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An Evening with Raj Patel

December 3, 2009

I still have a post in the pipeline about the crazy opera. I went a whole week ago now, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to formulate my thoughts much beyond, ‘Whaaah? Was the kitchen really representing a giant vagina dentata that eats men?’ and I want to do justice to all the crazy imagery, so you’ll have to wait until the weekend for that, when I shall eventually wrest control of my life back from the translation agency who have Stolen All My Time.

Meanwhile, I have just been to see the ever-inspiring Raj Patel (http://rajpatel.org/). I first came across him when watching the videos from the Slow Food Nation conference in 2008 (which are available here) and subsequently read his book Stuffed and Starved which made a huge impression on me. I even wrote about it on my SOAS application. I was already familiar with a lot of the issues he discussed, but the book really connected the dots between apparently disparate things like famine, obesity, social justice and GM. I mean, I knew these things were Very Important Issues, but it finally laid to rest any of my lingering, ‘Oh, but if I buy local food, what happens to all the green bean farmers in Kenya?’ doubts. He’s also a hugely engaging speaker – I’ll try and dig out the video where he explains how the World Bank works using John Cleese sketches. It’s awesome.

Anyway, the man himself did not disappoint, although I felt the discussion was dominated somewhat by older, opinionated men who asked extremely long-winded questions (rather like those people* who go on and on in seminars because they want you to hear their Very Interesting Thoughts rather than because they actually want to contribute to a coherent discussion) – I swear we only had 3 questions in about 45 minutes! It was primarily a journalism talk, with a focus on food, rather than a food talk per se, but he made some very interesting points about the press coverage of the food ‘crisis’ and riots of 2008. The actual number of food insecure people, both in the US and in developing countries, only increased quite marginally over already scandalously high numbers, but it suddenly became a ‘crisis’ once it started affecting middle class people who actually knew the journalists who were in a position to write about it. Even then, the coverage of the protests was very sensationalist and Malthusian, portraying the poor as a baying mob demanding food, but ignoring the articulate political demands for land reform, access to markets and access to water that many small farmers’ organisations are making.

I refer you, at this point, to Adam Curtis’s segment from Newswipe on ‘Oh Dearism’

‘This wasn’t reported, because it was too complicated and it wouldn’t have made us feel good about ourselves.’

One of my current hobby-horses is the way agribusiness, having failed to convince Western consumers there was any benefit to GM food, is now targeting developing countries as potential markets for GM seeds and crops. The overwhelming focus in reporting on the 2008 food crisis was on the global poor as consumers of food, not as producers – when there’s actually a fair few farmers in developing countries, for whom (subject to actually having access to markets) price rises might not have been entirely a bad thing. There’s now a lot of debate about how we ‘need to consider’ GM as an option (again, I have a huge pile of links, I’ll post them at the weekend) if we want to ‘feed the world’ – whereas one of the first things you learn when you start reading about hunger is that people don’t starve because there isn’t enough food but because they can’t access food, or can’t afford to buy it if they can. I’m not saying that journalists and agribusiness are actually in cahoots, but it worries me that the dominant social narrative is one of a simple equation of available food versus hungry mouths. It makes it easy for corporate interests to exploit our amorphous hand-wringing feeling that Something Must Be Done – because if you aren’t a hard-headed realist who accepts that science and technology** are the answers, you’re just a naive, elitist hippy who wants to sacrifice the lives of billions of poor people for your yoghurt-weaving, hemp knickers principles. (I suppose it’s the same as how any suggestion that supermarkets may be a teensy bit problematic, socially and environmentally, always attracts the, ‘Well, we need cheap food for poor people!’ response. No-one ever suggests we pay people enough so they can buy organic carrots too!)

I hope all the journalists who were in the room tonight go and write kick-arse articles about how it’s really all about power and justice.

Also, ‘I buy fair trade coffee because… what’s the alternative? Blood on your beans coffee with the bones of small children ground in?’

Awesome.

————–

* I say people, but it’s almost always men.

** Raj Patel said an awesome thing about how the Gates Foundation’s approach to aid and development is informed by the fact that Bill Gates became the world’s richest man through proprietary technology – so of course he supports GM! This was Deeply Important, but I couldn’t fit it into my paragraph.

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