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 about.com.
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 Amazon.com.