Raj Patel held up a Snickers bar, examined the list of ingredients and proclaimed it the key to understanding the world’s food system.
The list included cocoa, likely from the Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer and an employer of child labour. It also included lecithin, an emulsifier made from soybean oil, found in most processed food products.
Exploited people and poor diets are the two greatest results of today’s globalized, industrialized food system, Patel told the annual convention of the National Farmers Union.
Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Along with Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Paul Roberts (The End of Food), Patel is a strong critic of modern industrialized agriculture and food production.
Patel compared the food system to an hourglass, with farmers at the top, consumers at the bottom, and a “middle constriction” of a few powerful multinational food processors and retailers.
Their influence on every aspect of production, from commodity prices to food content, produces farmers “borrowed to the hilt” and consumers with unhealthy eating habits, Patel, currently a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, said.
In his native India, home to one in every six of the world’s farmers, a growing number of debt-ridden small landholders are committing suicide. Meanwhile, Type 2 diabetes is on the rise as Indians adjust to a western diet which includes Coke and Pepsi, Patel told an audience of about 300 NFU delegates and students. In his own family, all the men over 50 have the disease.
Patel also attacked liberalized world economic policies of the 1990s for damaging Third World countries’ food self-sufficiency. Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, was almost self-sufficient in rice in the early 1980s. But that was before the World Bank, Patel’s former employer, began requiring open markets in exchange for loans. Subsidized U. S. rice imports began replacing domestic rice. When the price of rice increased dramatically
earlier this year, food riots broke out because there was no local rice and imports were too expensive.
Patel called for food sovereignty among nations in which food is a human right and local production is encouraged. But he warned against being “beguiled” by solutions such as fair trade and organic agriculture, which themselves can become multinational industries.
He mocked the idea of agricultural giants such as Monsanto and Syngenta solving world hunger, saying it was “like asking the iceberg to save the Titanic.” Corporations are not so much interested in increasing crop yields as they are about protecting intellectual property, he said.
Reminders that the food crisis also hits close to home came up during a question period.
One person said food banks in Saskatoon are seeing a significant increase in financially pressured clients forced to decide between paying the rent and feeding the kids.
Patel said one in every eight Americans today is “food insecure” because of the global financial crisis.