Transforming a broken food system: an interview with Raj Patel

30 October 2015

Raj Patel is an award-winning British academic, journalist, activist and writer. Often referred to as the ‘rock star of social justice writing’, Patel was educated at Oxford University, LSE and Cornell University. In addition to numerous publications in academic journals, he regularly writes for The Guardian, and has contributed to newspapers including the Financial Times and New York Times.

He is well known for his book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, a searing indictment of the profit-motivated corporate control of our global food system, which has led to extremes of starvation and obesity. He also wrote New York Times bestseller The Value of Nothing, an analysis of the financial crisis and critique of the neoliberal, free-market economics that caused it. In line with Buddhist economics, he has also advocated “a society in which we value meeting people’s basic needs over greed”. He is currently working on a new documentary, book and multimedia project, called Generation Food, which documents our broken food system and highlights better ways of growing food, and feeding the world.

Patel is also a strong supporter of agroecology instead of large-scale industrial farming and food sovereignty – the concept that the people who produce, distribute, and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution, rather than the corporations and market institutions that have come to dominate the global food system – publicly supporting groups such as La Via Campesina – a coalition of over 148 organisations which defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity, and strongly opposes corporate-driven agriculture and transnational companies – and the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement.

In this interview with Fairfood’s Richard Glass, he shares his view on corporate control of the food system and the systemic change needed to create a fairer future.

Thinking of Stuffed and Starved, there was a large focus on malnutrition and obesity being consequences of large food monopolies. Which actors have the greatest capacity to change this: large food and beverage companies or supermarket chains?

Asking these groups to fix monopolies is like asking the iceberg to fix the Titanic. It’s not what they do. They are constitutionally bound to try to increase profits, and a good way of doing that is to try to increase market power, and a good way of doing that is by squelching the competition. So, I think it’s a plague on both their houses. Supermarkets have a great deal of power in terms of influencing the supply chain and food conglomerates and producers, and vice versa.

If we’re interested in reducing monopoly, then the traditional actors for doing that have been governments, but they have shown very little inclination to use the laws that are already on their books. If you want an example of that look at the Obama administration absolute pandering to the agribusiness in the US when, for example, investigations were launched into concentrations in the meat industry and seeds. The only actor that’s in a good position to do something is the government. And the only reason governments do anything is because there’s enough citizen pressure that counteracts the immense power over governments by these large businesses.

I don’t see a way of free markets working very well when it comes to the international food system, partly because these corporations have bought the system, but also, unfortunately, because they’ve also bought the governments that right the system.

Lucas Benitez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) said he had no faith that governments were anything more than puppets of large corporate interests. Is there any hope of that changing?

The reason that governments are not puppets of corporate interests is because they have so much power. Corporations don’t do puppetry just for the hell of it. They need puppets that are powerful, not ones that are weak. Lucas may have misspoken when he said governments are not powerful. They are powerful and that’s why corporations have bought them. I don’t think that that’s irreversible. I see the CIW as a bridging solution to be able to get this consciousness of workers rights into the agenda. It’s important for workers to have their rights recognised and the solution that the CIW has come up with is an elegant one, but it can’t be the long-term solution.

You’ve mentioned that people shouldn’t be tempted by ‘green consumerism’ and the rise of organic and fair trade. Could you explain that a bit more?

I buy fair trade coffee, because what’s the alternative? Bastard coffee? Coffee that involves exploitation and death? You buy ethically because you think of yourself as a decent human being and it turns out that your consumer habits were involved in exploitation and slavery, so in order to recover your sense of dignity you stop being involved in slavery.

But there’s much more when it comes to doing the right thing than not enslaving people. Unfortunately, the idea of green consumerism lends itself to that idea of self-congratulation, which is horrible, because that gets you nowhere on the road to making the world a better place. In fact, it retards you because then your driving motivation has been sucked up in the act of consumerism, rather than the act of organising and transformation. Consumerism is never about transformation. It’s about a patch on a broken system. I don’t see how better shopping is going to change the world. If you look at every systemic and major change that happened in the world, it’s never happened through shopping. It’s happened through transformation, organisation and protest. The sooner we learn that, the sooner we move beyond not doing the bad thing to a world where we are doing the right thing.

How much have you seen the food system change since the first publication of Stuffed and Starved?

I haven’t seen change inside the US and Europe, so much as outside, in particular in Brazil in terms of connecting rural to urban and especially with regard to food sovereignty. When I first published Stuffed and Starved, food sovereignty was still very much an insider’s language and now it’s in the constitution of a bunch of places. That’s due, in large part, to the organising of groups like La Via Campesina pushing at an international level to make the idea of food sovereignty a reality.

The second thing that’s been very important to see is the way that climate change has shaped and reshaped the food system. We’ve seen more and more small-scale producers moving into things that involve agroecology and farming systems that are diversified, because climate change is nailing monoculture. By being able to diversify crops, I’m seeing more small-scale farmers really interested in the idea of not buying pesticides, in making sure their soil fertility is built through legumes and pests are managed through agroecological means. And that’s something I can see becoming more and more a feature of small-scale and medium agriculture, because we don’t have the resources to do otherwise.

If you were going to say in a nutshell what you would do to redeem or reorganize our food system, what would your advice be?

The advice would be not to trust me or anyone else. The advice would be to organize for systemic change. We can all organise and demand, for example, a community garden or better school lunches, but systemic change means recognising that the food industry, as it now stands, is based on unsustainable premises. You don’t have to believe me. There was a KPMG report that came out recently. You can look at sustainability indicators coming from everywhere, from Nestle to Unilever.

For everyone who wants the food industry to be sustainable, which is most human beings, we can’t have the food industry carry on as it is. Addressing that requires not just more ethical shopping, but a deep and systemic understanding of why the food industry looks the way that it does and a deeper engagement of what systemic change might look like. There are lots of groups fighting for this, like La Via Campesina and the Food Chain Workers Alliance in the US.

You have talked about the Landless Workers Movement (MST) as a new paradigm for a new food system. What do you find so remarkable about the MST?

What’s exciting about them is they’re serious about understanding the limits to monoculture, the limits to the ultra-processed food system that we have and the limits to the economic architecture of the food system. They’re not just serious about that, but they’re serious about doing something. Everything from occupying land to training people to live their lives free from the industrial food system to working with the government to assure there are, for example, bonuses for agroecology, which costs more, but makes sure there are no environmental problems.

While the conventional food industry gets a free ride polluting and destroying the environment, agroecology doesn’t do that, so what you want to do is reward farmers for doing that. That means paying farmers more and if you’ve figured out the policy architecture to do that, you’ve also gone a very way long way to moving us towards a better food system.

That’s why for me the MST has a great deal to teach a lot of people, because it’s operating on so many different levels from developing and training people in agroecology to schooling the government on public policy to make sure that children eat well. That seems to be a win at every level.

Is this transferable to urbanized European countries for example?

Well Brazil is very urbanised. That’s what’s exciting about that model. It’s true that there’s a lot of unoccupied land in Brazil, but mostly that’s the Amazon or the Cerrado. What the MST is keen on is not to chop down the Amazon to occupy it, but to take up that land that’s being barely used by monoculture, but also by taking people from the Favelas, in some of the most densely populated cities on earth, and helping them find work and meaningful life in agriculture. Then making sure that there’s money to support them that comes from the cities and the food goes back to the cities in a way that children in and around Brazil’s urban areas get access to good, clean healthy food that respects workers rights and the environment. All of that seems to be very transferable to the rest of the world.

What’s harder for the rest of the world to understand is that here is an organisation that takes Marxism seriously and has managed to resettle a million people and is doing very well. But young people now are increasingly curious about what Marxism or Socialism has to offer, because when you look at what Capitalism has done to the environment and to the planet, a lot of people are thinking we can do better.

The neoliberal, free market philosophy is dominant in most Western societies. A conspiracy theorist might talk of the ever-increasing cost of living and an exhausted populace increasingly in debt being tied to cheap food offered by supermarkets. Is this the way society is going, a kind of social control, and is there hope for change?

I’m working on a book with a guy named Jason W Moore on a book that addresses all this which will be it out next year. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s the way that capitalism operates: confusing populations with what it is that they need to be eating, keeping wages low so that you need cheap food. And keeping time pressures high is a fantastic way of stalling and stymieing urban change in the food system, but luckily there are alternatives. There are better ways of going about the transformation of the food system. There are enough people in urban areas who are sick of it, who want less confusion and less noise about what to eat and who are actually taking fairly radical action and that’s reassuring.

The idea of Occam’s razor is one I subscribe to. Yes you could say it’s deliberate social control, but you don’t need that hypothesis to explain why it is that the system travels on without much change. You don’t need the conspiracy theory to have the outcome. The way to uproot this system is by organising systemically for transformative change.

Some people would say this neoliberal free market system is closest to human nature

That’s rubbish. Everyone can be selfish, but most people choose not to be. The most selfish people on earth in Western civilization are graduate students in Economics. They behave most like the selfish bastards that inhabit their models. In general, most people are engaged in daily acts of reciprocity and generosity. Even though most people think that other people are selfish bastards, they continue to behave in ways that are not selfish. And that’s what is a great source of hope. There are plenty of other non-capitalist civilisations in which that is borne out so abundantly that I think it’s foolish for people to say that capitalism is the zenith of human nature, because that’s all we ever want to be.

What country or community is counteracting this model?

I think you need to look away from governments. I think you need to look at the way people are organising as communities, such as indigenous communities in Peru, where people are organising to protect their intellectual property without a state in a way that is collective and keeps knowledge and these mechanisms of reciprocity and change within a local community. But what about a country? There isn’t one. Countries are themselves products of capitalism. The nation state is a fairly new social form and it’s premised on the idea of industrial capitalism. Countries just like companies, which emerged at roughly the same time, are products of their particular context, but if I’m allowed to think of communities there are plenty. That is surely a source of hope.

One of your book references the Buddhist economics. Could you explain your interest in this?

What’s nice about that idea of Buddhist economics is that is about recognising our desires and wants beyond a certain level leading to unhappiness. That is to some extent what Adam Smith understood. He understood that the engine for the economy is greed, the need to find one’s own respect in the community and the way you find that is by comparing yourself to other people.

Is a spiritual awakening needed globally and are people capable of it?

I think people are capable of recognising that they are running on treadmills trying to get more and more stuff. You don’t need to become a bead-counting, robe-wearing Buddhist to understand that the world we’re in at the moment isn’t making us terribly happy and that well-being is found in other places. Lots of people are looking for that. You don’t need to be spiritual to figure that out. You just need to take a step back and part of the way that capitalism functions is to deny us that space. So fighting back for the space to reflect and be able to do that is an important part of the struggle.

More information about Raj Patel

Visit Raj Patel’s website for more information about his work, and find out more about his forthcoming  documentary, book and multimedia project in collaboration with award-winning director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) entitled Generation Food.