[DEBATE] : Review of Stuffed and Starved - Time Magazine this time
Salim.Vally at wits.ac.za
Sat Oct 6 15:42:33 BST 2007
Why some countries feast and others starve.
One evening in the 1930s, Henry Ford wore a new suit to a gala dinner he was throwing at his Dearborn, Mich., car factory. The suit, reportedly, was soft to the touch. It was also made from soybean fiber.
The automobile baron was nursing an obsession with all the possible uses of a crop that was then being planted throughout post-Depression America. The gala guests that night were served only soy-based food, and Ford regularly tried to incorporate the pulse into cars, using it for everything from upholstery fabric to experimental paneling. What Ford saw in the hardy, adaptable beans was industrial potential, and over 70 years later, his vision has come to pass. Today, soy shows up in about 75% of the food on offer at the supermarket, from chocolate to margarine, and the industry responsible for its ubiquity has left footprints everywhere - in the Amazon rainforests and in the bellies of America's corpulent masses.
The soybean's ascendancy is one of many pieces of a global puzzle that author Raj Patel aims to fit together in his new book Stuffed and Starved - a sweeping look at the development of the international food chain that delivers calories from nation to nation with an alarmingly uneven hand. As its title promises, the book tackles one of the chief dysfunctions of our unique era in alimentary history: that 800 million people are getting too little to eat and are malnourished, while over 1 billion are getting so much they've become overweight or obese.
It's a big conundrum, and Patel is obliged to rake through centuries and continents for the seeds - pardon the pun - of the world's dietary inequity. The library work is solid - he is currently a researcher at South Africa's University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. As you would expect from that résumé, he writes like an academic - but that's not to say the book is bloodless. Patel has a highly developed historical sense of why we eat as we do, and if readers who have enough food understand how that surfeit originated, the more likely they are, he hopes, to make decisions that help others who go hungry.
One of those decisions might be to examine the corporatization of agriculture, and the present organization of the global trade in food, asking if these really are the best means of delivering sustenance to the human race as a whole. Patel opens the book with the epidemic of farmer suicides that have hit rural India, South Korea and the United States, depicting a grim picture of despair and debt, and conclusively dispelling the strangely persistent myth of farming as some sort of pastoral pleasure. He then argues that the past century's lowering of trade barriers and opening of agricultural markets, with the help of bodies like the WTO and the World Bank, have wrested control of the land and what grows on it from the hands of farmers and have given it to corporations and bureaucrats. Supermarket procurement desks, he writes, "can fire the poorest farm workers in South Africa, flip the fates of coffee growers in Guatemala or tweak the output of paddy terraces in Thailand." And yet, at the end of every day, mountains of food waste end up in the supermarket dumpsters and kitchen bins of the developed world while millions starve in poorer countries. For anyone who follows food politics, the arguments made here are not new, but Patel's broad treatment helps the layman connect the dots, as well as hear the voices of those who occupy the lower rungs of the global food chain.
Stuffed and Starved does veer, at times, into the social footnotes of food. Patel recounts the rise of Wal-Mart, and tells how obesity became a symptom of race relations in America, or how the desire to counter scurvy among sailors spawned the huge food-conservation industry. (Then there's the story of Ellen G. White, the founder of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, who claimed to have had a vision revealing vegetarianism as the key to longevity - thus making her congregation the "the first white people in the United States to make tofu.") The author also makes no pretence of neutrality: readers are advised to eat locally, organically and sustainably; to support workers' rights to fair wages and debt relief for countries exploited by food-exporting corporations; to participate in community-supported agriculture; and to learn the joys of slow food. But, in the end, Stuffed and Starved is neither popular history nor an activist's handbook so much as a scholarly invitation to think more deeply about what we eat. The latte and bran muffin you consume at breakfast are historical and global products, with the power to affect environments, economies and people's lives. Understanding how they reach your table will help people at every link in the food chain - a task, Patel says, that is "as urgent as the prize is great."
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