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Analysis but no real solutions
on 11 June 2013
I find this a difficult book to review. The first half is an excellent introduction to the economic and political realities of the food system. It wasn't new to me - I studied development economics & politics for my degree and have maintained an interest ever since - but provides a clear overview. The concentration of power within the agricultural sector, the impact of aid programmes that have been as much about dealing with surplus production in the developed world and creating new customers for its goods is set out, the human and environmental effect of 'development', cash crops for export, GM crops, the distortions created by farm subsidies in the developed world, etc., are all explored. Surprisingly there is little about the machinations of the World Trade Organisation. The tale overall is profoundly depressing.
Unfortunately beyond that, for me, the book was a disappointment. Whilst I don't disagree with much of what he writes, too much of Patel's approach is hopelessly idealistic. He provides a good insight to the politics of food but doesn't offer up any viable, practical solutions.
Patel's final chapter sets out his conclusions and what we need to do to change the situation. I have to say, this chapter made me angry because the proposed "solutions" are so completely unrealistic. He says he isn't calling for a "return to a bucolic past" but that is precisely what he wants. He says we need to transform our tastes i.e. eschew the sugar, fat and salt laden foods produced by agribusiness; that we should eat locally and support locally owned businesses. Too much of this simply doesn't combine well with modern life. Farm shops and farmers markets don't offer the convenient locations and opening hours of the supermarket for working people. There is much to abhor in how the supermarkets deal with their suppliers, but it is too simplistic to blame them for everything. Consumers are complicit too - everyone wants cheap food.
It was with relief that after reams of discussion about our food choices, the Slow Food movement, etc that Patel finally mentions probably the most salient features in the rise of the supermarket: "The amount of time spent cooking and eating in UK homes, as elsewhere, has fallen dramatically. This has happened as a function of women's changing roles in the home...longer working and commuting hours, the availability of food that's quicker to prepare, and the strong sense that there are better things to be doing than making food." Later he writes of "the pace and rhythm of a world of work and leisure that cannot be sustained". He doesn't actually say it, but you are left with the feeling that women should return to the kitchen (all the evidence shows that women do the bulk of domestic work in the home so the burden will fall largely upon them).
Just a few pages from the end, the full extent of his flight from reality became obvious - "Challenging a local food architecture means re-thinking open space, and sprawl. Houses, schools, hospitals, offices and prisons would all have to change." This is the sort of student polemic that most people leave behind after exposure to the mess, ambivalence and compromise of real life. The upshot of his solution is to unravel the social changes of the last seventy years and completely change the world economic & social system. Whilst that system is flawed, wholesale change is simply not going to happen and we need to find ways of addressing the worst of the problems from within the existing system. Anything else is wishful thinking and almost certainly doomed to fail.