Raj Patel is no fan of messiahs and iconic leaders. “One bright shining light is dangerous,” says the writer, activist, and academic who was once mistaken as the savior of humankind by an obscure religious group. Still, there’s no denying that Patel – young, charming, and sharp as a tack – does, in fact, shine. With his critically acclaimed books on food systems and capitalism he has distinguished himself as one of the progressive world’s up and coming public intellectuals.
His quest to understand the global inequities caused by free market economics took the London-born Patel from the halls of Oxford to the London School of Economics, to the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Along the way he wrote Stuffed and Starved (2008), a cutting critique of how the free market keeps millions of people hungry and millions more obese. His next book, the 2010 New York Times bestseller The Value of Nothing, drew on the Great Recession to expose the core cause of our current social, political, and environmental problems.
Patel isn’t just armchair pontificator, though. A self-proclaimed “anarchist sympathizer,” he often can be spotted in the midst of street demonstrations, lending body and voice to grassroots protests against the very organizations he once worked with. Patel is currently traveling the world collecting material for a documentary film, Generation Food, which will show how “people are doing amazing things to feed one another, across the table, across generations, and across the world.”
What got you interested in social and food justice?
When I was very young my parents took me to India. I was five or seven, and as most kids, I was impressionable. There was one incident where we were at a traffic light and there was a young girl on the outside, begging, and I couldn’t understand why we were inside the car and she was outside. We’d come from London, where we never had to worry about food, and here was as situation where this was a dire concern to the girl who was outside our window. It just made no sense to me. My parents mumbled their explanation and it wasn’t very satisfying. They passed some money outside the window and then we drove off. After coming back [to London] I started doing a lot of volunteering and researching and finding out why there was this global inequality.
Your first book, Stuffed and Starved, focused on the genesis of the Green Revolution. Why is the term “Green Revolution” the worst misnomer in history?
The idea of a Green Revolution, if you’ve not heard the term before, sounds kind of cool. You’d think it would be something transformative, about sustainability and the environment, about bringing an ecological sensibility to the world. But the original context of the idea in which the term Green Revolution comes up is not about that at all. It was a term coined in the late 1960s by the head of the US Agency for International Development. What he was talking about was a Green Revolution that was the opposite of the Red Revolution of the Soviets or the White Revolution of the Shah of Iran. What he wanted was a way of getting food into the stomachs of hungry, urban people so that they wouldn’t protest. So the revolution that would happen would be that there would be a technical and policy change so that large scale farmers could grow more commodity crops so that prices of food in urban areas would be lower. It had nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with using food as a way of managing protest.
So it’s the idea of food as “the opiate of the masses”?
When you say it like that, it sounds ridiculous, but actually that thinking is with us today. The last thing that the former president of Tunisia, Ben Ali, did before he was chased out of the country was to announce that the price of bread would be reduced by 30 percent, or what have you. And why would he do that if it weren’t precisely this kind of thinking that all we need to do is feed the masses and their grievances would go away? That was the thinking that informed the Green Revolution. That it was a way of stopping Communism spreading by stopping the masses’ grumbling in their stomachs.
Producing food is one of the greatest stresses on ecosystems worldwide. So if not Big Ag, who’s going to feed the world? And what are some ways to make food production more environmentally sustainable?
We’ve had decades of the Green Revolution. How’s that working out? We still have hundreds of millions of people who are going hungry. If you want to see the disconnect between producing more food and eating, all you have to do is look to India, the heart of the Green Revolution, where there is plenty of food to feed everyone but 900 million people don’t eat enough. The problem isn’t the production side of things; it’s the distribution.
The good news is that there are farming systems and food distribution systems that can ensure everyone gets to eat, but they are not about large scale industrial agriculture. And these are conclusions that come from a report that not many people know about. You would be entirely forgiven for not having heard about the I-A-A-S-T-D – the International Agricultural Assessment on Knowledge Science and Technology for Development – because no one’s heard of it. And that’s sad because it was sponsored by the World Bank, the US government, and a range of international agencies and governments. Many of the world’s leading scientists and agronomists and social scientists bent their minds asking: “So how are we going to feed the world in the twenty-first century?” And the answer they came up with was less industrial agriculture, more agro-ecological systems, more urban and peri-urban farming. We need agriculture that’s light on fossil fuel and water and much more regional and seasonal. We need much better distribution mechanisms in terms of human rights and much less in terms of free market.
It’s not surprising that the report was buried by the governments that paid for it. It wasn’t a conclusion they particularly wanted to hear.
In the Value of Nothing you talk about Homo economicus. What is Homo economicus?
There’s [this theory of] the “Tragedy of the Commons.” It assumes that if we are unleashed on an environmental resource that nobody owns, then, because we are greedy and selfish individuals, we will destroy that resource even though we know that we are dependent on it. Actually, this was just a thought experiment. It was invented by a soil biologist in the late 1960s, a man called Garrett Hardin. If you look back in history, human beings are very good at managing our resources together. We are not hardwired to be selfish individuals; we are hardwired to be social and cooperative animals. Obviously we are selfish, but we are also generous and altruistic.
But when it comes to environmental destruction, there are these selfish individuals among us – and they are corporations. Corporations are constitutionally made to be selfish. If you look at the history of environmental destruction, you’ll often see examples where communities that had managed resources for a very long time were transformed either into the agents of their own destruction through the introduction of private property, or the resources that they depended on were destroyed by corporate interests.
For example, we have many fisheries that are sustainably managed by communities that are very connected to ecosystems around where they live. There are community-imposed restrictions on when you fish and the kind of fish you throw back in. But industrial fishing concerns have violated the knowledge that has been accumulated over generations. If there’s profit to be made this year, you worry a great deal less about what happens next year. That’s the idea of Homo economicus – it’s that although in economic models there is this fictitious selfish individual that floats around that has nothing really to do with human beings. It’s actually quite a good approximation of how corporations behave in our world today.
What are some of the most encouraging examples of groups or communities working for environmental and social justice?
I’m really blown away by organizations like a Canadian group called The Stop. They are a food bank that wants to put themselves out of business. That model of an NGO, whose mission is never to exist, where very explicitly you work for jobs and political empowerment and gardens and spaces where communities can grow their own food, so that ultimately you will never need a food bank because it’s an embarrassment to society that a society needs a food bank. That’s the kind of NGO I’m more interested in rather than an NGO that’s set up to exist in perpetuity.
I’m also always inspired by La Via Campesina, the international peasants’ movement that has over 200 million members by some estimates. I’m really impressed by how this organization is learning over time. There is not just one line in the sand that they draw and stick to it. It’s an organization within which struggle happens. So women’s rights have become increasingly important within La Via Campesina. That, I think, is a tremendously important given that peasants are often thought of as backwards relics of a bygone era.
I’m really impressed by this kind of political philosophy and scientific research coming from the poorest people on the planet. Their example is one everyone can learn from. So whether it’s NGOs in Canada or whether it’s barefoot farmers in Malawi, there are amazing lessons to be learned.
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