Monday, October 13, 2008

Stuffed & Starved: A Conversation With Raj Patel

Friday night, the Litquake festival brought us to the newly rebuild California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park to sit in on a conversation with Raj Patel, food activist and author of "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle For The World Food System". Patel was in conversation with Molly Watson, a contributing editor to Sunset Magazine and local foods editor for

The event could not have been held in a better place; the design of the new Cal. Academy is not only green, but was built using revolutionary sustainable technology and know how, a centerpiece of ecologically friendly building. The conversation focused on Patel's findings as he has researched the dire state of the global food system, and what should be done to fix it for his book, Stuffed and Starved.

According to Patel, one of the biggest culprits in the global food crisis are the mega grocery chains such as Safeway, Costco, and of course WalMart. To wit: Farmers grow and bring their produce to market in order to earn a living selling their goods at stores both locally and around the country. When those stores are so large as to be able to dictate what price a farmer is paid for his goods on the open market, like WalMart, they force those farmers to cut those prices so low that they are barely able to scrape by. The price, it seems, is based not on the value of the product or the labor involved in producing it, but on a farmer's ability to produce large volumes of goods quickly, cheaply, and year round. This in turn demands that the farmer find ways to cheaply produce his goods in order to stay competitive and have any shot at making a living. (As a side note, WalMart, the worlds largest grocer, owns the worlds second largest computer used to process the vast mountains of information that flows in from around the world. The first largest computer? It belongs to the Pentagon.)

The biggest question many of us had for Patel was "What can we do?". It is not as though we all can live on farming communes in an idyllic existence where food grows in harmony with nature and is planted, grown, harvested and enjoyed by everyone equally. While such an egalitarian existence might sound perfect to some, it is not exactly practical for the rest of us. Patel suggests that while most of us make our statement with our pocket books, this tactic will not be enough. Joining food activism groups and letter writing campaigns to policy makers, according to Patel, will be the most effective way to institute change in the way our country deals with the global food system. Here, at least I slightly disagree, however naively, with Patel. While voting by how and where we shop, we may not affect political policy, but will certainly affect what ends up on the shelves of our stores. If enough of us refuse to buy feedlot beef or asparagus from Chile, those massive grocery chains will no longer make a profit on it and remove it from their stock orders.

But the point, I suppose, should be not to stop those grocery chains from selling unsustainable food, but to take the power away from these chains all together, and put it back into the hands of the farmers and the consumers who want real, wholesome food on their table.

Patel is brilliant, and the conversation with Molly Watson got my outrage boiling again about the state of the global food system and what should be done to turn it around. More important than Patel's book, his research or his ongoing work is continuing the dialogue about creating a sustainable food system that is better for the environment, for the farmers who produce the food, and ultimately for all of us who find the food on our plates.

Raj Patel's book "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle For The World Food System" is available from


Sarah said...

That must have been a very interesting discussion. While I have not read Patel's book yet (it's on my list!), I have heard enough from various sources to get the gist. I agree with both of you and I do not see why the movement to buy small and local can't be a two-pronged effort: we can make efforts to purchase from local farmers, while telling the Walmarts of the world that we want hormone-free cattle, local produce, etc. Protesting a mega chain simply because it is a mega chain is not going to get rid of mega chains. Therefore, we may as well communicate to those chains how we feel about Chilean asparagus.

Mr. Rosewater said...

Sarah - Thanks for the comment. I agree completely. If enough people actually start thinking about their food and where it comes from, we might be able to take the Wal Marts out of the equation, or at least get them to rethink their strategies. Politically, though, we do need action in the priorities our government places on farms, especially small farms, and create a system that benefits those small farms that practice an ecologically sound model.

Nate-n-Annie said...

Doesn't the presence of organic produce at Wal*Mart and Safe*way indicate that they are taking notice of this increased demand for better, healthier food?

I think we Americans spend the smallest percentage of our income on food. We've come to believe that spending money on food is not as important as other things. Shouldn't we be educating the public that cheap food isn't good, and that good food isn't cheap?

Mr. Rosewater said...

nate-n-annie - I think Walmart & Safeway are capitalizing on the massive "organic" movement that is sweeping the nation right now. It all kind of depends on your definition of "organic". They have taken notice of the marketing tactics of stores like Whole Foods, and launched similarly dishonest campaigns of their own, and marked up prices to boot!

I think we spend an enormous amount of money on food, but we buy for quantity and not quality. Buy 2 get one free? Sure. 12 frozen chicken breasts for $10? Why not. Most "bargain" shoppers probably end up wasting more money than they know because they buy in large quantities that they don't need and can't use and will eventually go to waste.

I certainly agree that we do not believe food is a worthy thing to invest in; at least not quality wise. Food is fuel for most, and whatever the cheapest and easiest way is to get that fuel will do the trick. I just saw a commercial last night for a microwaveable pasta dish that is completely self contained, just add water. This is what we see as "quality" in our food: something that can be easily stored, quickly prepared, and just as easily disposed of. Convenience instead nutrition, fuel instead of pleasure.

Thanks for the comment!