Book Review: Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel

By | July 5, 2019

Although the book I’ll be reviewing today was first published in the year 2007, I only came upon it this year in a used bookstore. Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved lays bare the innards of the world’s food distribution systems and the market dominance of the megacorps in the business.

The Guardian’s original review captures the essence of the book succinctly:

His thesis is that the simultaneous existence of nearly 1 billion who are malnourished and nearly 1 billion who are overweight is in fact the inevitable corollary of a system in which a handful of corporations have been allowed to capture the value of the food chain. Moreover, government policies through history have been designed to control our food. Their aim has been to provide cheap food for the urban masses and so prevent dissent at home. The instruments of colonial command may have been replaced with newer mechanisms that give a greater role to the private sector, but control our food they still do with disastrous social consequences, despite all the neo-liberal rhetoric of free trade and choice.

I, on the other hand, could not help but think of the vast informal trade ecosystem that underlies the food production and distribution system in the developing world’s context. Somehow, and this still tends to be overlooked by those who design policies and programmes, fresh produce grown in peri-urban and rural farmlands manages to land in the city’s teeming informal markets.

Photo Credit: Yepeka Yeebo

The last mile of the farm to fork agricultural value chain is still outside of the formal economy’s command and control. Textbook definitions of value chains tend to frame them as linear as those in the more structured ecosystems of the formal economies of the very highly industrialized world, where food can very often be that which is manufactured in a factory, out of chemical components, rather than which is grown, by hand, on a farm that you can visit. And convenience is often a service provided by the market women selling the fresh produce rather than a frozen packet industrially produced and available at the supermarket.

Freshly shredded cabbage (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Patel depresses us with details of the bottlenecks of the global food system but manages to shed light on the cooperative movements around the globe which empower farmers and peasants and enables them to bring their agency back under their control.

Fighting back against this is the movement to regain “food sovereignty” or the people’s right to define their own agriculture and food policies. The idea originated with the global network of peasant farmer organisations, Via Campesina, and has been honed through the early 2000s. Patel sees it as the hope for the future and ends with an impassioned call to action. The “honey trap” of ethical consumerism will not do it, he says; we must organise and reclaim our control of the food system, just as the landless in Brazil and cooperatives in America and Europe have done.

It is the existence (and the near invisibility) of the last mile value webs that give me hope that we have ways and means available to us that we may not yet be wholly aware of that can help us effect positive beneficial transformation of the industrial ‘food’ value chains. One that is sustainable, both ecologically as well as economically, and one that is far more equitable than the system Patel lays bare in his book. Technology might well play its part – as the nascent but burgeoning ‘agritech’ movement in sub Saharan Africa shows – but it will be the resilience and robustness of the so called ‘informal’ economic ecosystem that will ultimately provide the sustainability and endurance necessary for the current system to come through the impacts of the climate emergency that faces us all. The food industrial complex may possess riches and reach, but its dependency on industrial production systems that are rapidly obsoleting themselves, both in the consumer’s eyes, as well as the logistics of fuel and transportation, makes it far more fragile today in 2019 than when Patel wrote his book over a decade ago.

Twelve years after publication, Stuffed and Starved is still a valuable study of the global food ecosystem, and a worthwhile read whether you’re simply an interested layperson, like myself, or pondering the agricultural sustainability for our collective and emerging future.  I recommend it as a must read for anyone contemplating an agritech solution or startup in the developing world context, for a holistic understanding of the larger forces at play surrounding the production and processing of food stuffs, than simply looking at post harvest losses or farm gate prices alone.

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