Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 4, Dated Feb 2, 2008
Lost in The
riveting new book lays bare the inequalities of the world food system,
finds NITYANAND JAYARAMAN
STARVED - Raj Patel
Portobello Books; 448 pp; Rs 1076
IF YOU THINK you live in a democracy, time for a reality check. Nowadays,
farmers resisting the Orissa government’s plans to give their land
to Korean steel major POSCO are attacked by a mob allegedly led by their
own MLA. Nandigram and Singur have come to symbolise the collusive take-over
of agricultural lands by the state for private industry.
Beyond gobbling up agricultural land and evicting farmers from their homes,
companies like POSCO or Tata seem to have nothing to do with agriculture.
But academic and activist Raj Patel’s authoritative account of the
hidden battle for the global food industry will tell you that food is
never too far from the minds of the corporate execs. POSCO through its
US joint venture USS-POSCO is the leading supplier of tinplate for the
US canned food industry. Tata has entire companies — Tata Tea, Innovative
Foods, TOMCO — devoted to food.
Patel’s book is as much about corporations as it is about the food
system. “Unless you’re a corporate food executive, the food
system is not working for you,” he writes. That is a sentiment that
more than one lakh Indian farmers have endorsed with their lives. Patel
shifts effortlessly from dissecting the historical processes leading to
the spate of farmer suicides in India to the global epidemic of starvation
and obesity that plagues roughly a billion people each. As the book’s
title so aptly puts it, excess and scarcity are two faces of the same
malaise that afflicts the global food system — where food producers
are starved of income, and consumers of real choices.
Drawing on international examples Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power
and the Battle for the World Food System goes on to break down every myth
of technology-led development, revealing it as a process controlled by
the elites, for the elites. “The technology presents itself as a
feel-good solution for politicians who’d rather not face the more
profound, persistent and difficult questions of politics and distribution,”
Patel writes. Consumers and producers are relegated to the status of essential
ingredients not partners or beneficiaries in the formula for profits.
And governments are seen as conduits for transferring public resources
to private players, even while managing dissent.
The book’s all-too-familiar critique of corporate globalisation
is not the rant of a conspiracy theorist. Patel’s painstaking research,
manifest in the nearly 100 pages of endnotes, lays bare a worldview where
all things great and beautiful flow out of the mere action of consolidating
As business models assessed for their ability to suck wealth even from
the bottom of the pyramid, Patel offers a startling variety of perversely
“successful” food system schemes and scams that inevitably
involve technology, monoculture and the infusion of massive amounts of
capital. Examples abound — from the dumping of cheap US monoculture
corn in Mexico (the birthplace of corn), to triggering the soy monoculture
boom in Brazil — to demonstrate that behind every ecological disaster
and economic hardship faced by the poorest, there is at least one US corporation
fattening its shareholders.
Ironically, “a good number of food system companies position themselves
through a language of care for the world’s hungry,” Patel
writes. Indeed, many Northern NGOs promote ethical consumption of the
guilt-free, fatfree, toxin-free variety. Patel dismisses such nonprofit
types. Ethical consumption, even over-consumption, has been perfected
in these countries where activists spend millions convincing retail giants
to source fair trade.
Patel’s otherwise bleak thesis is not without its hints at solutions.
Not surprisingly, most of these experiments — in Cuba, Kerala, Brazil
— are born out of adversity not plenty. But his prognosis for India
is none too pretty. Even as farmers from the most prosperous farming regions
of India dropped like flies, Manmohan Singh launched the Indo-US Knowledge
Initiative thus: “We owe our Green Revolution to America. Now we
can herald a second Green Revolution with American assistance.”
A promise to some, and a threat to others.
One Tuticorin farmer resisting eviction to make way for Tata’s titanium
mining project sums it up well: “We are being squeezed out from
all sides. Tatas are squeezing us out of farming. To escape that we go
to the cities to set up shops. There Reliance and Walmart are making life
miserable for small traders.” Patel’s book is not merry reading,
but dull it is not. It offers an insight into the belly of the beast,
and a sense of the radicalism required to effect change.