Raj Patel has been tracking the pathologies of the global food system for many years. An activist and academic who teaches at the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies, Patel has just published a second, updated edition of his 2008 book, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.
The problem with the food system is not that we don't produce enough calories to eradicate hunger, Patel notes. It's that the food system has its own priorities of institutional consolidation and profit, which means that more than 1 billion people in the world are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight – which is worse than when the first edition of Patel's book came out.
Patel has also been a serious student of the commons. His 2010 book, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape the Market Society and Redefine Democracy, is a lucid overview of the fallaciious premises of market economics and its dismal performance. He also goes on at length about the ability of the commons paradigm to help ameliorate food sovereignty, environmental sustainability and social justice.
Recommended reading is a recent interview with Patel at Stir, the vigorous, commons-oriented British political journal founded by Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh. (Incidentally, Stir is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to pay for a print run of a book collecting some of its best articles.)
Here are a few excerpts from Stir’s interview with Patel:
On genetically modified crops & climate change: “We have an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that agro-ecological farming systems will be able to feed the world in the future. The GM advocates are saying, “What about drought-resistance and climate-change-ready crops?” That seems to be nonsense! To have a crop that is climate-change-ready is ludicrous because change is precisely change — it is so many different things. It could be new pests, rains coming at the wrong time; it could be too much rain, or too much heat. It is impossible to have a single crop that is ready for those possible changes. We’ve already seen the limits of that because Monsanto has a product called ‘Drought Guard’ — a genetically-modified crop that performs no better than any conventional crop in resisting anything but a mild drought. The problem with this is that climate change isn’t about mild anything but extreme weather events.”
On fighting the food industry: “I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend any time asking the food industry to give us stuff — this is just a waste of effort. When you ask Coke, for example, to make their products more nutritious they will give us Diet Coke Plus (which I don’t believe was ever on sale in the UK). We already have regular Diet Coke which is a semi-toxic soup and then you add vitamins to it — and this is their solution. ‘You’ve asked for a more nutritious drink and we’ve added vitamins to it! What more do you want?’ This, of course, doesn’t answer any of the fundamental concerns addressed to the food industry and so I think the food industry will be brought along kicking and screaming. The answer then is not ask for a compromise but to demand the world that we want, whether this is the food world or any other. I think we often forget this.”
On the commons & the Rio+2- conference. "At the Rio Summit….what is being offered as a solution is the privatization of the planet in order to save it. The argument is that we have to sell off mother nature in order to protect her. This kind of market thinking is a catastrophe in the making and we have seen what happens when you commodify nature and business interests only want to profit from it. These are the same interests that caused the financial crisis.
"The mistake at Rio is thinking that the only way we can care about nature is through commodification and privatization. This is not true. The societies that are really good at managing resources, if we are given to the freedom to do so, through the idea of the commons are alive and well today. There is research produced recently that show that forest commons — communities that have enough freedom from government and corporations, and have enough land to survive a mistake or bad weather — are much better at sequestering carbon and looking after themselves. The understanding that privatization is not the answer and that we need to figure out other ways to value together is part of the solution."