The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

New America Media, Interview, Sandip Roy Posted: May 06, 2008

Editor's Note: Author Raj Patel explains what is behind the global food crisis and who is profiting from it. NAM Editor Sandip Roy interviewed Patel, author of "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System."


The United Nations recently announced a task force to tackle the global food crisis and avoid what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called “social unrest on an unprecedented scale.” Are you hopeful or do you feel that it is too little, too late?
Raj PatelRaj Patel
Photo by Jan Sturmann

I'm suspicious. Among the members in this commission are organizations like the World Bank. The World Bank has actually been largely responsible for this catastrophe. In the short term, there was a “perfect storm” of high oil prices, demand for meat, biofuels policy, bad harvest and financial speculation. But why are so many countries so vulnerable to these price shocks? There was a time where most countries were able to provide enough food to feed their populations. Today, 70 percent of developing countries are net food importing countries. That is largely because of the actions of groups like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. So I'm a little nervous when they are the ones in charge of prescribing solutions for a problem that they largely created.

Is this a distribution problem?

We have millions of farmers who grow our food, and there are six billion of us consuming it. But between the farmers and us is just a handful of corporations, and they control the world market in whatever food you care to think of. In tea, it is Unilever that controls 90 percent of the market. In most agricultural products, it's usually four or five companies controlling more than half of the market.

The economist Amartya Sen said that famines are related not so much to the absence of food as the inability to buy it.

He was writing about the famine in Bengal in 1943, where he observed that there was enough food to feed everyone, and yet people were starving in the streets, so he asked why. He saw that the people who could afford food would buy it up and hoard it. This would drive the price up and make the supply disappear. So if you were too poor to be able to hoard food, you starved. That’s what is responsible for the situation we're in at the moment. Rice is being hoarded by a few people with money, while the poorest people in the world are finding it very hard to put dinner on the table.

When countries like India start banning or restricting the export of rice, and the World Bank president asks them to lift bans on their exports, is he saying countries are hoarding rice the same way people are hoarding it?

It's a bit of both. But, with countries I can understand it. If you are in charge of a country and you notice the price of rice going up and you happen to be sitting on a lot of it, you would be inclined to make sure that it goes to your population, rather than to people elsewhere. That's what the government of China is doing; they are sitting on the world’s largest rice surplus.

But what I find repugnant is the idea that countries – like Haiti, for example – that are entirely dependent on rice imports, should be forced to liberalize their own trade and border protections even further. In other words, this crisis is an opportunity for those in the private sector to get their way.

I've heard theories that this is a manufactured crisis; it's a way for American goods to find a market. America has used food aid, as you point out in your book, as a battering ram before.

It's true, but there do seem to be a number of reasons why this crisis has not been manufactured. If we look at the reasons, we can go through them one by one and show that they are all in some sense manmade. For example, oil prices: Because the price of oil is $120 a barrel, food is expensive. Why is that? Because the way we grow food today requires food to be shipped halfway around the world. Food is also grown in organic fertilizers and you need natural gas to make those.

The second reason is biofuels. Biofuels are a lunatic policy – the idea that it is better not to grow food in order to eat it, but in order to set it on fire. Then of course we've just had a bad harvest because of climate change. Then on top of that, there is financial speculation.

Who is making money out of this crisis?

In the oil industry, when the price of oil goes up, who makes the money? It’s not the oil workers or the people at gas stations; it's the oil companies and the oil traders. With food, it's much the same. It's the large players in the food industry, the large farmers, the large corporations and the people in the commodity markets who are speculating on this.

In fact, speculation is the legal end of a range of corporate practices that end in fraud. In three countries right now, retailers are under investigation for using this food price crisis to drive up the price of milk and other food staples. Investigations of fraud are currently being conducted in South Africa, Spain and Britain.

In your book, you look at different products to see how they fit into the world food system and what lessons we can draw from them. One of the things we see everywhere is soy. You say that even Henry Ford waxed romantic about soy in the 1930's. How ubiquitous is soy now?

It is everywhere. It is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the United States, although most of us don't know we are consuming it. It's in everything from vegetable oil to the ink in our newspapers. It's in three quarters of everything that is processed and sold in supermarkets and almost everything in the fast food industry.

And chocolate.

Yes, it's even in your chocolate. If you look at the ingredients in small print, there is something called Lecithin, which is an emulsifier: it keeps the fats and the water in the chocolate from separating. That also is soy-based.

Soy has been promoted as a sort of miracle bean. What is the lesson of soy?

Soy is a really sexy crop; it's fantastic. It's nitrogen fixing, it's full of protein; it's very rich and flexible. The tragedy is that the way we grow it today has turned a blessing into a curse because the way that soy agriculture works is monocultural, which means it takes over large parts of land.

In Brazil, that means the Cerrado and the rainforest in the Amazon, and they are draining the water that is beneath that land. There are even some soy and biofuel plantations in Brazil where the International Labor Organization says there are 40,000 slaves working today. Slaves! In Brazil, producing biofuels and soy.

So what are the solutions? India is talking about a second green revolution; the U.N. is setting up a high-level task force; you've had experience with the WTO and World Bank. Do they have any role to play in this crisis?

Actually, one of the most hopeful scientific endeavors that I've seen lately was started by The World Bank. It was the International Agricultural Assessment on Science and Technology for Development – IAASTD for short. This was a panel of more than 400 experts from the private sector, public sector, civil society, rich and poor countries. They got together and tried to figure out how we are going to feed the world.

What they found was really interesting. They said that industrial agriculture will not feed the planet. Genetically modified agriculture will not feed the planet. What will feed everyone is sustainable agriculture based on agro-ecological principles: growing food in harmony with nature, rather than against nature. This means using some plants to attract beneficial insects, other plants to loosen the soil, others to fertilize. Growing all of these things together is the way we can wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and actually be able to feed the world in its entirety.

We are being told to get used to $4.00 for a gallon of gas. Are the prices of food actually too low? Should we just be tightening our belts?

In the United States in a good year, 35.5 million people go hungry. That is not something we should ever get used to.

We are in the era of expensive food now, and we need to put policies in place that make sure the poor get enough to eat. That means stopping giving handouts to billionaires, which is the current administration’s stock and trade. I think redistribution is necessary because no one can reasonably see the price of food dropping. The price of oil is not going to go down. There may be better harvests but there will be more climate change events. Biofuels are still on the U.S. agenda and financial speculation is still happening too.

I think we do need to get used to higher food prices, but we also need to have a democratic conversation about who gets that money and who gets income transferred to them so they can afford to eat.

Transcribed by Laurie Simmons.


Related Articles:

Food Crisis Reverses Middle Class Trend in Latin America

Economist Fears Historic Loss of Assets

Could the Global Food Crisis Impact America?


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