‘Food Sovereignty’ In NorCal: A Conversation With Raj Patel

by Will Parrish, March 31, 2011

Raj Patel

Raj Patel's first book, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, can be read as a ten-chapter exegesis on the ills of global capitalism, as manifested by its gut-wrenching stranglehold over people's access to food and other basic necessities.  At one point in the book, Patel notes in a manner typical of his deeply intelligent yet accessible prose style, that "Unless you're a corporate food executive, the [food] system isn't working for you."

Yet, in February 2010, Stuffed and Starved touched down on the New York Times' non-fiction best-seller list.  For the past few years, Patel has also been much in-demand as a public speaker, making presentations before hundreds of people who crowd university lecture halls and community auditoriums at nearly every stop.

The success of Patel's work is a reflection of his rare combination of dazzling intellect and irrepressible charm.  The British-born American academic, journalist, activist, and writer has a knack for endearing himself even to stodgy members of the middle- and upper-middle-class, at the same time that he is stripping away some of their most cherished illusions about the probity of the world in which they dwell.  Even though he speaks freely of the necessity for doing away with hallowed institutions such as free markets and private property altogether, and hits even closer to home for when he criticizes the elitism inherent to many strands of the “food localization” movement, his presentations are so commanding as to frequently generate standing ovations.

One such instance took place last month in Caspar, where roughly 200 people attended Patel's presentation at the Caspar Community Center on the topic of “Food Sovereignty In Northern California” – part of a conference sponsored by the Mendocino Institute entitled “An Eco-Communitarian Future for Menodcino County?”  “That's one of the most energetic people we've had through here in a long time,” one attendee was heard to remark at the talk's conclusion.

In Stuffed and Starved, Patel guides readers through the many-headed hydra of the global food system – supermarkets, food processors, seed sellers, agrochemical manufacturers – and their impact on both the ecology and the everyday lives of people throughout the globe.  The title is based on what Patel points out is that system's most glaring contradiction: There are more people starving in the world than ever before: roughly one billion.  Yet, there are also more people overweight – also roughly a billion.

This observation, it should be noted, immediately provides an opening for overstuffed consumers in the countries like the United States to find common cause with the exploited economic underclasses of the Global South on whose economic immiseration the food system is based, and vice versa.

As Patel notes, those who actually control the food that ends up on people's plates are making a killing off that misery.  Retailers reaped over $3.5 trillion in 2004.  Agrochemical corporations sold $25 trillion of produce.  Patel insists throughout that there be a full social accounting for the true costs of the food systems.  When taking into account the ecological cost of producing a single McDonald's hamburger, for instance, the actual total tots up to $200 – hardly a commodity that really ought to be included in a “value meal.”

The vast dark side this system casts is perhaps best seen via the rash of farmer suicides that have occurred in the wake of neo-liberal globalization's spread.  Having attempted in vain to provide for themselves and their families in the context of a global market in food that systematically deprives them of the ability to do either, hundreds of thousands have taken their lives, with an overwhelming number of such deaths happening in India – 182,936 between 1997 and 2007 alone. Millions-strong movements have arisen throughout the Global South to confront the systemic injustices from which these tragedies have stemmed.

In addition to his work as a writer and speaker, Patel is much in demand as an academic and consultant to social movements.  He lives in Oakland and is a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies.  He has recently published a second book entitled The Value of Nothing, which  critically examines the role of free markets in determining what society values, while pointing the way to alternatives.

The morning after Patel's talk in Caspar, he boarded a plane to South Africa, where he is working with and studying land reform movements, including the Shack Dwellers Movement -- the largest organization of the militant poor in post-Apartheid South Africa.  He spoke with me within a few days of his return.

Parrish: Would you please begin by describing what “food sovereignty” means and how it is distinct from a concept more commonly employed here in northern California, “food localization”?

Patel: Food localization is pretty straightforward.  The idea is to have our food sainted by the land that is near us; for instance, beets hewn just around the corner from where we live.  It is compatible with a kind of parochialism that doesn't necessarily care about the labor that has gone into the production of the food, that doesn't really care about the distribution of land, or about the fact that some people will get to eat the food whereas some people will be denied it.  And that parochialism can, and often does, extend into the home.  So, thinking about gender, for example, is something that doesn't necessarily cross the minds of people who are interested in the local food movement. Yet, if we're interested in combating hunger in the US or anywhere else, it's important to observe that 60 percent of people going hungry in the world today are women or girls.  Therefore, if we're serious about combating hunger, tackling issues around gender matter a great deal.

Food sovereignty is about a very different kind of vision for social change.  It involves politically owning and seizing power over the food system.  It's about bringing democracy to the food system, if you like.  It doesn't expressly demand that the food be produced locally.  What it does demand is that control over the food system be exercised locally.  And that, to me, is tremendously interesting and important.  Interestingly, the slogan that comes with food sovereignty, courtesy of the farmer organization La Via Campesina, is “Food Sovereignty is About an End to All Forms of Violence Against Women.”  As an organizing principle, that idea opens the door to thinking about what the preconditions for genuine democracy are, as well as the preconditions for a sustainable food system.  By opening those doors, thinking very explicitly about the violence against women that is part of capitalism, food sovereignty becomes a very potent way of thinking about the food system, a very potent way of opening the door to a radical transformation, not only concerning the possibility of ownership, but also control of land, access to technology, access to water, access to resources, and access to government.

Food sovereignty also casts a different geography.  It's not just about this particular area.  It's about how various geographies overlap with each other, about the different communities of which we're a part.  It isn't just about a sensibility where we say to ourselves “We're in our own little world, and as long as we stick to making Mendocino a picture-perfect world, well, we're alright, Jack.”  In fact, Mendocino is part of the United States, and the United States is responsible for all kinds of problems elsewhere in the world.  Insofar as we are part of that broader polity, we have a duty to make our government behave.

So, we can't retreat into a parochial vision of Sainted Kale.  We have to be cognizant of our responsibilities as Americans in terms of a broader geo-politics.  That's about accepting responsibility instead of trying to wriggle our way out of it.

Parrish: How might the Slow Food movement, which most people view as being embodied by trendy upscale institutions like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, link up with the sort of radical food politics you're describing?

Patel: Slow Food certainly has a reputation of being sort of a circle-jerk of olive oil fanciers.  It carries the burden of being a middle-class supper club where people sit around and quaff, and where people don't necessarily give a shit about people who are unable to eat.  I think that's unfortunate, because in the DNA of the Slow Food Movement are some fairly radical politics, which have been smothered in many ways by the way in which Slow Food has been transplanted here from overseas.

Slow Food was originally founded in Italy by people to the left of the Italian Communist Party.  That's worth bearing in mind, because being to the left of the Italian Communist Party isn't the type of thing that people would normally associate with Slow Foods.  But it's interesting that these are people who came to the issue of food in a way that people like Alice Waters [of Chez Panisse] would relate to, which is to recognize that food is pleasure, and that our approach should not be to deny pleasure if we're interested in social change, but rather to democratize it.  I think that's really important, because if you've come across Alice Waters' work or if you've been to Chez Panisse, the thing that's undeniable about all of it is that it's intensely pleasurable and joyful.  It's about food not as some rarified experience, but about the down and dirty fun of it all.

What the original pioneers of the Slow Food movement were trying to point out is that pleasure should be democratized.  But a prerequisite for equal access to pleasure is that everyone needs time and money.  So, what the people who originated Slow Foods did is to organize agricultural workers to increase their wages.  After all, agricultural workers are the poorest paid people -- particularly in Mendocino, but elsewhere as well.  Then they went on to organize two hours for lunch breaks so the workers could actually take time to enjoy their food.  That sort of notion, I think, is very, very exciting.

So, there is stuff within Chez Panisse and slow foods that is radically important.  And it links to the American anarchist Emma Goldman's idea that “I don't want to be part of your revolution if I can't dance.”  Actually, pleasure is an intensely important part of social change.  So, I think there's a lot within these traditions that has been identified as sort of bourgeoisie, that doesn't have to be bourgeoisie.  It's something that people who are interested in [radical chance] can actually recuperate.

Parrish: You worked briefly for the World Bank and volunteered at the World Trade Organization.  How did those experiences inform the work you're engaged in now?

Patel: The reason I ended up getting a check from the World Bank – actually, I think my total earnings were about $2,000, or something similarly modest – is that I was offered the chance of getting unfettered access to its gray literature and confidential archives as part of a project to review the Bank's own analysis of poverty.  So, this was what consultants had come back with from their reports in the field.  We started reading these reports, decoding them, and seeing the process whereby their substance was morphed from a very critical study of the way the World Bank and its consultants represented poor people, into this celebration of how the World Bank is best friends with the poor!

That, in and of itself, was tremendously important, I think, in showing the discursive politics that are necessary for the World Bank to do what it does.  Clearly, nobody likes going to bed thinking of him- or herself as evil.  Every criminal, Wall Street banker, Enron executive, and so on, has a way in which they can soothe themselves to sleep at night, such as the belief that they're doing good by winnowing out the weak from the strong.  With the World Bank, that self-soothing process comes by way of representing itself as a friend, rather than an enemy, of the poor and of democracy.

Whatever that self-serving narrative is, it's one that needs challenging.  Having been a part of the construction of this narrative and seeing how it works, it became all the more important for me to go forth and point out exactly what is wrong with it.  It wasn't a case of, all of a sudden, the clouds parted and I realized the error of my ways.  In fact, I had always been very skeptical about the World Bank.  But I thought it was important to look inside, which is also why I volunteered at the World Trade Organization.

Yet, at the same time as I was volunteering with the WTO, I was sharing the kinds of experiences I just described to you with People's Global Action, which is a rattle-bag dissident organization in Europe that was having a camp right there on the World Trade Organization headquarters [in Geneva, Switzerland].  So, I think it's all well and good to go inside these organization and say, 'Well, now I know how it works.'  But I think part of holding one's self to account for that experience is then to share exactly how it is that the discursive process happens within those organizations and so forth.

Parrish: You've been close to grassroots food movements for many years now, including having traveled around the world giving talks before large audiences.  I'd like to focus for the purposes of this question on the US.  Having seen so many hubs of activity geared toward food sovereignty or food justice, while also having worked as part of kindred organizations such as La Via Campesina, what sort of changes have you observed in these movements over recent years?

Patel: Well, I worked at Food First from 2002-2004, so I got to have a look around and be involved in some of the stuff happening around food and trade justice back then.  It seems to me that there is far more energy around food and food systems in the US than there ever used to be, and there's a lot more potential than there ever was.  It's not as if people are just now realizing that there's a deficit in food justice, because that's been going on for a while.  The People's Grocery [in Oakland], for instance, has been around for ages, and people have been organizing around this general theme for a very long time.

In fact, I'm just finishing some work on the Black Panther Party and their work around food justice [in the late-1960s and early-1970s].  Their work resonates through to right now because they were a group concerned with making sure constituents were fed.  But they also regarded food not as a hand-out, but as an integral part of organizing for social change.  “Survival Pending Revolution” was their motto.  So, we do ourselves a disservice if we imagine the current food movement is the first time anyone in the US has ever thought about these issues.

That said, there has been over the past 10 years a growth in the number of people who are thinking about this sort of thing.  I don't think it's just because I'm talking a lot more than I used to.  One need only looks at membership levels, for example, in organizations like Slow Foods.   More than that, a lot of young people who are involved in these movements are engaged in a range of social movement politics, and they're concerned about more than nice olive oil.  They're curious about, and want to know how to work with, other folks [who are part of other political tendencies].  And that's exciting!

There's a Stuart Hall line about how we need to get engaged in politics without guarantees.  There's no secret recipe that ensures that hunger will soon be ended in the United States, if only we follow a set plan. On the other hand, I think there's a stronger chance that hunger will be ended in the US given that there's a mounting body of people who are starting to organize and articulate their political demands around hunger.

Parrish: What do you attribute the growing interest in the food movement to?

Patel: We hear a lot about a generation-wide trend of people wanting to be engaged in concrete things, rather than sort of “the old party politics.”  If the old party politics is Democrat vs. Republican, I can see why anyone would rather want to do something concrete rather than engage in the futile act of distinguishing what is Republican from what is Democrat – they being more or less one and the same.  And there is something practical about getting involved in food justice in terms of being able to grow something and see something happen right before your eyes.  For the impatient, and for those who are frustrated with party politics, there's something very important about that.

But I also think this is one of the directions in which constructive social change moved after 9/11.  Of course, 9/11 in itself doesn't mean anything for social change.  The repression that followed the terrorist attacks and the criminalization of street protests, however, and the great difficulty that attended criticizing the state because “if you weren't with us, you were against us” – it's easy to forget how hard it was to be contrarian in the years immediately after 9/11.  So, one of the ways in which concrete, viable alternatives to corporate globalization were being developed was by way of increased effort toward, not a frontal attack on the state, but rather fomenting community organizing and developing alternatives.  Also, a very pressing need for a renewed food politics emerged after 9/11 because of the recession that followed it.

So, I think there are a number of reasons the food movement has developed.  It represents a complex articulation of the politics around poverty, the environment, and corporate globalization.  It has to do with political organizing, the prevailing political climate, and the substance of food itself -- which is amenable to joy.  The different paths that people have taken mean we're left with  a strange assembly of motivations for heading in the same direction, and that's why more than ever, now is a good time to be rallying behind the politics that we need to pull us into the future.

Parrish: Toward the end of the talk you gave in Caspar, a lady in the audience told you something to the effect that you have no idea how hard it is in Mendocino County to achieve the fundamental changes you're pointing to, given the current stature of cannabis and wine-grapes, which use up most of the potentially food-bearing land and which collectively result in the lion's share of economic activity.  Given that a lot of people who will read this edition of the Anderson Valley Advertiser doubtless share that same sentiment about what they regard as the impossibility of actually realizing food sovereignty, I'm wondering if you would care to restate more or less what you said?

Patel: One sells one's self short if one's imagination is limited to the way things are at the moment.  We make ourselves smaller people, we cripple ourselves intentionally, by positing that the way the world is now is the way it always must be.

For instance, when one looks at the patterns of water usage now, it's reasonable to conclude that fifty years from now, Los Angeles won't be viable.  People are like, “No, that could never be!” But then you point that, actually, 100 years ago, Los Angeles wasn't there either.  All of a sudden, that helps throw into relief the way in which we're fastened to our world.  The time horizons people operate in are often so constrained, narrow, and unimaginative that it's impossible for us to think out way out of the present.  And, by caving into the notion that the way it is now is the way it always will be, and therefore that it cannot be challenged, we give up on ourselves.  We give up on our future.  It sells us short and does us a grave disservice.  Moreover, it cheapens us.

So, in the case of Mendocino, sure, it must feel like where you live is destined forever to be the home of hemp and vine.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  Part of the work of social change is to breach the constraints around our imagination to get to that future.

If I recall correctly, I answered the lady's question by talking about bananas.  I talked about a world in which people in the Caribbean no longer grow bananas for the benefit of the wealthy.  The question I often get asked when I posit that scenario is, “Well, what would they do?” Well, they would figure it out! They're smart enough to do that!

And yet, somehow, when we cast ourselves into the position of thinking about what would we do if we suddenly didn't have vines and marijuana to grow here, imagining that we would sort of sit around on our asses with flies buzzing above our heads until someone told us what to do, is preposterous.  We don't allow ourselves to think of ourselves as powerful enough to project ourselves into that future.  It seems desperate and unfortunate that we can't.  Clearly (laughs), it has happened before that we have been imaginative, and I imagine that it will happen again.

Parrish: Food sovereignty is not something that's going to arrive tomorrow, and the gap between where we will need to go to achieve it compared with where we are now is fairly great.  Yet, there are countless specific projects that can, and in some case already do, move us in that direction.

Patel: It's important to look at food sovereignty not as an end-point.  We won't wake up one morning with the choir playing and the planes flying across the sky with a banner saying, “Food Sovereignty Is Here!” Food sovereignty is really about praxis.  It's an attitude toward a struggle for more power over the food system.  In the same way as if one thinks of capitalism both as a project and a process, the resistance to it through demanding control back from capitalism -- for demanding community control rather than corporate control, for demanding a full accounting for the damage done by those in power -- that's something that's not so much an end-point as a daily struggle.

There are loaded things one can imagine happening along the way.  Making sure that everyone is fed is a part of that struggle. But it also involves political organizing, and I think again that the Black Panthers are very important here.  They serve as a useful example of thinking about what we want, exercising our imagination so that we can make demands, knowing who it is that we're asking to change, and understand who it is that stands in the way.

That's why I think that woman's question was so interesting.  [Food sovereignty] is about engaging in the act of willing utopias, one way or another.  Things like food policy councils can offer a space for a community to do that.  Getting engaged in these food policy councils with the goal of ending hunger forever in a community is vital.  That's part of the solution.  I don't think there is a magic bullet, of course, and everyone who says if you just do this one thing, everything is going to be great – that's nonsensical.

There are countless things to be done, whether it's engaging in a food policy council, or in action research in your locale to determine things like, How many people are going hungry? What do they think is necessary to fix hunger now? It depends on one's community.  If you're engaged in a church,  that may be a place to start.  If you're engaged in a group of researchers at a university, then action research might be the way to go.  One can imagine any number of paths out of the current situation, and the one you elect depends on where you find yourself.

Parrish: You've mentioned the Black Panthers a few times, and you also mentioned in your talk in Caspar that at one time they were feeding more people than the State of California.

Patel: There was a time, owing to the Breakfast for Children program, where the Black Panthers were feeding more people than the government of the State of California were feeding.  And this was no small embarrassment to the government of California.  What is interesting is that the Black Panthers were revolutionaries who understood that there was an emergency happening among their constituents, which they needed to meet in a dignified way, while at the same time providing a mechanism through which people might transcend the conditions that create such emergencies in the first place.  You can't just build a revolution by demanding that people sort of go out and take on the police.  It involves articulations about demand and imagination – precisely the kind of thing we were talking about earlier on.  Food was a weapon in that war.  And the organizing to provide that food was also a weapon in that war.

Parrish: I recently read a study by an economic development consulting firm describing how housing prices in Northern California's four-county Wine Country Region rose nearly 40 percent faster on a proportionate basis than in California as a whole during the housing boom.  The price of housing in this area rose proportionately faster, even, than in the San Francisco Bay Area proper, which was a leading epicenter of the bubble.

Meanwhile, the economic underclass here consists, for instance, of agricultural fieldworkers, most of whom migrated to the US quite recently.  Many of them perhaps came from family farms in Mexico, where people lost their land following the North American Free Trade Agreement's (NAFTA) passage.  In many cases, these are people with deep knowledge of farming.

Yet, the lives of that underclass are virtually invisible to the wave of relatively wealthy landowners who have settled in this area in recent years, many of whom have an expressed interest in greater local food cultivation.  How would you say these dynamics bear on the prospects for the unfolding of food sovereignty here in Mendocino County?

Patel: Well, I think you've nailed it.  The idea of food sovereignty is about everybody having democratic access to, and control of, the food system.  That access is blind to citizenship.  Working within the organizing that's already happening within migrants groups to support their demands and to support their democratic control over the work they do, and the food system in which they're a part, is vital.  That can mean things like setting up sanctuary cities and ID schemes to support the workers and the viability of communities of people without papers.

It also extends far beyond that, into thinking about the fact that the people who own the vineyards are not out there, backs hunched over, growing the grapes themselves.  They know better than anyone that their livelihoods depend on undocumented migrant labor.  It's an awkward conversation to have – and it's a conversation that obviously needs to happen in a number of languages – but if we're serious about food sovereignty, it's absolutely unavoidable.

Parrish: Many people reading this are very much insulated from the context of, say La Via Campesina, as well as from the movements you work with in South Africa, for example, which consist largely of peasant farmers struggling for land reform.  How might middle-class people here in northern California, some of whom are genuinely interested in food justice, think about applying lessons from those movements to our own context?

Patel: I think that brings us back to the beginning of this conversation.  It is easy merely to retreat into this parochialism around food.  But, as I said, as Americans we have a burden of responsibility that's higher than almost anywhere else, because our government has been doing so much more shit than anyone else.  In addition to engaging in these difficult conversations around, say, migrant labor in Northern California, we need to be thinking about what our government is doing overseas, whether that's pushing an unsustainable climate change agenda or the World Bank's engaging in policies that are deeply undemocratic and run contrary to the wishes of people in the countries where this Bank operates, with our government's license.

That's a lot of work to do, but it is better that we are informed and acknowledge our government's involvement than to remain ignorant and pretend like everything's just fine.  If we are serious about democracy and about reclaiming our food system, that's the work ahead.  We could just sort of clamp our ears and retreat into our own little dream world, and if you want to do that, that's fine.  But at least acknowledge that what you're doing is retreating from democracy and from the responsibilities of freedom.  Understand that what you're doing is actually the opposite of the rhetoric with which you might trumpet your local food movement.

There's also something very empowering about challenging some of these things.  It's about the possibility of connecting with people around the world, connecting with struggles and with other cultures.  It's about the vision that many of those people have and can inspire us with.  So, we're seeing all this stuff happen in North Africa and West Asia whereby people are taking control of their lives.  More than one commentator has pointed out that that's really what democracy looks like, and we would do well in the US to take a leaf from the book of the protesters who, although their eyes are wide open about what the consequences might be, are nonetheless challenging power – because it is an affront to their dignity not to.

We sell our dignity so cheap.  In exchange for the local kale, we're happy to let a number of things slip.  Again, that runs contrary to everything the spirit of the west was meant to be about, or says that it's about.  In particular, the vision that Mendocino has about itself is about a certain collective mode of resistance.  It seems like there's a lot we can reclaim, and connecting with those struggles around the world is a way of doing that.

Yes, it's hard.  I'm just back from southern Africa.  One of the groups I met with there was the Shack Dwellers Movement which, in many ways, has been going since before the end of Apartheid.  In its current incarnation, it's been going for five years.  I've been tremendously inspired by the ways they've stuck to their guns; it's a hugely powerful organization.  Despite overwhelming odds, they're fighting back.  I'm made stronger in my resolve by what they're doing.  There's everything to gain by this sort of movement, as well as an internationalism where you can be inspired by other people.

Parrish: You discussed the impact of the wider political climate on the modes of politics that people collectively engage in, as well as the links between the alter-globalization movement – often associated with the 1999 Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization – and food justice work.  Do you seen any prospect for efforts toward food sovereignty in the United States to contribute to a renewal of resistance politics in this country?

Patel: Alter-globalization activists have contributed not only to the food justice movement by the analysis that they bring, but also through the development of concrete alternatives.  It's one thing to say Another World is Possible [a slogan commonly associated with alter-globalization], it's another thing to demonstrate it.  A lot of my friends who are involved in contrarian politics are actually engaged in some very interesting efforts to build those alternatives.  And whether it's the emergence of food policy councils or agro-ecological experiments, those ways of farming and distributing food are very exciting because they point the way toward a way in which a radical politics is necessary not only to produce more food, but to make sure it's adequately distributed.

Certainly, the ideas around the commons, for example, which obviously predate anything the alter-globalization movement has done, are very exciting.  We can look at the ways they crop up, say, in the Oakland Food Policy Council's policy document, and of other efforts to chart out ways in which public land might be transformed into the commons.  Those ideas resurface, and I think the idea of the alter-globalization movement is still very palpable in the way in which we're moving into the future.

For more information on Raj Patel, visit his web site at www.rajpatel.org .

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