Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System Paperback – 5 Jun 2012
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In taking a moralistic view of starvation and obesity, our media, governments and many NGOs have condemned those suffering to more of the same. While the institutional causes remain unaddressed - in large part thanks to public sector responsibility being abdicated to private sector interests - we can only expect more headlines about food riots and editorials on farmer suicides, just as diabetes (II) continues apace.
The resounding conclusion is that `free market' policies remain accountable only to shareholders - not to farmers, not to consumers, and certainly not to the governments that unleashed them.
But Stuffed & Starved is as prescriptive as it is diagnostic. By identifying the grassroots organisations that have come to terms with the problems and begun to enact the social changes necessary for remedy, Patel brings to the page a message of hope and understanding with great clarity. To his credit, he is no less objective or critical in examining these social movements (as they struggle to develop) than he is of the corporations, WTO, and World Bank.
If you're interested in a comprehensive overview of what's behind the headlines, of what's causing the paradox of starvation at the same time as an epidemic of obesity, this is the book.
Despite his heady academic and professional background, Patel keeps the technical and academic jargon to a minimum, using basic reportage and narrative description to convey his ideas, analyses, and anecdotes. As such, the book has the possibility of appealing to an audience beyond the academy. However, based on Patel's political bent, Stuffed and Starved is still most likely to play better to a more leftward-leaning and politically-engaged audience.
The breadth of Stuffed and Starved is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Patel does not shy away from his stated task of examining the global food system in all its overwhelming complexity. He does explain in the introduction that he tries to maintain organization by arranging the chapters according to what should chronologically be the beginning of the food cycle--farming--and then winding his way through each of the stages of food production and distribution until he ends up at consumption. However, the complexity of the system, the global scope of the project, and Patel's own intimate knowledge and passion for the subject work against any kind of neat-and-tidy organization or argument. Although such complexities speak volumes about the current state of the global food system and the major problems within it, they also can be confusing on a number of different levels.
Overall, Stuffed and Starved is an informative introduction for the lay reader interested in political issues related to food production, distribution, and consumption around the world, particularly those who appreciated Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and would like a look beyond the North American context. Academic audiences may also find Patel's text useful for the broad coverage that he gives to various food-related economic and political problems all over the world, as well as his extensive bibliography and research. The book can be used almost like a reference text in this way, indexing an expanse of contemporary food-related issues.
My only criticism of the book is that there are a few typos and bungled sentences.
Mr. Patel's core argument is that a relatively small number of giant corporations have used their power to benefit themselves at great cost to people's health and the environment. To help build his case, Mr. Patel traveled to Brazil, India and the U.S. to find small farmers who are all but forced to produce food under exploitative terms set by the agribusiness giants. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that farmers who are pressed to merely survive are becoming less and less concerned about conserving land and water resources, much less with preserving the unique varieties of crops that might otherwise enrich our collective experience with food. Instead, farmers tend to produce commodity goods such as soy beans that are often shipped to distant consumers located thousands of miles away; the author follows the flow of product through the supply chain to document and contrast how individual farmers receive next to nothing from their labors while heavily-capitalized distributors, processors and retailers gain enormous profits. Meanwhile, consumers in developed countries gain access to an abundance of cheap but nutritiously-dubious food while many in poorer countries live calorie-deficient lives.
Throughout the text, Mr. Patel provides valuable perspective and context. Mr. Patel views the Green Revolution of the 1960s as an attempt to help India and other recipient countries to resist communism and only secondarily as a project to support the local inhabitants. In fact, Mr. Patel discusses how the inroads made by multinational firms into the Indian farming economy has allowed these companies to successfully market patented pesticides, seeds and farm implements while simultatenously attempting to secure intellectual property rights to indigenous knowledge. Mr. Patel goes on to explain that the rubric of improving the lives of the poor has more recently been used by the biotech industry to market products such as 'golden rice', a food that offers a non-solution to the underlying conditions that drive poverty and malnutrition.
Interestingly, Mr. Patel shows how the military's development of packaged foods production and distribution laid the groundwork for the industrial system we take for granted today. Mr. Patel deconstructs the modern supermarket to demonstrate that the illusion of choice serves to alienate and distract us from our relative powerlessness, pointing out that the corporate food system's heavy dependence on oil exposes society to disaster in the event of supply disruption. Fortunately, the author also discusses how people are beginning to challenge the corporate model, including farmer co-ops, the slow food movement, organic foods, and other strategies. The author is hopeful that reclaiming our food rights can become the basis for a more humane and equitable relationship between people and help to heal the planet that sustains us all.
I highly recommend this outstanding book to everyone.