“Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight. Global hunger and obesity are symptoms of the same problem and, what’s more, the route to eradicating world hunger is also the way to prevent global epidemics of diabetes and heart disease, and to address a host of environmental and social ills. Overweight and hungry people are linked through the chains of production that bring food from fields to our plate. Guided by the profit motive, the corporations that sell our food shape and constrain how we eat, and how we think about food. The limitations are clearest at the fast food outlet, where the spectrum of choice runs from McMuffin to McNugget. But there are hidden and systemic constraints even when we feel we’re beyond the purview of Ronald McDonald.
Our choices are not entirely our own because, even in a supermarket, the menu is crafted not by our choices, nor by the seasons, nor where we find ourselves, nor by the full range of apples available, nor by the full spectrum of available nutrition and tastes, but by the power of food corporations.
Stuffed and Starved (by Raj Patel) is “an enquiry that uncovers the real reasons for famine in Asia and Africa, why there is a worldwide epidemic of farmer suicides, why we don’t know what’s in our food any more, why black people in the United States are more likely to be overweight than white, why there are cowboys in South Central Los Angeles, and how the world’s largest social movement is discovering ways, large and small, for us to think about, and live differently with, food.
India has, for example, destroyed millions of tons of grains, permitting food to rot in silos, while the quality of food eaten by India’s poorest is getting worse for the first time since Independence in 1947. In 1992, in the same towns and villages where malnutrition had begun to grip the poorest families, the Indian government admitted foreign soft drinks manufacturers and food multinationals to its previously protected economy. Within a decade, India has become home to the world’s largest concentration of diabetics: people – often children – whose bodies have fractured under the pressure of eating too much of the wrong kinds of food.
It’s easy to become inured to this contradiction; its daily version causes only mild discomfort, walking past the ‘homeless and hungry’ signs on the way to supermarkets bursting with food. There are moral emollients to balm a troubled conscience: the poor are hungry because they’re lazy, or perhaps the wealthy are fat because they eat too richly. This vein of folk wisdom has a long pedigree. Every culture has had, in some form or other, an understanding of our bodies as public ledgers on which is written the catalogue of our private vices. The language of condemnation doesn’t, however, help us understand why hunger, abundance and obesity are more compatible on our planet than they’ve ever been.
The closer a Mexican family lives to its northern neighbours and to their sugar and fat-rich processed food habits, the more overweight the family’s children are likely to be. That geography matters so much rather overturns the idea that personal choice is the key to preventing obesity or, by the same token, preventing hunger. And it helps to renew the lament of Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s late-nineteenth-century presidents and autocrats: ‘¡Pobre Mexico! Tan lejos de Dios; y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos’ (Poor Mexico: so far from God, so close to the United States). A perversity of the way our food comes to us is that it’s now possible for people who can’t afford enough to eat to be obese. Children growing up malnourished in the favelas of São Paulo, for instance, are at greater risk from obesity when they become adults. Their bodies, broken by childhood poverty, metabolize and store food poorly. As a result, they’re at greater risk of storing as fat the (poor-quality) food that they can access.
As consumers, we’re encouraged to think that an economic system based on individual choice will save us from the collective ills of hunger and obesity. Yet it is precisely ‘freedom of choice’ that has incubated these ills. Those of us able to head to the supermarket can boggle at the possibility of choosing from fifty brands of sugared cereals, from half a dozen kinds of milk that all taste like chalk, from shelves of bread so sopped in chemicals that they will never go off, from aisles of products in which the principal ingredient is sugar. British children are, for instance, able to select from twenty-eight branded breakfast cereals the marketing of which is aimed directly at them. The sugar content of twenty-seven of these exceeds the government’s recommendations. Nine of these children’s cereals are 40 per cent sugar.
There are, after all, no mom-and-pop international food distribution companies. The small fish have been devoured by the Leviathans of distribution and supply. And when the number of companies controlling the gateways from farmers to consumers is small, this gives them market power both over the people who grow the food and the people who eat it.
Governmental concerns about poverty, for example, have historically been driven by fear, not least because of their concerns of what large groups of politically organized, angry and hungry urban poor people might do to the urban rich. (…) In different ways, the countries of Europe and North America set their food policies in order to ensure that the cries of the urban hungry didn’t lead to civil war…
In Brazil, over one million landless people have organized and occupied disused farmland. As a result, they are living healthier, longer and better-educated lives than those in comparable schemes elsewhere. The members of this movement, the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement, are part of arguably the world’s largest independent social movement organization – La Via Campesina (The Peasant Way), 18 representing as many as 150 million people worldwide. Incorporating groups from the KRRS, with an estimated membership of twenty million in India, to the National Farmers Union in Canada, the Korean Women Farmers Association, the Confédération Paysanne in France and the União Nacional de Camponeses in Mozambique, it’s nearly as globalized as the forces against which it ranges itself. It’s a mixed bag of movements. Some of its members are landless, some own land and hire the landless; some are small producers, some are medium-sized.
As consumers we can shape the market, however slightly, by taking our wallets elsewhere. But the choice between Coke and Pepsi is a pop freedom – it’s choice lite.
In the course of this book, I look at some of the ways the food system is shaped by farming communities, corporations, governments, consumers, activists and movements. The sum of these choices has left many stuffed and many starved, with people at both ends of the food system obese and impoverished, and with a handful of the system’s architects extremely wealthy…”
Title: Stuffed and Starved
Author(s): Raj Patel
Harper Collins, 2008, 438 pgs