"The role we all play is essential in evolving the food system towards our values: Values that unite us in a way far greater than money can buy; values that put human health and environmental health before profit; values that insist on a democratic and socially just agricultural and food system; values that are sustained by efforts that do pay off but refuse to be bought off by the greed and corruption that are the adversary of the health of our culture and society." — Ken Dickerson, Board President of the Ecological Farming Association, in his introduction to Raj Patel and Woody Tasch

The 2009 29th annual Ecological Farming Conference kicked off on January 21 in beautiful, rainy Pacific Grove, CA with a provocative, pointed, timely, and at-times hilarious keynote address on "Food, Financial Stability and Democracy in Crisis" by Raj Patel, the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, a new critically acclaimed book about the causes and consequences of global food inequity. After Raj concluded with a passionate plea for us all to help restore democracy by promoting food justice and sovereignty, Slow Money author and "nurture capitalist" Woody Tasch finished the evening with his inspiring call-to-action to "bring money down to earth" by "investing as if food, farms and fertility mattered." (I’ll review Woody’s talk in my next post.)

Even as the current global financial crisis claims more innocent victims every day, the central value of Raj Patel’s address was that he articulated a long-range, historical, in-depth analysis of how the crises of hunger and food insecurity and the rules of "free market" capitalism have developed together and are inextricably intertwined.

By doing this, Raj performed the noble duty of reminding us that while the present crisis may indeed be unique in its sheer scale and scope, it is fundamentally part and parcel of the wildly unsustainable and pro-corporate policies that Western governments have forced upon the world for decades. Unless we recognize and take action to transform these deep intersecting roots of the current food and financial crises, we will be severely handicapped in our efforts to create change that succeeds at getting our economies back on sustainable, stable ground. And, to be specific, instead of the radical change in food and finance systems that is needed to unwind and reverse the dramatically pro-corporate imbalance that has defined globalization for the past generation, we’ll be sure to inherit more ineffectual bailouts, "stimulus packages," tax cuts, and other attempts at quick fixes such as those that the Obama administration is now seeking to implement, all of which will ultimately serve only to compound the economic mess we’re in.

Note: In the following text, all of the ideas are those of Raj Patel, quoted or paraphrased from the audio transcript of his speech. For the purposes of brevity and readability, I have left out small portions of Raj’s speech. To hear the full speech, you are encouraged to purchase an audio CD from the EFA or look for its availability on the EFA Resources page. A few editorial comments on food sovereignty and signs of hope amid the financial meltdown follow below Raj’s talk.

Speaking to an audience of hundreds that filled the seats, the balcony and another adjoining room — nearly all of whom own, work for, or source food from ecological farms — Raj began his address by declaring flat-out that we’ve been in crisis for a long time. Last year it emerged that, yes, food prices went through the roof, and everyone felt the pain in our pockets. But in 2006, when there was no apparent food crisis, there were already 800 million hungry people around the world while 1 billion people were overweight. Now the number of hungry people is up to 1 billion.

We need to understand both how that came about and where it’s happening. Is it true, Raj asked, that the overweight population is predominantly in the USA and other Western countries, while the starving live in Africa and the Third World? To some extent, yes. The USA is indeed the most obese country on Earth. Only 4 out of 10 Americans have a "normal" body weight. But we must remember that at the same time, 40 million people in the USA — more than 10 percent of the population — are going hungry. This contradiction between obesity and hunger is not just an American phenomenon. The second most obese country is Mexico, a developing country where there are extreme levels of hunger. In fact, every country has these vast inequalities.

Raj held up a mangled Snickers bar to symbolize how disconnected we are from our industrial food system and the power that lies behind it. He described the ingredients list on the Snickers bar as "one mysterious thing after another, a concatenation of obscure, weird stuff." Even the first ingredient, "milk chocolate," is a mystery. If the chocolate comes from the Ivory Coast, as the majority of the world’s chocolate does, then there’s a small but significant chance that it comes from child slavery. However, Raj was most interested in ingredient number 4: lecithin, a widely used emulsifier that stop fats and water from separating out. The primary purpose of lecithin is not for our enjoyment but to give the bar of chocolate an inordinately long shelf life so that it can last for years and years. "After the Apocalypse it’ll be the cockroaches and this Snickers bar that remain," Raj joked.

Even more interesting, Raj continued, is that lecithin comes from an ingredient we eat every day without knowing it. This ingredient — soy — is in 3/4 of all processed foods in US supermarkets and nearly 100% of food sold to us by the fast food industry. By looking at soy, we can understand volumes about what’s wrong with the food industry. As a plant, soy is wonderful. It’s the pin-up plant, sexy, enormously flexible. Soy fixes nitrogen, is tremendously robust, can lose lots of foliage and keep on growing, and can produce amazing beans with a protein profile that looks more like an animal than a vegetable. It can be used in everything from vegetable oil to newspaper ink to adhesives, lubricants and plastics.

The trouble, Raj argued, is that this wonderful plant gets mangled and destroyed by the technologies of modern industrial farming and capitalism. "It’s not a surprise," he said, "that one of the first soy acolytes in America, Henry Ford, was also the godfather of modern industrial capitalism." Raj launched into an aside about Ford’s documented 1935 "soy party" in his Dearborn, Michigan plant, at which the automobile titan demanded that celebrants stroke his suit made entirely from soy. While Henry Ford dreamed of building cars completely out of soy, by the 1940s every Ford car contained two bushels of soy used for fiber, pigment and lacquer. (Even today, Ford has a national advertising campaign highlighting its "soy foam seats, just one of the many examples of our commitment to environmentally sustainable materials.")

Raj proceeded to describe the terrible costs of soy. The industrial manufacturing techniques of specialization and concentration that Ford developed have been applied to soy with devastating results. If the soy in the Snickers bar doesn’t come — most likely genetically modified — from the United States, then it probably comes from the world’s largest exporter of soy, Brazil. In Brazil, soy has an immeasurable human and environmental cost. The largest force of deforestation in Brazil, by which farmers cut down vast swaths of Amazon rain forest to grow crops, is soy. These soy farmers are also draining one of the world’s largest sources of underground fresh water at unsustainable rates. And there is also a huge human cost. According to the International Labor Organization, in Brazil today there are 40,000 slaves working in agriculture, the majority working in agro-fuels, but many working in soy production.

"Who wins from this?" Raj asked. Low labor and externalized environmental costs may help the bottom-line of some farmers, but the biggest winners by far are corporations. Pulling an image from his book Stuffed and Starved that shows how the world economy works, Raj told us to imagine an hourglass: Wide at the top, narrow in the middle, and wide again at the bottom. At the top are millions of farmers, and at the bottom are billions of people who eat food every day. In the middle is the choke-point where just a handful of huge corporations mediate between the farmers and consumers. These corporations are the agents of power in the food system today. In every major agricultural sector or commodity, more than 50% of that market is controlled by a few companies. Of course, it varies by commodity: 90 percent of the world’s tea, for example, is controlled, grown and distributed by Unilever. Most Americans have never heard of these gigantic companies — Cargill, Bunge, Archers Daniel Midland — that exist in the background controlling our food supply.

"So it’s important to ask: Why do we let them exist at all? The reason we’re given is that when we have corporations competing against each other head-to-head, they’ll drive prices down and the winners are us the consumers. The trouble, of course, is that it doesn’t work that way."

As evidence that the competition-inducing rationale of corporate capitalism is merely a well-worn propaganda myth, Raj cited a revealing admission by Duane Andreas, the former chairman of Archers Daniel Midland: "The customer is our enemy and the competitor is our friend. There is not one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market, not one. The only place where you see free markets are in the speeches of politicians, and people who are not from the Midwest do not realize that this is a socialist country."

"The way markets work," Raj explained, "isn’t really about markets: It’s about the government giving large stacks of money to its favorite corporations. Until recently, I had a hard time explaining this to US audiences, but recently it’s become a lot easier to explain. Dropping $700 billion into the banking sector is nothing new; it’s an accentuation of policies that have been going on for a very long time. The so-called stability that we’ve experienced until a few years ago has been underwritten precisely by the mad policies that we’re repeating right now but magnified to the nth degree. Giving away large slabs of cash to agribusiness and letting agribusiness write the rules of the global market has been going on for 40 years."

"And we shouldn’t be surprised that corporations like Archers Daniel Midland are badly behaved. We shouldn’t be surprised that ADM and a few of its so-called competitors were involved in one of the largest cases of fraud in US legal history, where they colluded to drive up the price of lysine, a corn-based meat additive by 75%. We shouldn’t be surprised that they cajole our elected representatives, that they buy the Department of Agriculture, that they insist that their genetically modified crops are safe. They’re doing what they ought by the rules of the market. The CEOs of these corporations are committing capitalist acts because they have to; if they didn’t, they’d be fired."

"So the really interesting question is not why do we let these corporations exist, but rather: Why do we have markets in food at all? Who do we have global food markets in the first place for corporations to take the bottleneck of?"

At this point, Raj told the story of the introduction of global markets into India by the British. Pre-colonial India was a feudal society where landlords took whatever the peasants produced and gave back only enough for them to survive — "an awful system" where the only silver lining was that in years of famine, it was the landlord’s responsibility to feed the hungry. When the British arrived, they condemned this outdated system and said: "Indians, what you need is markets! If you introduce markets in food, you’ll find that your agricultural productivity goes through the roof and everything will become so much more efficient." The Indian landlords said "No thanks, we’re doing just fine," and of course the British responded, "No no, but we have guns."

And so it was that global markets in food were introduced into India, often down the barrel of a gun. To some extent, the British did not lie: Agricultural productivity in India did go way up with global markets. By the end of the 19th century, every year India was exporting 25 million tons of wheat.

"But when you introduce markets in food, you introduce two very simple rules," Raj said. "The first rule is that if you have money, you get to eat." In fact, you can eat food from halfway around the world, if you like. If you have enough cash and you can pay for it, as the British did, then you can buy food from India and ship it half-way across the world so that workers in London, Manchester and Liverpool can have food to eat.

"And when you introduce global food markets, the second rule is that if you have no money, you will starve." That’s exactly what happened in India. There are plenty of stories of Indian workers loading the grain onto the ships destined for Liverpool, and dying of famine on the docks. They didn’t die because of a shortage of food; there was more food than ever before in India’s history.

"The reason people starved then, just as they starve today, is because we have markets in food and they are too poor to afford the food. There is more than enough food to feed everyone in the world today." The best indicator of the extent of this market logic lies in the fact that in the 2,000 years before the British came to India, there was a famine on average once every 120 years. After the British came, there was famine once every four years — with the regularity of an election cycle. And with the imposition of food markets, this happened and is still happening all over the world. According to the brilliant philosopher and historian Mike Davis, by the end of the 19th century, 30 million people had died because of the imposition of food markets. They died just so they could learn that the best way for them to get food was to pay for it on the open market.

That logic is being magnified again today, and the seeds of the food crisis today are to be found in this exponentially accelerated and globalized version of what the British did to India. After debunking the "absurd" information-age image that "y’all in the United States have of India as the country where all the jobs have gone, where everyone has a PhD in computer science and you can get your hard drive de-fragmented at any street corner," Raj went on to describe the modern epidemic of farmers driven to commiting suicide, both in India and around the world. In reality, India is a predominantly rural country: 1 in 6 of the world’s farmers is Indian. "Certianly the hardest part of writing Stuffed and Starved," he said, "was going to visit Indian families who had despaired." Indian farmers on the edge of bancruptcy are taking loans just in order to survive, while large agriculture gets government money hand over fist. A farmer then has some health or other crisis like a dry well, a small ripple that for others might be surviveable. But when farmers are already leveraged to the hilt, this ripple too often becomes wave that finally drowns them.

There are tens of thousands of farmer suicides in India every year, but it’s not just an Indian phenomenon. We’re seeing farmer suicides everywhere. In Australia, due to the drought, farmers are facing the prospect of losing the land that’s been in their family for generations, and some are choosing to take their own lives. In Britain, because of foot-and-mouth disease, entire flocks have been wiped out, and farmers risk losing not just their assets but their identity, and rather than face that oblivion some farmers choose to take their own lives. This wave of suicides began in the United States with the economic liberalization that reached its zenith under Reagan.

At the same time that India is experiencing a catastrophe of farmer suicides, hunger and malnutrition there are skyrocketing to the highest levels since 1947 (when the British left). Simultaneously, India is the country with the most billionaries (four) on the Forbes ‘top ten’ list. And India is now the country with the largest number of people with type 2 diabetes. All of this has common cause in the financial policy of economic liberalization that Mohammed Singh, now India’s prime minister, introduced in the early 1990s. Corporations from the outside like Monsanto and Coca-Cola were welcomed with open arms, farmers were exposed to the unfair whims of the "free market," and government services and subsidized food for the poor were slashed.

Until the 1990s, India had no Coke or Pepsi. Raj joked that while Pepsi came in hiring the Bollywood A-list and "stole the march in the soft drinks market" with commercials that were an "orgy of powder and dance," Coke went in with their global adverts that featured polar bears kicking back and staring at the Northern Lights. "Polar bears are not big in Indian iconography. Indians were thinking: What the fuck is that? It was like Alien vs. Predator, a clash of the titans, because whoever won, India lost. Indian bodies are spectacularly bad at dealing with the Western diet." There’s not a British Asian family, Raj claimed, that hasn’t dealt with the trauma of blindness, amputation and heart disease from diabetes that is the cataclysmic consequence of spreading free markets in food and consumer snacks. This is killing Americans too: Life expectancy in the US is falling for the first time in many generations, particularly among women and in rural areas. "By some estimates, American kids will live five fewer years than you will because of the shocks that their bodies are absorbing as the result of the American diet."

"What’s happening in India is happening around the world, because of an organization that I hate to admit I worked for once, the World Bank. Although the World Bank claims to be at the vanguard of providing solutions to the food crisis, we ought not to trust them." Raj likened the World Bank to a scene from the film Time Bandits in which God’s disgruntled workers rob Napoleon, jump through a hole in the universe, and meet Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. While Robin Hood sets out distributing Napoleon’s bounty to the poor, next to him stands a big hulking thief who takes whatever Hood has given from the poor and punches them in the face.

That’s how the World Bank works too. Since whatever the World Bank gives is in the form of a loan, it’s always taken back. The World Bank’s punch in the face comes in the spread of certain kinds of economic philosophy, centered around agricultural commodity export and resource extraction, that emphasize liberalization of trade and exposing farmers to the economic violence of the "free market."

To see the consequences of this fraud, you need look no farther than Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. At the beginning of the 1980s, Haiti grew the majority of its own rice. It had the farmers, land, and technique to grow rice sustainably. But because of trade policies pushed by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who both insisted on World Bank and IMF "structural adjustment" loans to Haiti, Haitian rice farmers were forced to compete directly with US rice farmers. The US rice industry gets a billion dollars every year in subsidies, while Hatian rice farmers were prevented from getting anything. So therefore it’s no surprise that Haitian rice farmers were destroyed by this trade policy. And it’s not surprising that in Haiti, as the result of US policy, there have been food riots, including the food riots there just last year. The bitter irony is that when there are food riots in Haiti, the people are fighting over bags of rice printed with the stars and stripes and labels that say "Gift of the people of the United States."

"So what are we going to do?" Before giving the answer, Raj tore into the fallacies of green consumerism. "It might be tempting to go into Whole Foods, a sponsor of tonight’s event, and find the products that are labeled organic, worker-friendly, child-friendly, butterfly-friendly, locust-friendly: a long list of certifications that in some way will be a balm to your guilt. But the minute you step into a supermarket, you are in the food system’s gound zero."

Supermarkets are the new giants of the food system. Walmart, of course, is the easy target and the biggest target. Until recently, they were responsible for 2% of the USA’s Gross Domestic Product. They are the world’s largest grocer and they have the world’s second largest computer, after the Pentagon, which they use to manipulate and drive down prices to farmers. They’ve been responsible for some of the largest labor violations in US labor history.

"But let’s not pick on Walmart. Let’s think of any supermarket, even Whole Foods. Supermarkets are in the business of logistics and supply that places them ideally at the bottleneck of the food system. And supermarkets themselves are designed to make us consume more." For example, why is milk always at the back of the supermarket? The reason is that milk is the product that we’re most often in the supermarket to buy, and there’s a golden triangle between the entrance, the milk and the checkout line as we impulse-purchase our way through the store. Why do supermarkets have bakeries? They’re not profit machines, but they’ve discovered that the smell of baking bread tends to make us buy more stuff. There’s even a rumor that some unscrupulous supermarkets, if they have no space for a bakery, are adding the smell into their air conditioning systems.

The point is that we find ourselves continually going back to supermarkets, because they’re so "convenient." But convenience is socially constructed. How deep does the rabbit hole go? How deep are the problems with our food system? Clearly, the problems are very deep and they’re embedded within us. We go to supermarkets not because they’re "natural" but due to very human forces.

Diving straight into the rabbit hole, Raj sped through an example of how convenience was constructed in apartheid South Africa, where people resisting apartheid invented a food called "bunny chow." Apartheid required laws, one of which was the Separate Amenities Act, meaning that white and black people could o’t eat together. Bunny chow was a loaf of white bread with the top cut off, the insides scooped out, and filled with curry. You take the bread, dip and eat, dip and eat, dip and eat, and when you get to the bottom, it’s all gone, there’s no cutlery and you haven’t broken any laws. If you’re a black person, you can eat bunny chow on the run without being in the same space with white people. It’s a kind of government-sponsored fast food. There’s nothing truly convenient about a loaf of white bread with curry inside; if you don’t eat it quickly, the curry will seep through and create a complete mess. "It’s not convenient unless you factor in the speed of our working lives and the rules that regiment how quickly and cheaply you must eat."

"If you don’t think this impacts you, just look at working Americans who are forced to eat their meals in cars." In the US, 20% of fast food is eaten inside cars. When Raj tells this to Europeans, they can’t comprehend it. They ask, "But why? Is it because Americans love their cars?" They don’t understand that working Americans, particularly now, are working so hard to achieve the things that Europeans take for granted: Health care, pension, affordable housing, pension. The choice that working Americans face is not between organic greens and McDonalds but between McDonalds and Burger King — and that’s no choice at all.

"So the solution is going to have to address much more than just how we shop. There’s something very wrong with that uniquely American fantasy believing that we can, together, change the world though shopping."

The Solution is Food Sovereignty

"The most inspirational solutions to this problem of bottlenecks in the food system and the dominion that coroporations have over markets in food," Raj finally affirmed, "are coming from some of the most impoverished farm workers in the world today." These solutions come from an organization called Via Campesina, the international peasant movement that is 150 million people strong worldwide. In the Unitied States, the Via Campesina member is the National Family Farm Coalition. Their vision is an idea called food sovereignty.

"We have to bring democracy back into our food system by transforming the ways that we farm. We do this by farming agro-ecologically, by taking back control of markets, by re-injecting democracy into the ways that food get distributed, policies get made, and markets get apportioned or not."

"Agro-ecology is the idea that rather than destroying an ecosystem and then replacing it, you work with what’s there including the seasons, the environment, and social factors. You work with the way society is, changing society along the way. Agro-ecology is more than a farming technique or something you can put on a label; it’s a way of life and a political philosophy." Food sovereignty is about starting where we are, with the environment and social context that we live in, but then addressing and challenging inequalities of power.

"It’s very interesting that Via Campesina, in their recent meetings in Mozambique, came up with a series of recommendations." They said that the World Trade Organization needs to get out of agriculture. They said that governments need to support sustainable agriculture, because the world’s best scientific minds have said that sustainable agriculture is the only way we can feed the world by 2050. They also said that we need municipal policies that support sustainable agriculture, like the Food Policy Councils that have spread to hundreds of cities throughout the United States.

But it’s not just about governments and municipalities: Even at the household level, we need to challenge power, says Via Campesina. "And they’re right. Above all, the food crisis is a gendered crisis." 60% of the people going hungry today are women and girls. Women in developing countries grow the majority of food that is eaten there, and yet own less than 10% of the land. And so it’s very instructive and inspirational to hear the slogan that Via Campesina adopted: Food sovereignty is about an end to violence against women.

"With that political trajectory, it’s not just about how you farm, although how you farm is critical. It’s not just about how you force government to listen to you, although that will be tremendously important as we go forward under the Obama administration and Vilsack as our Secretary of Agriculture."

"We’ve got work to do, but the good news is we’ve come so far. Under the Bush adminstration, when things were bleak, we’ve come incredibly far. In 1999, it would have been impossible, for example, to imagine New York Times article after article calling basically for a revolution in food and agriculture, yet that’s what we got at the end of 2008. This happened not by magic but because each of us was out there recruiting, educating, transforming, being activists."

"That’s what we need to build on over the next four years. The image of Obama as the agent of change is double-edged. There’s one image of Obama being the pizza delivery guy of change. Now that we’ve elected him, we wait for him to come bringing hot, steaming change in 30 days or less. That’s not the vision we need. We must redouble our activism efforts. While an organic garden on the White House lawn would be a great thing to see, we need more transformation than merely one plot of land on Pennsylvania Avenue. We need a revolution."

"And that’s what food sovereignty is about: an approach to democracy that the majority Americans are still far removed from." The kind of democracy that most of us experience is the poor cousin of consumer choice, a gimmick epitomized last year by PepsiCo’s online Dewmocracy contest in which consumers were invited to play a game involving a series of "mythological ex­periences to virtually design a fantasy Mountain Dew drink."

"If we’re taking food sovereignty seriously, we’re going to have to take our democratic engagement very seriously, from the household all the way up to international institutions. But it’s a fight well worth winning. Breaking that bottleneck of power is the only way that we’re going to be able to feed the world and have justice at the same time."

"Thank you, and I”m inspired by all your work," Raj ended, to the sounds of loud cheers and applause.