On Thursday I attended a lecture in a packed auditorium at the University of British Columbia given by Raj Patel, a British American food activist, economist and author best known for Stuffed & Starved and The value of nothing.
The first thing one notices about Patel is the rapid pace at which he speaks, the British accent and the wicked sense of humour.
He began his talk by talking a look at the history of Madeira island – “the island of trees” as it was known by the Portuguese in the early 1400s. Madeira’s forest was initially harvested for its lumber, but it became especially interesting when they decided to grow sugarcane – the world’s first cash crop – which made Madeira into one of the ealiest examples of modern capitalism.
On one small island, it combined abundant natural resources (in this case the sun & soil for the sugarcane and the large amounts of firewood needed for the distillation process) with the cheap labour of the nearby Canary Islanders, the European market demand for sugar (a luxury good back then) and an international supply chain provided by Portuguese ships and merchants.
Within 50 years there were no more trees left on the island, and they turned to producing Madeira wine (for which it is now famous).
For Patel, a key component was also that it was one of the first modern instances where the land wasn’t owned and used locally by farmers to feed their local community, but was foreign owned and grown entirely as a commodity for export.
He then went on to discuss Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of Mr & Mrs Andrews, which to him epitomised the British attitude towards agriculture in the 18th century – replete with fences (single ownership of land), cash crops and a land-owning aristocracy that reaped all the benefits. Around that time in England was also the first appearance of ‘the English malady’ (obesity) as people first reacted to the increased availability of cheap food.
The premise of his talk came into focus when he discussed Thomas Robert Malthus, who (in)famously suggested that human population growth (which is geometric) initially lags food production increases (which are incremental) but then rapidly surpasses it, at which point a bunch of people starve and a new equilibrium is found.
His original hypothesis – that humans are mere beasts and our population is only controlled by the availability of food – was roundly (and justly) criticised, but he made a second hypothesis which is worth analysing and goes something like this:
“We might be able to master ourselves, but the system we’re in corrupts us”
It’s a Rousseau-ist argument (in fact, Malthus met Rousseau and was an admirer) in the sense of assuming man could be pure but for the corrupting influence of modern society. And it fits into Patel’s view of our food system as having a profoundly distorting effect on our consumption – e.g. the wealthy are bombarded with ads to increase their consumption and become obese while the poor & landless are displaced and left to starve, and a few Western corporations reap large profits while thousands of Indian farmers commit suicide.
And speaking of India, Patel points out that the ‘Green Revolution’ was named as such because it wasn’t ‘red’ (communist) or ‘white’ (Iranian Shah) – the idea was to produce enough cheap food so that the peasants wouldn’t get hungry, riot and give up on capitalism.
While I disagree with his socialist worldview, his critique of the current system does bring up some good points.
Before ending his talk he discussed two more issues. The first was KPMG’s 2011 analysis of negative environmental externalities across 11 sectors. While there are many sectors where a large percentage of profits are made at the expense of the environment (suggesting that these costs should be included), food production was the only sector where the externalities were more costly than the profits made.
That means that the only reason producers can sell the food at current prices and not go bankrupt is because they’re not required to pay for the mess they make.
Which means that to balance the system and ‘stop the bleeding’ environmentally, we would need to get ready for major increases in food prices. Cue the food riots…
Patel finished his presentation with some video clips of farming in Malawi and a discussion of the importance of balancing gender roles as a way to ensure better food production (currently the women do all the work, are maxed out, and there is 40%+ child malnutrition – more & better crops will only help if the men help harvest them). An interesting topic but it was unclear where he was trying to go with it.
All in all, I must admit I left a little disappointed. Not because I didn’t learn anything – there were ample new insights gained, and it did change the way I understood our food production model – but because I was hoping for more than a critique of the system.
In the question period, one of the audience members asked Patel if he were given control of the world, what policies would he enact?
He seemed a bit flustered by the question, before answering that he’d focus on strong anti-trust laws to break corporate domination, on debt cancellation for developing countries, and on climate reparation payments from the industrialised nations to poorer ones.
Whether or not these policies would help rebalance the system and rebuild trust among nations, they seemed (to me at least) to be an unconvincing and incomplete vision for the future.
Nonetheless, Raj Patel does provide some interesting insights and is undoubtedly one of the pre-eminent experts in his domain. Throughout the talk and in the other questions he answered (which included discussions on biotechnology, GM crops, agroecology, food marketing, and urban agriculture) it was obvious why UBC had invited him to speak.