EXTRACT: "the danger of crops such as Golden Rice is not merely that they are ineffective publicity stunts. They actively prevent the serious discussion of ways to tackle systemic poverty." - Raj Patel
'Stuffed and Starved'      Should Be Widely Read
[Book Review] Important book takes on global food conglomerates
Benjamin Terrall
Ohmy News, 20 May 2008 el_no=1&back_url=

The arrival of Raj Patel's 'Stuffed and Starved' in US bookstores could not come at a more appropriate time. Global food distribution is suddenly big news, as a result of poor populations rioting over dramatic price increases in rice and other staples in Cambodia, Indonesia, Egypt, Haiti and in countries throughout Africa. The predictably superficial US media discussion of this rioting leaves an enormous vacuum, which Patel's book fills nicely.

A former policy analyst with the US progressive outfit Food First, Patel spent years pulling together the research marshaled in this book. He shows how giant companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland helped push policies that created an enormous surplus of corn, which ADM and others then turned into high fructose corn syrup, one of the key contributors to the obesity epidemic now plaguing the US. Today, that corn surplus is feeding government-subsidized ethanol, which takes more energy to produce than it releases and produces more CO2 than it saves.

Along with tracking the rise of global food conglomerates, Patel introduces us to peasants and poor farmers confronting those giant corporations. Some of the best sections in the book are Patel's descriptions of spending time with the landless peasant movement (MST) in Brazil, and with poor farmers in India connected to the international Via Campesina network.

Patel talks to the daughter of the founder of the KRRS farmer's movement in Karnataka, India, who tells him, "All we want is a fair price. We're not asking for anything more. My father called it a "scientific" price -- a price that includes the cost of growing, the costs of labor, the cost of land. Nothing more."

Another KRRS farmer tells Patel, "Our message is this to the world: we the farmers need to stand on our own two legs. We don't want financial assistance; we know how to do this with our own resources. We don't want to be dependent on the WTO, the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank. What they give, they give to spoil us. We're not beggars. We're creators. We have self-respect and we can be self-reliant. We can control our own resources."

Sometimes this demand for basic human dignity leads to militant tactics. A farmer in Haryana state responded to Monsanto's overtures to rent his land for growing genetically modified crops by saying, "It's not good for the farm, for the environment, for human life; I'm happy to see it burn." Given that in most cases other avenues of resistance have either been blocked or exhausted, increasing numbers of farmers around the world feel the same way, and more are taking the route of the Indian farmers' association, which in 1998 launched "Operation Cremate Monsanto."

One of the book's more-horrific sections examines recent suicides of Indian farmers, most of whom took their lives by eating pesticides provided by agents of global agribusiness. Patel connects this tragic development to the wave of farmer suicides that began among US farmers, especially black farmers, in the 1980s. Not coincidentally, that trend began when "Big Agra," with the help of taxpayer subsidies, was taking over markets that used to sustain small farmers.

Patel avoids the obfuscation that too often plagues mainstream analysis of these issues. On GMO food he writes: "The technology presents itself as a feel-good solution for politicians who'd rather not face the more profound, persistent and difficult questions of politics and distribution.”¦ The plain fact is that the majority of children in the Global South suffer and die not because there is insufficient food, or because beta-carotene is nationally lacking. They are malnourished and undernourished because all their parents can afford to feed them is rice."

He continues, "It is absurd to ask a crop to solve the problems of income and food distribution, of course. But since that is precisely the root cause of vitamin A deficiency, the danger of crops such as Golden Rice is not merely that they are ineffective publicity stunts. They actively prevent the serious discussion of ways to tackle systemic poverty."

In a recent interview, Patel argued, "People do need to get their hands dirty by getting involved in social change. There is a particularly American fantasy that we can together create a better world by shopping. It's absolutely a case of thinking we can go to Whole Foods, choose the right thing, shop here, pay for this and all of a sudden we will lift the righteous above the impure."

The political activism Patel was referring to will have to involve more than simply replacing Republicans with Democrats. The Democratic Party played a key role in pushing a new Farm Bill through the US Congress which will continue disastrous policies of deregulation and massive subsidies for ecologically and socially destructive mega-farms.

The first step in moving beyond this disastrous status quo is countering the propaganda that says it is acceptable. Patel's book should be a key part of that work.