as gifted researcher and as a committed activist, encouraging each of us towards the same.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2009.