Monday, March 15, 2010

Stuffed and Starved - How a Concentration of Power leads to an Unhealthy Exploitive Food System

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, by Raj Patel, exposes two of the big crises with the global food system (hunger and obesity) as more than just an unfortunate paradox, but rather symptoms of the same problem primarily caused by the concentration of power in just a few companies "controlling the gateways from farmers to consumers." Even more shocking for many readers is the reveal that (almost) all of us are willing participants completely entrenched in an exploitative food system even when we try to make the best food choices we can.

Bee Wilson, in The Last Bite, characterizes Patel's work as being part of the second wave of food-politics books. "The first wave was led by Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001), and focused on the perils of junk food...but it also left some readers with a feeling of mild complacency, as they closed the book and turned to a wholesome supper of spinach and ricotta tortellini." Stuffed and Starved (as well as Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, which Wilson also groups in the "second wave") offers no such relief. Patel's descriptions of how the global food system's middle men force farmers of various crops worldwide into "panicked self-exploitation" combined with the confusion of "organic" labeling and E. coli infected leafy greens caused by factory farming abuses (both topics covered here in previous blog posts) all lead to a feeling of helplessness on the part of the consumer. Patel writes that "our choices at the checkout take away the choices of those who grow our food."

The only alternative, it seems, is to grow our own food or shop exclusively at farmers' markets and cultivate personal relationships with those who do. "The food economy has created a system in which some have no food options at all and some have too many options, albeit of a somewhat spurious kind." In the middle is a bottleneck where we have relatively few wholesalers and buyers who largely determine what the starving farmers produce and what the stuffed consumers eat. Patel illustrates this clearly with a figure of the "hourglass" concentration of power. In Netherlands, Germany, France, UK, Austria and Belgium there are 3.2 million farmers/producers connected to 160 million consumers by only 110 "buying desks." "It would be futile, therefore, to look to the food system for radical change. The global manufacturers and wholesalers have an interest in continuing to manipulate our desires, feeding our illusions of choice, stoking our colossal hunger."

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