Saturday, August 7, 2010

Musings on Hunger (and Over-Indulgence): Stuffed and Starved

I have never experienced hunger. Sure, noon rolls around and I feel a little rumble in my stomach, but that’s not the same thing as a chronic emptiness and under-satiation. Well, over one billion people world-wide suffer from undernourishment and hunger. This does not even take into consideration famine events that result in fatalities and acute instances of hunger. About a month ago now (I know, tardy on the posting), I read a fabulous work that brought this subject more to the forefront of my thinking.

Raj Patel has done much of the thinking and researching for us on this topic. Stuffed and Starved addresses the inequities between the billion overweight and the billion underfed. But Patel also traces the evolution of our food system, of which the most notable transformations have occurred within the last century. With the advent of mechanization and chemical additives, the way society on a global scale approaches food has moved drastically from life-giving sustenance to capitalist consumer product.

His historical and political/economic analysis of the underwriting factors causing ailments of poverty and affluence blew me away. He looks at everything from increasing incidents of farmer suicides (yes, he commences with this cheery topic) to free trade agreements to the chemical and botanical components of what we eat. One of my favorite chapters detailed the birth and rise-to-power of the supermarket. And while you must read with a critical eye, as Patel most definitely falls firmly on the anti-industrial food system side, he introduces a wealth of issues to munch on (haha, pun intended).

One chapter speaks largely to the efforts of “conscious consumers” and how those to fairly trade and shop Whole Foods (sorry friends) may fall short. Patel posits that the latter, specifically, is “essentially trying to “refashion” our food system under the current large-scale infrastructure” (p.311). And although the Slow Food Movement now seems to epitomize “the kind of eating that is transparent and socially embedded in a way that industrially-produced food can’t be (p.281)”, that and other alternative foodie channels are often criticized as being elitist and upper-class. Considering the portion of my income that I now spend on food, I can understand where critics are coming from!

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By now, I think it’s clear that our food system is not only global, it is complicated. We think a lot about putting our dollar towards products that best support our values (and, unfortunately sometimes, our means), but rarely do we really contemplate how we arrived at a food industry so far removed from its roots and so bent on commercial gain.

There are many more topics in the book that are fascinating and simultaneously disturbing: the marketing campaigns and consolidation of large agri/food business (p.101; 104); the problems with the green revolution and how the second green revolution (genetic engineering) may not be the cure-all we hoped it would be (p.125; 136); and why our current food system is so darn vulnerable (p.294). It’s not all doom-and-gloom, and Patel does provide action items to make us all feel like we can DO something (p.303-315). But while consumers alone can make some impact, much of what needs to happen is on an institutional and political level.

Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2007.

So, sitting at home cross-legged on the sofa, munching on some cucumbers and tomatoes, I can say that I have been hungry but never HUNGRY.


Stuffed and Starved Website

Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment

United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization

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