By Robert Jensen
Photography of Punjabi seed-saver (above) by Jason Taylor; of Raj Patel (below) by Jan Sturmann
In the 2007 book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, author Raj Patel describes how an indefensible corporate global food system—focused on producing products for profit, not food for people—leaves a billion people overweight and nearly a billion starving.
His follow-up book, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy (drawn from Oscar Wilde’s quip that “nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”), examines how our faith in prices to interpret value creates the larger, incoherent economic system.
While Patel was on the lecture circuit for these books, the most sophisticated audiovisual aid he employed was a Snickers bar—using it as a prop to demonstrate what’s wrong with our food system. Reading from the list of ingredients (a strange amalgam of things grown in the earth and things concocted in a lab), he outlined the health costs—both for the people wolfing down the candy and for the planet. With his engaging, ordinary-guy-who-happens-to-be-really-smart demeanor, Patel even made interesting an explanation of soy lecithin—one of those pseudo-food products found in almost every processed item.
For his new project though, Patel is moving away from books, bumping up his production values and shifting from analyzing what’s wrong with our global food system to celebrating how it can be done right. He’s focusing on the many ways people around the world are changing how their communities eat today so that everyone can eat tomorrow. And to tell these stories, he’s teamed up with prizewinning director Steve James, best known for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, to document the new film Generation Food.
James points out there are many great documentaries about what’s wrong with the industrial food system but fewer focusing on alternatives. Their film will focus on groups committed to social justice and ecological sustainability in developing countries—people drawing on a foundation of traditional knowledge and the best of modern science. Telling these stories from developing countries is crucial because people in affluent countries live in a world defined by a handful of corporations that run the food system. “The food industry has made our world theirs,” notes Patel.
One example in the film comes from the Peruvian highlands, where climate change has reduced the growing season by 25 percent. Indigenous farmers have developed better ways to farm the more than 700 native varieties of potato, and communities have created markets with sliding-scale prices to ensure no one goes hungry.
Patel sums up the problem—and the most productive solutions—by challenging the adage that if you give someone a fish, it will feed them for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, it feeds them for a lifetime. Applying that idea to the developing world misses the point, he says.
“In developing countries, people have been fishing for a very, very long time. What the international aid complex and modern development have done for developing countries is impose a vision of how fishing should happen—believing that free markets and modern capitalism will make life much, much better—and that vision is very unsustainable. In the process, the ways that people had been fishing are destroyed.”
In Malawi, farmer-led innovations in agroecology outperform the fertilizer-dependent subsidy program, while community nutrition programs have improved child nutrition.
“Malawians themselves are developing far more robust ways of feeding themselves,” says Patel. By organizing democratically and sharing resources (via “small acts of rebellion and mutual aid”), Patel says that people at the local level can achieve food sovereignty and control over the decisions about food and agriculture policy that affect their lives. “Bigger acts of rebellion are on the table, too,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine a fair food system without some hefty change. But the good news is that it’s change that many in the ‘99 percent’ are already imagining, and in some cases, making real.”
Such acts of resistance are unfolding around the world, as one generation finds out how to best care for another. And Generation Food aims to tell these stories.
For information on Generation Food, visit generationfoodproject.org
Raj Patel will present a progress report on Generation Food as the keynote event for Edible Austin presents Eat Drink Local Week, December 2 at Stateside at the Paramount. Find more details here.