Stuffed and Starved

Patel's Stuffed and Starved book-cover

You know a book is good when not one, but three different friends write to you unprompted to recommend it. And you know it’s a masterpiece when it spawns a Facebook fanclub group! So today I bought Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel’s new study on the absurdities and political interests lying behind the current global food system, which leaves millions fighting obesity while millions more struggle to get a meal a day.

Felicity Lawrence on The Guardian sings its praise:

Unless you are a corporate food executive, the food system isn’t working for you. If you are one of the world’s rural poor dependent on agriculture for your livelihood – and roughly half the global population of 6 billion fall into this category – you are likely to be one of the starved. If you are an urban consumer, whether an affluent metropolitan or slum-dwelling industrial labourer, you are likely to be one of the stuffed, suffering from obesity or other diet-related ills.

Raj Patel’s fascinating first book examines this apparent paradox. His thesis is that the simultaneous existence of nearly 1 billion who are malnourished and nearly 1 billion who are overweight is in fact the inevitable corollary of a system in which a handful of corporations have been allowed to capture the value of the food chain. Moreover, government policies through history have been designed to control our food. Their aim has been to provide cheap food for the urban masses and so prevent dissent at home. The instruments of colonial command may have been replaced with newer mechanisms that give a greater role to the private sector, but control our food they still do with disastrous social consequences, despite all the neo-liberal rhetoric of free trade and choice.

Another book joining my awful backlog of to-do reading…

2 responses to “Stuffed and Starved

  1. Pingback: » Stuffed and Starved

  2. I’ll only footnote my usual rant here: Stop blaming everyone because you can’t keep your hand out of the sack of Big Macs.

    Is there soy and corn in everything? Yes. Does this mean you HAVE to drink two-litres of ‘diet’ Coke every day at lunch? No.

    Supermarkets supply greater variety and more food choice to more people than at any time in human history – and you can choose to eat fairly healthily in most places in the developed world. (Where poverty constrains choices, however, there is a link between poverty and obesity – but it is not clear that the ‘slow food’ movement incorporates any solution to poverty.)

    Most of the agricultural poor in developing countries are subsistence producers – NOT supply sources for Whole Foods. They are malnourished because a) many lack access to clean water and have chronic illnesses and b) the staple food is often very nutrient poor. If you want to improve health outcomes for this group of people, you have to raise incomes to allow them to acquire higher quality food. Institutions other than the food system might be to blame (as in the case of agricultural subsidization and trade rules), along with the low productivity of agricultural labor (lack of technology) and climate change (desertification).

    The political economy of food production – also ably described by Jared Diamond – certainly has systemic distortions. And these distortions convey power relations as they exist in practice, from the absurdity of agricultural subsidies in the US to the buyer-driven value chains making up Walmart globally. As long as there has been organized society, there has been inequality in wealth and caloric intake, because surplus extraction is constitutive to society and because all wealth originates in the earth and those who tend it. But attempts to overhaul the political economy of food has produced two disastrous failures in Russia and China.

    BBC reported tonight on the epidemic of diabetes currently afflicting African countries as they transition to middle income, giving more people the purchasing power to buy fast food etc.

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