Stuffed and Starved
A review of the new book by Raj Patel
The Independent, 2nd November 2007
In 1733 George Cheyne, an English vegetarian who was clearly a man ahead of his time in more ways than one, issued a broadside against what he called the ‘English malady.’ ‘Since our wealth has increas’d’, he wrote, ‘we have ransack’d all the parts of the Globe to bring together its whole Stock of Materials for Riot, Luxury, and to provoke Excess … Is it any Wonder, then, that the Diseases which proceed from Idleness and Fulness of Bread, should increase in Proportion, and keep equal Pace with those Improvements of the Matter and Cause of Disease?’
Almost three hundred years later, the English malady has become the world’s. As Raj Patel shows in this magisterial account of the global food system, diseases of ‘idleness and fulness of bread’ now sit alongside diseases of hunger and poverty in almost every country on Earth. A billion people worldwide are now clinically obese, while 800 million go hungry every day. The reason? The global food system.
Patel’s aim in Stuffed and Starved is to expose this system for what it is: to explain where food comes from and how; to look at the historical roots of the system we have today, and to examine why it serves so many people, from farmers to shoppers, so badly. And he is adamant that it does. ‘Unless you’re a corporate food executive’, he writes, ‘the system isn’t working for you.’ He gives himself over 400 pages to explain why and, impressively, he largely succeeds.
Today’s global food system, explains Patel, is effectively a stitch-up. The legacy of an imperial past in which European nations destroyed entire countries to get their hands on sugar, tea or spices, it is today a system controlled almost entirely by a surprisingly small number of very large and very powerful corporations, most of which you have probably never heard of. These are the global middlemen, who come between food’s producers and consumers and, in doing so, control both.
Supermarkets, food processors, seed sellers, agrochemical manufacturers – these are the people who really control the contents of your plate, and Patel has some figures to prove it. Retailers turned over US$3.5 trillion in 2004 alone; agrochemical corporations sold US$25 trillion’s worth of produce. For comparison, the GDP of Canada is just over US$1 trillion a year.
In the meantime, billions more suffer the diseases brought on by our bad food industry – mass starvation in some parts of the world, and the diseases of junk food – obesity, diabetes – in others. Often the two sit side by side. Many of the obese are not rich, as in the past, but poor themselves. Malnourished children brought up in slums are less able to metabolise food as adults; they store more fat from the cheap, poor-quality foods they can afford, ending up both poor and fat.
Meanwhile, supermarkets and grain companies are screwing farmers into the ground so hard that agricultural suicides are at record highs globally, and millions-strong rural resistance movements are flowering everywhere from India to Brazil . New tastes are invented for us, agricultural waste products are poured into our processed foods, the alternatives to supermarkets and global seed companies are being extinguished and people in the world’s ‘developed’ nations are forgetting where food actually comes from or how to cook it. Meanwhile, countries like India , desperate to sustain the ‘economic miracle’ which is so impressing the West, are destroying their own rich farmlands, to the extent that, according to the UN, farmers in the Punjab , formerly the nation’s breadbasket, face ‘ruin and a crisis of existence.’
It’s often a hugely depressing tale, but Patel is determined that things can change, and he does give reasons for hope. Stuffed and Starved is itself stuffed with a huge volume of information, some of which, despite its accessible style, it can be hard to get your head around. But while not a light read, it is an important one, for this is the kind of book from which you emerge enlightened, surprised, angry and determined.