A great world contradiction

By Jennifer Loftis

One billion people on this planet are overweight. And at the same time, 800 million people in the world are going hungry. As never before, supermarkets have shelves lined with dozens of brands of cereal, chips, condiments, tea and coffee. And as never before, even the poor who can not afford enough to eat are growing obese.
In his book, Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel, a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, writes in the introduction that it is exactly this freedom of choice that has helped cause the world’s food problem. The book takes the reader on a journey, where Patel seeks to explore and explain the world food system, starting with “choices made in the fields to choices made for our palates.”
Patel tells stories of poor farmers from around the world who once owned their land and could sustain themselves, but are now destitute because no one would buy their goods, not even the local grocery store where food is being trucked in from hundreds of miles away. He compares these farmers against other people who have enough money to buy and eat what they want, yet their bodies are paying the price of their convenience.

The book chillingly describes how genetically modified and processed food has not only ruined farmers’ livelihood, it has also ruined the taste buds. Patel argues that out of the eight different brands of apples one can buy at the supermarket, they are all of the same kind. They can survive traveling a long distance, they are large with few blemishes, have a consistent color and in general, taste nothing like they should. The marketing world of supermarkets is unveiled as the book explains that the way the aisles are arranged, what colors are used in decorating and the music that is played strongly influences choices of purchase. Patel points out that if the average shopper can outlast the marketing strategies and truly buy what is good for them and what genuinely tastes good, then very little food is actually available to pick off the shelf that doesn’t contain harmful chemicals. He leads the reader to see that in freedom of choice, there can be less real choice.

Through well-referenced facts, tables and statistics, Patel finally brings readers to his conclusion that the world food system is unsustainable. He writes that it affects individuals’ health and livelihood and it is also having a destructive affect on the environment. The system engenders cruelty to animals and demands unsustainable amounts of water and energy. Patel leaves the reader with ten practical ways to take action against the system at the individual level.

Stuffed and Starved, a well researched 400 page book, is merely an introduction into a world wide movement where people are taking steps to elevate some of the damage caused by the food system. It is a beginning education that Patel continues through one of his websites, stuffedandstarved.org. He keeps a blog updating readers on everything relating to famine, feast and food ethics. For those curious as to what their community is doing to help, there is a world map link that pinpoints organizations and actions within your area.
It is a book about a great, hidden battle and the small victories accomplished by individuals and communities. Education and self-awareness is the first offensive strategy that Patel is offering the world.

Melville House Publishing, pp 398, 2008, ISNB: 978-1-933633-49-7, $20

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