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Fighting Global Food Shortages

The escalating crisis of global food shortages and price spikes has been called the result of a perfect storm of conditions. Droughts, the high cost of fuel, rising inflation and the use of crops for biofuels have left many nations of the world struggling to provide access to affordable staple foods like rice or wheat, and unfortunately, there is no end in sight. A new book by University of California, Berkeley, food expert Raj Patel called "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System" (Melville House) examines how our food goes from the field to our dinner plates. He delivers a blistering indictment of the policies of multinational agribusiness conglomerates and charges that their drive for profit at any cost has left the developing world starving while wealthy countries like the United States are experiencing epidemic obesity rates and related health problems. In a conversation with NEWSWEEK's Karen Fragala Smith, Patel addressed the causes of today's global food shortages and offers suggestions for what consumers, companies and governments can do to make nutritious food more accessible. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: For a long time, conventional wisdom has held that there is enough food in the world, but distribution has been thwarted by security, economics or other reasons. Do you agree that this was and is still the case?
Raj Patel:
There is still enough food to feed the planet, but there aren't enough [resources] to generate enough meat to raise everyone's meat consumption to the level of Americans. But that's not a bad thing. U.S. children have a life expectancy that's shorter than their parents as a result of the diet that they'll be exposed to as they grow up, and that's not a fate that we want to impose on the rest of the world, much less one that we want to see here in the States. It's clear to everyone that we do need to change the way that we eat. It's true that there is enough food around but not if we carry on the way we are.

In a country like Haiti, where there's instability because of the high price and unavailability of food, what needs to be done immediately, as well as well in the long term, to create change?
Things are pretty precarious in Haiti. The prime minister was voted out of office because of his inability to deal with the food riots. In the short term, food aid is definitely going to be necessary. But what you notice if you go to Haiti is that the bags of rice have American flags printed on them. Haiti produces less rice now than in the 1980s because they were forced by the U.S. to liberalize rice import regulations. Cheap U.S. rice flooded the economy and Haitian rice farmers were absolutely destroyed. They couldn't compete. In order to fix that problem in the long term, food aid needs to be bought from Haitians, and once that supply goes, it needs to be bought from other areas in Central America. In the medium term, farmers in Haiti need support so they can get back on their feet again, to be able to grow food in a way that competes favorably and fairly with farmers in the United States.

You mention that today more people in the world are starving than ever before [800 million], and yet even more people are overweight [1 billion]. What is the relationship between these two conditions?
It used to be the case that if you were fat then you were rich and if you were poor then you were thin. Today, we've got millions of farmers producing our food and billions of consumers buying it, but there are just a handful of corporations that control the global market. Those corporations do what all corporations do--they buy cheap and they sell dear. They buy cheap from farmers--and farmers are the poorest people on earth, so when you buy cheap from them, you're reducing the salaries of the world's poorest people. At the same time, corporations have an incentive to sell us the things that we buy more of. They pack food with things that our bodies crave like salt, fats and sugars. That's why a lot of our processed food is very profitable but it is increasingly making us overweight. And as we work more and more, those fast foods become more indispensable to the pace of out lives.

What can be done to ensure fair pricing for the farmers who grow our food? Do you advocate government regulated pricing rather than a consumer movement such as Fair Trade?
This is the conundrum. I buy Fair Trade whenever I can. I do that because the alternative is so appalling: unfair trade or people-hostile trade. I don't like to be part of that. But at the same time, if you talk to farmers and ask them what is it that really matters to you? They say "access to markets would be great, and higher prices would be swell, too. But the top three things that we want are land reform, access to water and access to agricultural technology--not genetically modified technology but other kinds of technology that would help us be more productive." No Fair Trade label in the world offers those things. There's got to be a better way of making social change happen rather than relying on these big corporations, which is essentially what Fair Trade is about. People need to open to the idea that there would be political solutions, as well.

What do you think governments should do to alleviate hunger and plan for the future of global sustenance?
The private sector is doing what the private sector's good at: making a profit. We need to change the parameters so that it doesn't make a profit at the expense of either poverty or our health. Government intervention in terms of regulating portion size, making fresh fruits and vegetables available, encouraging local food production, supporting research into agro-ecological farming techniques that are less dependent on oil would help us move in the right direction. What we've seen in the past few months is a number of food-importing countries with their backs up against the wall because the price of food has gone up so much. Maybe 30-40 years ago, these countries would have had their own grain supply. They would have had buffers. They would have had farmer support. All of those have been pushed away by the policies of organizations like the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO. In order for countries to be able to get those policies back, they need to start rejecting some of the ideas that are coming from these international institutions. At the moment, a rule of technocrats has decided that the free market is the way to go, and we're seeing the cost of the free market right now. When you have price rises as big as this one, there's nothing to stop the price rises driving straight into the heart of the poorest communities in the world.

In your book, you point out a link between coffee prices at Starbucks and famine in Africa. What is the connection?
The reason there's famine in Africa is that people are too poor to be able to eat--and this is true of every major famine since the second world war. Because the poorest people tend to be involved in agriculture, the price that we pay for our food matters. Unfortunately we as consumers don't get the chance to decide how much of our money goes to the people who grow the food as opposed to the people who process it, particularly if there are lots of steps in between us and the origin of the food. When you pay your $5 for a latte at Starbucks, that money gets sucked out of your community to Starbucks central, and then it gets diffused among the shareholders, and at the end of the day, some of that trickles down to the people who grow the coffee beans, but very little of it. The people who grow the beans are in a very weak bargaining position, and they can't increase the amount that they're able to demand for it. That means that we're left in the situation where the poorest are going hungry.

What is your outlook on the state of the global food supply over the next food months and years?
If things don't change, we're heading toward some very dire situations indeed. The fact that one government has started to crumble as a result of food riots suggests that this is just the beginning of a long and painful few months as governments seek to find whatever policies they can grab to be able to keep their citizens fed. To find long-term solutions, we need to have a democratic conversation about food, insuring that communities are able to talk about and get policies that support their decisions around how food is produced, how food is grown, what food is allowed to be imported and who gets paid what. In terms of macroeconomic policy, we need to regulate tariffs to some extent, increase grain storage, and provide support for sustainable farmers, because sustainable and small-scale farmers are the ones who feed the majority of people in the developing world. Those kinds of policies can be turned on, but it's going to take political will. These food riots are a crisis, but they are also an opportunity for putting together a better food policy. There's no guarantee that it will happen, but it's worth fighting for.

What do you think average citizens can do help to alleviate the food crisis?
What I'm trying to suggest in this book is that we shouldn't feel guilty, we should feel angry. We should feel angry that we're part of a system that exploits people. We should feel angry that we're caught up in a system that manipulates our tastes and how our kids are going to eat and how they are going to die younger that we are. With anger, certain kinds of social change becomes possible--otherwise we are left thinking that the only people who can do this for us are the corporations. If we're sufficiently angry, then we realize that there are other means to make change happen, like demanding it from our government. People shouldn't feel guilty about the food that we're forced to eat, but realize that through anger and by organizing in your church groups, local community, workplace or whatever it is, you can do things to make food more just and to enjoy it more.

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