The Expensive Consequences of Cheap Food: An Interview with Raj Patel

By Milenko Srećković

rajpatelRaj Patel is the author of the bestseller “Stuffed and Starved – The Hidden Battle for the World Food System” and the most recent book “The Value of Nothing” – named after famous Oscar Wilde’s aphorism ‘Nowadays, people know price of everything and the value of nothing’. In his book he criticizes a dominant attitude towards food as ordinary market commodity and speaks about alternative food models, neglected or suppressed in modern society.

Patel is citizen of USA, born in Great Britain, of Kenyan and Fijian origin. He cooperates with South African Landless People Movement. During his academic training he worked in the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, but very soon became a harsh critic of these institutions and participated in organization of numerous protests against them. The most famous of those protests was the one in Seattle 1999, when about 40 thousand people raised their voice against adverse effects of globalization.

According to Patel, we do not live in democracy, because we do not decide on anything essential, but in a “complainocracy” – because only if we complain enough, we can hope at least for some minor change to occur. We spoke with him for Freedom Fight Info about problems manufactured by contemporary food system, and in what way food can be protected from the dictates of the market.

You say that cheap food is a cheat food, that we value it because it’s cheap but that actually comes with a very high cost and that it doesn’t have a value. What is the cost and consequences of cheap food that we neglect and ignore? Do you think that reevaluating of the food value should be connected with some general human values that are undermined in current societies? How did the production and distribution of the food lose its connection with the general well-being of the society? 

In ‘The Value of Nothing’, one of the examples that people seem the most surprised by is a finding from an Indian research group that a hamburger selling for $1 in the US ought to probably cost $200 if its environmental footprint were taken into account. If the beef in that burger was raised on land that used to be rainforest, then what’s lost is not only the wood from the trees in the forest, but the ecosystem services they provide. They sequester carbon, produce oxygen, provide a haven for the biodiversity that our pharmaceutical industry needs, cycle nutrients and water for the planet, etc. All of these can be imputed a dollar value which, as I say, was far higher than people had suspected. The $200 doesn’t even include the healthcare costs that come with consuming a diet of fast-food, or the cultural losses of rich cuisines being supplanted by McDonald’s.

Yet the $1 burger is hard to ignore, especially when – as here in the United States – cheap food and cheap fuel have been the unofficial bargains struck with the working class in exchange for low wages. With poverty a serious issue, it’s necessary for many people to focus on cheap food now, even if they’re cheated out of money through healthcare costs later on.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, though. In the 19th century, the move to encourage the drinking of sugary milky tea in England – high in calories, low in nutrients, needing colonialism to bring the sugar and tea to Britain – was a way to provide cheap calories for a working class that favoured more local, nutritious beverages, like beer. The production and distribution of food has, historically, had a complicated relationship with health. It’s important not to get too romantic about the past, when food production had an intrinsic connection of feudal structures of servitude. But if we’re able to see this connection in the past, then we must see it today – the modern diet has only a little to do with keeping workers alive, and much more with the conditions of production that are part of capitalist profit-making.

In what way does current food distribution, dominated by trade and market, influence countries that are in development or underdeveloped countries? How do you see the role of the WTO? 

A century ago, there were four major grain companies that ran international trade – Cargill, Continental, Bunge and Louis Dreyfus. Today, four countries have the lion’s share of international trade. Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus. These corporations wield a tremendous amount of power on the international markets. But they’re not the only ones. Increasingly, as you suggest, there are major players in the Global South. Thailand’s CP Chicken, for instance, is a $50bn dollar company, and one of the world’s largest poultry firms. China has just bought Smithfield, a US livestock titan. There is much more agricultural capitalism based in the Global South. And it also takes many forms. Traders like Glencore or the Noble Group, of whom few have heard, control large chunks of the global grain trade too. The rules for which these corporations lobbied at the WTO – and continue to demand in treaties like the TransPacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – undermine something far more than a country’s ability to produce food domestically. These agreements shape intellectual property, health, investment, government purchasing and standards-setting. I think that, especially in a time of climate change, we need to be thinking harder about public buffers against crop failure and climate-related disaster. But when – in every major food market – around six corporations control more than 50% of the market, it’s hard for public interests to stand up against private ones.

You are not a supporter of ”green revolution”. What is wrong with that concept?

It sounds great, doesn’t it? The Green Revolution – a plan to feed the world by making it green, using hybrid seeds, fertilizer and irrigation to produce more than people ever imagined. But remember this: the Green Revolution got its name from a US official in 1968, who applauded it because it wasn’t like the ‘red’ revolution of the soviets, or the ‘white revolution of the shah of Iran’. The goal of the Green Revolution was to provide cheap food for people who live in cities, so that they wouldn’t become communist. It was social engineering, intended to stop people from organizing for social change. The Green Revolution came at a high price – it prevented the kind of land reform that would have benefitted millions of poor people around the world, and for which those people were clamouring. Instead, it has locked us into a system of agriculture dependent on cheap fossil fuels, and abundant water, which is increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century. Yet today there are calls for a new Green Revolution from, among others, the Gates Foundation. If you’re curious about how the old Green Revolution is very much alive, and causing trouble, you might be interested in “The Long Green Revolution”

What are the consequences of current food production on the nature and on the natural resources such as land? Why are foreign companies interested to buy agricultural land in countries such as Serbia?

The current food system is far more ‘financialized’ than it used to be. Specifically, things that weren’t considered commodities – intellectual property in seeds – or things that couldn’t be easily bought and sold on international markets – land in Serbia, for instance – have found themselves increasingly for sale. With the creation of new opportunities for accumulation, investors have seen easy opportunities. Fertile land close to water and transport is comparatively cheap compared to similar land in population hotspots, or in oil states. Investment funds from Gulf States, China and, of course, the Global North, have taken a keen interest in buying land and natural resources to feed other parts of the world.

None of this, however, has happened without a fight. Throughout the world – from grassroots peasant struggles in the 1990s to United Nations agencies earlier this year, terms like ‘food sovereignty’ have started to matter. The idea of food sovereignty (more here ) is that people ought to have democratic control of their food system. What that entails is different in each context, but the ultimate idea is that our food systems need to be premised not on profit, but fundamental human equality.