The food divide
R. Sridharan August 19, 2008
Stuffed and starved
Among the many things that we take for granted in our lives, is food. When we walk into a supermarket, we expect to find food on shelves in great variety and priced cheaply. Therefore, when the price of, say, onions or wheat shoots up, we are outraged enough to hit the streets. Indeed, we have at least two instances in India when governments (one at the Centre and the other at state) lost elections because of high onion prices. But this is hardly unique to India; world history is littered with examples of rulers who forgot that food is the most basic necessity of their subjects and paid for it dearly. For example, if Marie Antoinette had ensured sufficient supply of bread, she may have got to keep her head—literally.
In Stuffed & Starved, Raj Patel drives home what he believes is fundamentally wrong with the food system as it exists. And that is, while there are 800 million people in the world who are starving, there’s a bigger number—one billion—that is obese. Patel’s contention is that the same system that creates the world’s hungry also creates the overfed. Reason: The food industry decides what we eat, and invariably that is what makes it the most profit. Like processed foods instead of whole foods, and imported fruits and vegetables instead of home-grown produce.
Patel, a scholar and activist, does a terrific job of connecting the complicated threads that run across the food industry, politics, and cross-border trade. As a result, some of his arguments are undeniably compelling. For example, talking of Indian agriculture, he points out that the root cause of farmer suicides is in insecurity of land tenure, unsustainable farming practices, the lack of rural employment opportunities, the absence of health and education safety nets, under-investment in women’s education, and the consolidation of power in the food system. His central message in the book, that “the alternative way to eating the way we do today promises to solve hunger and diet-related disease, by offering a way of eating and growing food that is environmentally sustainable and socially just,” is compelling and something everyone around the world ought to follow.
But there are lots of instances where the activist in him gets the better of the scholar. He says that the food crisis in India has worsened after the country decided to liberalise its economy. Yes, agriculture is yet to emerge out of the many crises it faces, but to pan liberalisation in general isn’t fair. There’s no mention, for instance, of ITC’s e-Choupal initiative that has empowered farmers or the citrus farmers in Punjab who have gained immensely from PepsiCo’s work. Patel also paints modern retail as an evil industry, but the fact is that by cutting out the intermediaries, modern retail ends up putting more money in the hands of farmers. There are other flaws in Patel’s reasoning, but there’s no denying that farmers, especially in poorer countries, desperately need a better deal.
The war for wealth
The ghosts of Thomas Babington Macaulay, Winston Churchill and Enoch Powell will rejoice. Their world view now has a 21st century flag bearer. Gabor Steingart’s The War for Wealth: The True Story of Globalization, or Why the Flat World Is Broken is a shrill and often illogically argued critique of globalisation. His pet peeve: the rise of China, India and other Asian countries is resulting in the loss of western dominance in world affairs.
The book makes the preposterous claim that the rise of Asia after 500 years of European and American dominance is dangerous for world peace. Why? Because it apparently endangers “western values” like democracy, liberty and individual freedom.
But what is most disturbing are the endorsements it has received from influential people like Henry A. Kissinger, Strobe Talbot and others. But despite its many failings, readers should read this book for the limited purpose of seeing that it is not only the Leftists and other denizens of the Jurassic world who oppose globalisation; they have kindred souls on the other side of the ideological divide as well. Logic suggests that if both extremes oppose globalisation, then it must be good for the majority in the middle.