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Raj Patel: Food Rebellions and Political Accountability

Raj Patel: Food Rebellions and Political Accountability

Raj Patel is a writer, activist, and academic, focusing on the global food system and food justice. He is currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, a fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and a fellow with organization Food First. He has worked for the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations, and has been tear gassed on four continents protesting against them. The second edition of Patel’s first book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System has just been released by Melville House Books. His most recent work, The Value of Nothing (2010, Portobello Books), is a New York Times best-seller.

David Zlutnick interviewed Patel at his home in San Francisco around the topic of international food markets and their role in propagating inequities in food access and distribution, as well as ongoing popular resistance to these market forces. He argues the latter, which he sees coming to fruition both through organized transnational campaigns as well as “food rebellions,” represent significant possibility for not only the transformation of the food system but also political accountability.

Below you can find an edited transcription of the entire interview.


San Francisco, CA. June 13, 2011—

DZ: You’ve mentioned that one thing leading to your work around food and social justice was the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s. Last year stories and photos of famine in Somalia hit the papers. Your research and writing focuses much on the political economy of how crises such as these arise. As you see it, what are the links between the structure of the global food system and what to many seem like purely natural disasters?

RP: I think that the way to understand why famine happens is to think about hunger right here in the United States, because we have 48 million people who are food insecure. One in seven Americans are on what used to be called Food Stamps, the SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] entitlements. And hunger happens in America, but no one in America would say, “The reason people are starving is because there’s a shortage of food.” You can go into a supermarket and find aisles bulging with food. The problem clearly isn’t that America’s not producing enough food—we’ve got plenty of food. The reason people go hungry is because of poverty and people are unable to afford food in this country and that’s why there’s hunger in America.

Now, it’s hard to imagine that’s the cause of hunger elsewhere in the world, but, in fact, it is. And it’s very much the same mechanism at work. When you have food distributed through the market, you set up a series of incentives. You set up a series of rules, and the basic rule is: if you have money you get to eat, and if you don’t have money you starve. But in a time of famine, something else happens. And this was observed by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen who saw that in the Bengal Famine and every major famine since the Second World War there’s always been food in the region, but what happens is that the people who have food are able to sort of read the writing on the wall that there is hunger coming.

And so if you are able to accumulate a lot of money, the smart thing to do is to buy food, cause you know the price of that food is going to go up. If you can store all that food and you can make it available some point in the future, you know that hoarding food now and selling it for a dollar a bag—or, you know, whatever the unit is—today will net you a profit, but tomorrow you could sell it for two dollars a bag. And so why not hoard and regulate the flow of that food out into the world again? And that mechanism, of hoarding and of rationing food through very rational market mechanisms leads to hunger. Because if you’re poor, maybe a dollar a bag is more than you can afford and certainly two dollars a bag is way beyond your means. So even though there’s food right there, right beyond that door, by ensuring—by having markets as the mechanism for distribution, you ensure people who are poor don’t get the food and people who are rich get to make money.

You’ve argued there’s enough food for everyone on the planet; it’s just a matter of distribution. This can certainly be argued in the United States, and perhaps even in locales such as Somalia or Bangladesh at a given moment. But is there really enough food available for the seven billion people on the planet—and growing? Is it really possible for everyone to not go hungry?

I do think it’s one of the most persistent myths that we don’t have enough food and that we’re running out of resources. And I think the idea that’s doing the thinking for us there is Thomas Malthus’ idea of populations exploding and consuming the resource base beneath them. Now, I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it, you can listen to the head of Cargill. There’s an interview with—Greg Page, is his name. You can find that on the BBC. And he trumpets the fact that there are more calories per person being produced now than ever before in human history. So it’s not even that we’ve got a lot of food; we’ve got a lot of food per person—more than ever before.

So it’s absolutely the case that we’re able to feed everyone if we wanted to, but the systems that we have set up are inimical to feeding people when we distribute food through capitalism. And it’s hard for us, I think, to imagine a world without capitalism. There’s some debate over who quite coined this line, but it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is for us to imagine the end of capitalism. And what we need to do, I think, is imagine ourselves into a world where we can redistribute food without resorting to market mechanisms.

But, you know, to get to the question of, “Is there enough food in the world?” Yes, there is. Will there be enough food in the future? Well, this is an interesting point. I mean, I think right now we are running out at the limits of what industrial agriculture can squeeze out of the ground. We are in a situation where climate change is already adversely affecting harvests. A range of projections have suggested that several billion dollars worth of grains have been lost already as a result of climate change. And that’s something that’s projected to get worse in the future. It’s certainly true that we are heading towards a world of nine billion people. Now we have enough food to feed nine billion people if nine billion people weren’t eating a Western diet.

Unfortunately, because of the marketing of the Western diet, it’s becoming more and more popular. And that’s starting to hurt a range of people. I mean, in India the Western diet is a problem for the 15% of the urban population that is starting to develop Type II Diabetes, for instance. The shift towards more fats, more salts, more—you know, more calories is an issue globally. And what I think we need to be doing is certainly thinking about transforming our diets, but we also need to be thinking about farming differently, because industrial agriculture just isn’t doing a good job of being a sustainable source for food in the future.

You worked for both the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. What are some of the most important lessons you learned about the global food system from your time there that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to discover?

Well, the reason I worked at the World Trade Organization—well, I interned at the World Trade Organization and I worked at the World Bank—was out of a sense of curiosity of what goes on within these institutions. But also, you know, an interest in wondering whether it’s possible for these institutions to turn around, for there to be space for the kinds of issues of democracy and sustainability that I was concerned with. And I think the lesson I walk away with is: No. The lesson I walk away with is: These institutions are constitutionally unable to accommodate democracy. They’re not built that way.

What they are, are sort of executive organizations built for the entrenching of a particular vision of development and of capitalism in the Global South. And despite the good intentions of some of the people who worked there—and no one at these organizations sees themselves as a villain. No one wakes up in the morning and wonders how they’re going to crush a Third World economy. Everyone there has a sort of view of actually contributing to the global economy. Some people feel like they’re working at the World Bank even though they could be earning two, three, four times as much in the private sector because they feel they have a concern of doing right by the Global South.

The trouble is within these institutions there isn’t the space to accommodate a deep transformation. My friend Eric Holt-Giménez, the Executive Director of Food First, sort of explains this quite nicely. He says, “The mission of the World Bank is to end poverty. But the job of the World Bank is to manage the crises in Capitalism.” So you have this rather nice mission statement, and, you know, pictures of African children smiling and beaming up at you when you go into the World Bank—at least when I was working there you have these huge banners of smiling African children—but, you know, this sort of myth of development is something that has its—this thing is very deep in the life lies of people who work there. But the fact is the job of the World Bank is precisely to patch up the crises in Capitalism and make the world safer for capital.

We’ve heard of commodity speculation in terms of oil, real estate, currency, etc. What is the role of speculators in the global food market in terms of access and distribution?

Another great question. There’s been a lot of talk about whether speculators have been responsible for the global food crisis. And economists—certain economists—point out that speculation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’re adding liquidity to a pool of insurance that allows farmers to lock in their prices and to know what the future will bring. And if anyone is making money then someone else is losing money, so in the end it all evens out. So for every trader who is able to buy a Bugatti another trader has lost their shirt, so in the long-run it all ends up in the washer. It’s fine. The trouble is reality hasn’t been living up to economists’ expectations for a little while now. And the traders seem to be doing quite well out of this business of speculating on the price of food.

We certainly have a lot of evidence there’s increased volatility, there’re lots more ups and downs in the price of food than there used to be. We also have a lot of information from things like origins of the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index, which has turned food commodities into the sorts of things that can be traded and can be invested in with the kind of certainty and the kind of volume that something like the Dow Jones Industrial Average is, or the S&P 500—an index of commodities that one sort of pours one’s money in and tracks over time as an investment vehicle.

So, it seems to me, particularly since there’s been an increased loosening of regulation— So, for example, when we think about the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index, Goldman Sachs in the early ’90s created this commodity index and got exemptions from the [US Commodity Futures Trading Commission] to have an increased number of trades they were allowed to make, and this exemption sort of opened the door to legislation that in the year 2000 basically deregulated over-the-counter commodity trading. And that did away with rules that had been in place since the 1930s, particularly in the world of farming, to stop banks using food as another chip in their casino.

And since then we’ve seen an increased amount of money going into speculating on the price of food, investment in food, that certainly many heterodox economists, many progressive economists see as a very important source of volatility and of upward pressure on prices. There is still some debate on this, but as I say, while economists haggle traders seem to be making quite a lot of money out of betting on the future price of food and betting consistently upward—the price of food will be going upward and moving their money in a way that that actually comes to pass.

Can you talk about the history of the international wheat market—I find it particularly interesting as a manifestation of this larger food market—how it functions, its origins, and where control lies?

We shouldn’t be surprised that corporations and banks behave badly, because that’s what they’re—that’s their job. They are constituted to maximize profit and return to their shareholders. And so if they’re not taking advantage of getting subsidies from government or, you know, avoiding legislation, rewriting international trade laws, then they’re not doing their job. The interesting question is why there are international markets at all.

The first international market in food in the modern era was the global market in wheat that was set up by the British through the course of the nineteenth century. And this is a process that is tracked beautifully by the historian Mike Davis in his book Late Victorian Holocausts. And he observes the British, for example, set up through their colonization of India—overtook feudal land relations and inserted capitalist relations in labor and in the products of that labor, in wheat. So what you had was as a result of the imposition of these market-based rules, India produced way more wheat than it had in the past. By the end of the nineteenth century India was exporting millions of tons of wheat—in the global wheat market—to Britain, and British workers found themselves eating Indian wheat.

But this came at a cost, and that cost was, of course, by introducing these market mechanisms within India levels of hunger went up because workers were unable to afford the fruits of their labor. And so as a result of the imposition of markets in wheat Mike Davis sort of tracks and observes this powerful statistic that in the two thousand years before the British came to India there was a famine once every hundred years, but after the British came, after they had imposed their international capitalist market, there was a famine once every four years. And so many more people went hungry at the same time as more food was being produced.

Now what I think is important for us to understand today, because that’s actually a fine example of the world we’re in at the moment, where we are producing way more food than ever before in history and yet there are nearly a billion people who are going hungry. And importantly the people who suffer are often people working in the food system. A report came out recently within the United States observing that 86% of the people who are working at the bottom of the food system, in the lowest wage jobs—whether that’s food service or whether in farm work or in warehousing or in meatpacking—86% of people working in the food system don’t make enough to live on. And that’s a ridiculously high number. It goes to show those patterns of exploitation within the food system, whether in the global wheat market or any other market, are endemic to the way a food market operates. And so it’s not just that this is a market that distributes food and discriminates against the poor, but it produces the poor through low-wage work in the food system.

In the past several years there’s been a rise in food riots throughout the Global South. They grabbed headlines particularly during the 2007-2008 food crisis, again in 2010, although they occur on a relatively consistent basis. Could you outline some of the factors that are leading to the popular anger that’s erupted in such riots?

So you often hear about food riots, particularly in 2008, 2009, 2010—and 2011. The world was strafed by what are called “food riots.” And the representation in the media of these events was of an angry mob tearing through some street, and a breathless journalist would rock up afterwards and sort of point to a burning tire and explain how, you know, “the mob” went wild and smashed windows and grabbed food and then disappeared into the night. But that’s a fairly inadequate representation of what’s going on, because in every protest around food there’s always politics.

When the media reduces to the sort of irrational mob the actions of people who are protesting on the streets, they lose the biggest part of the story. Because when you see protests around food, what you’re seeing is the actions of people who have run out of other ways of explaining and demanding change from their governments, and are finding the food that they need to help their families survive. And so every food protest is inevitably a protest about politics and invariably those politics are very well articulated. So when you have food protests in Haiti, for example, these were protests about the high price of food, but also for the return of [former president] Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was kicked out of the country in a coup that seems widely to be agreed that was sponsored by the United States.

Now, recently we’ve seen more examples of that. In 2011 the series of protests around the Mediterranean that began to be, initially, as the Arab Spring, people forget that in Algeria food protests began with a protest around the high price of food—the high price of wheat, in particular. And these rebellions that began there are—I mean, I think that they weren’t all about food—far from it. But food was definitely a spark, and particularly the high price of food was a spark that articulated with people’s inability to get and to wring change from government. And so the upshot of this was big protests in the street, particularly around the price of food, but also about political transformation and political accountability.

And I think it’s ironic that the ways that some leaders responded was merely to try to put the genie back in the bottle by lowering the price of food. That’s what president Ben Ali did before he fled to [Saudi Arabia] from Tunisia. The last law that he passed before he was chased off was to drop the price of bread. And that—I mean, that sort of gives you an indication of the way that leaders think about the rioting masses outside their window, and misunderstand that in fact what people demand is not just lower prices for food but political accountability and the power to be able to transform their food system.

But I think that that’s why food rebellions, to me, are not things to fear, but an expression of political dissatisfaction that can be very powerful. You know, the idea of a riot is always represented in the media as a loss of order, but if the order was unjust and undemocratic then that’s no order that anyone should want a part of. And I think that food rebellions can, and often have been in history, a moment when democracy has flourished. If you don’t believe that, think about the moments where food rebellions have mattered. Think about the French Revolution that began as a bread riot. Think about the protests and the food rebellions here in the United States… I think that’s why food rebellions are something to be welcomed, because they are a rupture with an anti-democratic order that offer the possibility—though never the guarantee—of a more democratic future.

What sorts of social movements have arisen to confront these challenges posed around food access and distribution? What are the demands of these movements and how are they actively working to create solutions?

Well, one of the nice things about doing activism and research around food is that now there’s plenty of company. I mean, there’s always been a very rich history of resistance when it comes to food and food politics. You have peasant movements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries—one can go back to the Diggers [of 17th century England], for example. There’s plenty of fantastic history when it comes to food, land rights, and thinking about the way society can and should be.

But particularly recently there’s been sort of a flourishing of movements from La Via Campesina, which began in the mid-90s that is an international peasant movement that’s now over 200 million strong. That involves everyone from the National Family Farm Coalition in the United States, to the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement [Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, or MST]. And you have these amazing groups that are doing a range of things from occupying land to investigating and researching sustainable agriculture techniques and teaching those techniques to movements around the world so we can have this sort of vibrant, climate change-ready agriculture. They’re fighting the good fight against corporations, often occupying their land, sometimes destroying their crops in order to save biodiversity and stop genetic contamination. So you have these kinds of direct action.

You also have direct action that involves appropriating food and redistributing it. You have Food Not Bombs that recruits—that is about redistributing food, giving away food for free, which has been criminalized in the United States, incidentally, but which is not only trying to think about an alternative way of redistributing—of distributing food, but also encouraging and recruiting people to vegan cuisine…

But I think that you’re finding a range of movements around the world that are really going for the heart of the capitalist system by bringing into question how it is that we desire things, by bringing into question the need for private property, and by coming up with alternatives so that we can desire things in new ways, desire things collectively and resist the individuation of our tastes and of ourselves; and discovering ourselves and our joy in new and exciting ways, whether that’s everything from “slow food” and its origins in labor organizing to La Via Campesina, I think that there’s—there are a number of movements that people can look to, to be inspired by.

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