Stuffed and Starved

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    Book Synopsis

    For those with enough money – and that’s most of us in wealthier countries – life is good. We can eat almost anything we want, regardless of where it comes from, what season it is or how much it costs. The world is our dish, laden with more foods than we’ve ever seen in history and more calories than we know what to do with. A continent away, there are more bloated bellies, but this time from malnutrition – seemingly due to a scarcity of food. But these two contrasting worlds are linked, deeply and inextricably. In a timely look at the entire global food chain, Stuffed and Starved asks us to think about the way our food comes to us, to understand how our supermarket shopping makes us complicit in denying freedom to the world’s poorest and to recognize how we ourselves are poisoned by our choices.

    Raj Patel, an author uniquely qualified to take a long, broad view of world food production, looks at food systems – the machine most of us don’t even know exists – and the web made up of corporations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, farmers’ groups, government agencies and corporate lobbyists. From farm to fork, Patel travels to rural collectives in Brazil, investigates the all-powerful distribution networks, serves up the specific journeys of coffee, soy and high-fructose corn syrup, and visits the kitchens of fast-food restaurants. What he uncovers is the shocking story of commercial greed and helpless hunger that is a key ingredient in everything we eat.

    Stuffed and Starved is one of the most shocking investigations into the “haves” feeding off the “have-nots” and a compelling look at how we all suffer the consequences of a food system cooked to a corporate recipe.

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    Book Review

    Food crises in many countries brings to the forefront the problems of ability to pay, and the ability or desire to distribute food. Raj Patel in Stuffed and Starved considers the world's food trading system.

    Patel's analysis is backed by work experience with the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and as a consultant with the United Nations. Being in the depths of the elites did not convert Patel. In the end, he has campaigned again his former employers.

    Patel's information sheds light on the food crises, and the Canadian debate around the Canadian Wheat Board and North American Free Trade Agreement. Patel states "producers aren't meant to be the winners from trade liberalization." If the market place can intensify competition among producers the marketplace wins with lower input costs. The whole focus of the marketplace is to feed the industrial workers in cities with cheap food bought with their low wages. When producers compete for sales without marketing boards, the gains go to the bottlenecks of the food distribution in the form of higher profits, and to consumers with a continued supply of cheap food.

    The marketplace concept assumes a pyramid with the producers at the top, and consumers at the bottom. Unfortunately with global food trade, there are many producers at the top with low income, who can consume very little. Instead of the pyramid, Patel says we have an hourglass with distributors in the middle.

    Like all schematic designs, this hourglass assumes stability and orderliness. The idea is to scalp for profits when supply is low and demand is high. Today's headlines show orderliness does not occur with food scarcity.

    The US believes in food security and strives to maintain export agriculture started during World War II. The US economy benefits when their foreign food aid is exported with strings attached.

    Patel believes technological solutions such as yield boosting crops, hybrid seeds, and genetically modified crops have muffled a political problem, such as unwillingness for land reform on a fair and equitable manner.

    I would argue technological solutions have also muffled an economic problem. Worldwide food distribution lines are not conceived and maintained for local economies. Instead, food manufacturers have taken control of our food production and food processing. With little time in our lives and little production space, urban people have lost the ability to make pancakes without pancake mix, macaroni and cheese without the box, taco without the kit, and soup without the can.

    Patel says we should ask ourselves the following. What are the questions the food industry fails to ask? What are the interests that they represent? What are the solutions they peddle? What are the strategies? Patel says the answers will demonstrate the forces in the food industry. A question that cuts to the quick is who is or will make money? Will farmers really benefit?

    The existing world food system will fail unless it changes to the demands of biology, geography, history and democracy. In recent African history, hunger-related deaths are not triggered by the lack of specific crops. It is due to a number of factors such as armed conflict, resource pillage or shortage, governmental priorities, free trade, and the destruction of social mechanisms.

    Biotechnology tells North American farmers that we need biotechnological crops to feed the rest of the world. The rest of the world is in trouble because of our export agriculture, monocultural agriculture and foreign food aid that destroyed agricultures in other countries.

    Patel argues that in famines such as the Bengal famine of 1943, there was enough food to feed the population, just not the proper distribution. Today, many are hungry because they cannot afford to buy available food. While people are starving, marketplace speculators stockpile commodities waiting for famine to spike prices.

    Obesity in children is the canary singing in the minefield. Patel points to the lack of grocery stores in poor areas. In Saskatchewan, we can point to the provincial government's recent cancellation of Saskatoon's Station 20 West. The centre was to include a food cooperative with 70% funding from the provincial government. In March 2008, the provincial government pulled the guaranteed $8 million. Over 12 years ago, the last grocery store pulled out of the Saskatoon inner core. Lack of grocery stores replicates across poor communities in North America.

    My only criticism was Patel's opinion on CO2 from livestock, and the cause of mad cow disease. The emphasis on CO2 from livestock must be juxtaposed against CO2 from humans. Patel should research Mark Purdy's findings for the cause of mad cow disease. Obese children are the canaries in the minefield so to the cows suffering from madcow disease, poultry with H5N1, and contaminated vegetables. No one questions the relationship with factory production to the cause of animal illnesses, and food contamination.

    Patel's book follows basic human principles of justice, fairness, and equality of opportunity, not political principles. He highlights different food alternatives in Brazil, Cuba, and poor areas of the United States. He suggests alternatives in the line of the Slow Food Movement, Community Supported Agriculture with other ideas. I would include Sally Fallon's movement in going back to the basics, knowing where your food comes from and how it is produced. We need to know what questions to ask, to identify our relationships to the food system's hourglass, and to act based on our relationships.

    Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System by Raj Patel. Harper Collins Canada , Feb 14 2008

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