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All you can`t eat

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

Raj Patel

What's behind the food crisis, according to farmers' rights campaigner Raj Patel.

“All data is political,” says Raj Patel, researcher, writer and campaigner for farmers’ rights and against the global “food system”. He uses data to draw an hourglass-shaped figure — a simple graph which represents the inequality in the food industry, where large numbers of growers and eaters are separated by a tiny number of large corporations. In his book he tries to show how governments and trade agreements work in favour of the few rather than the many — as the title suggests.

The book, already a hit in the West, is full of disturbing facts and evidence which collectively suggest that the way we eat, and therefore live, is unsustainable. Patel also says, “Politics is always local,” and urges local effort as the best way out of the crisis in the long term.

How is it that this book is so well-timed? It was out just in time for the food crisis.
Yeah, I planned that for 20 years [laughs]. It’s not just me that has seen this happen… The insight that the food system is in crisis is something that farmers have had for a very long time, in particular small-scale farmers who’ve been pushed off the land by decades of bad development policy. They’ve been for the longest time saying, well, if you get rid of us who’s going to grow your food?

But why a food crisis now?
The factors have been working for some time... The short-term factors are things like biofuels, which is a ridiculous policy in the US of growing food not to eat it but to basically just set it on fire. This is very silly, and the knock-on effects have been by some estimates upto 75 per cent of the food crisis. That was in a leaked World Bank report, but I think the proper figure is about 25 per cent. President Bush is saying 4 per cent and no more…

At the end of the day the reason people go hungry is not that there isn’t enough food, it’s because people are poor. So you need policies to tackle poverty. Number one would be girls’ education, but number two would probably be investment in agriculture. It’s one of the highest returns for every dollar spent, in terms of social welfare out.

You’re investing in the poorest people on Earth, so every dollar you invest is going to go much further than if you invest in the oil industry. The sad fact is that in India as everywhere else the amount of investment in agriculture has been falling, which makes no sense.

Has the Indian government expressed an interest in your ideas?

At the launch we had Mr T Nanda Kumar, who’s secretary of food and public distribution, who found a lot of what I had to say objectionable. I was saying that the government had effectively dismantled the PDS and he said no-no-no, we’ve just increased the targeting. The trouble is the targeting was very bad. For example, to get a ration card you need an address — that’s not much help to the millions of people who live in Delhi or Bombay without an address.

But in the US you were asked to testify in Congress.
That came as a bit of a surprise really because I’ve been a long-time critic of the US government… I was there to testify about how the World Bank and the IMF were responsible for the longer-term causes and consequences of the food crisis. That testimony is shaping US policy towards the World Bank and I’m glad that that’s happening.

Why does America predominate in your book?
So much of the world’s food system is either starting to look like the American food system or is being taken over by it… I think it’s useful to think about the US as a sort of limit case of where we’re heading.

British Asians like me have been the canary in the mineshaft. Every man in my family over 50 has diabetes. Every morning they prick their fingers and test their blood sugar.... Our diabetes rate in Britain is sky-high. For white people it’s 4 per cent, for British Asians it’s 20 per cent.

Are strong traditional food habits a defence against Western eating patterns?
It’s hard to explain why there’s been an explosion of diabetes in India without saying that traditional dietary habits are flying out the window... For every dollar that’s spent promoting food that is good for you, $500 is spent promoting junk food... When you’re faced with that amount of money even traditional diets, traditional cultures, can’t withstand the onslaught.

The local food movement — eating food grown locally rather than trucked from far away — is growing in America. Is it possible to eat local food in a big city?
I live in San Francisco, which is a big city. Even there we have a number of farmers’ markets. The food is fresh and local and seasonal. We’re even growing some food in our part of town. In front of City Hall we dug up the land and started farming vegetables — basically urban gardeners.

The city has no problem with you using public land?
They fully endorse it. San Francisco is very keen to become a very green city… It’s win-win-win all the way round.

In Britain, for example, since Victorian times we’ve had allotments, that anyone can have access to...a large area of public land where for a very small amount of money [the council gives] you a key and you can have [a bit of] this land and you can [grow] what you want.

Is there space for that in an Indian city?
There’s plenty of space in Delhi! Delhi has an amazing climate! Toronto has a sh*t climate, but they have these community gardens, and it’s a great way for young people to learn from old people who know how to grow things but are too frail to be able to actually do it. So sometimes they have at-risk youth or street children helping older people to grow this food. It’s a great way to build community and deal with a number of social problems at the same time, and all it takes is a little bit of imagination — it’s very cheap.

Throughout the [Second World] War 40 per cent of the food that was eaten in the US was grown in cities. In Havana, 70 per cent of the food that is eaten in Havana comes from Havana. So it is possible for cities to be reconfigured.

How involved are you in protests around the world?
I was very involved, as many people were in the Global Justice Movement before 9/11, and we went to wherever the big economic decisions were being made unaccountably and without any citizen input, whether that was the World Economic Forum in Davos or the WTO in Seattle or G8 in Gleneagles or in Japan most recently. I haven’t been to all of these places, but luckily I don’t have to.

There are people like me all over the place who are able to mobilise and to tell their fellow citizens exactly what’s going on behind those closed doors, to share the anger and to represent that what happens behind these doors does not happen in everyone’s name but only in the name of the few.

Raj Patel
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins
PAGES: xxii + 442
PRICE: Rs 495

First Published: Sun, August 17 2008. 00:00 IST