Aaron McLean in conversation with Raj Patel; a writer, activist and academic whose work is centred around the global food system.
Raj Patel is the author of the books Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, The Value of Nothing, and most recently the brilliant A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, co-written with Jason W. Moore.
A Research Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas in Austin, and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University, South Africa. He has co-taught the Edible Education class at UC Berkeley with Michael Pollan and in 2016 was recognized with a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. Raj has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.
He has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University and has both protested against and worked for the World Bank and WTO.
Raj was recently a speaker at the World Indigenous Business Forum in Rotorua where he spoke for a future of “maximum participation with minimum concentration of power”. Aaron felt very fortunate and was very grateful to be granted an hour of his time at the airport before departing the country to conduct the conversation below.
A. You’ve got multiple degrees from various prestigious institutions, I’m intrigued to know where your academic story begins. What did you first study? And what was the seed that connected you so strongly to the lens of food?
R. In part the studying is just a means to an end. I tell the story a lot about when I was five; I saw poverty in India the likes of which I’d never seen and I wanted it to stop. Later it seemed that if I wanted to address those problems of hunger and poverty that philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) was going to be the way. So I did the PPE entrance exam to Oxford, but before I got there I decided that in fact, being able to think systemically through mathematics was going to be the thing to do. So I detoured away from PPE for a year to do mathematics and philosophy. I loved it, and was bad at it. I switched back to PPE, which I think in part was treading water until I put my finger on things like – ‘well, I’m interested in developing countries’ – so the master’s degree I did was specifically about developing countries. But even then I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing, and that hasn’t really changed, despite many degrees.
I have discovered that there’s such merit in not knowing what you’re doing, and – particularly if you’re interested in social change – in engaging, collaborating and experimenting with a whole bunch of other people to be able to make that happen.
That twist came while I was doing my doctoral work, and the twist towards food happened in part through meeting La Via Campesina at the World Trade Organisation protest in 1999. I’d seen them before but seeing them in action was very inspirational. And then after I finished my work on the World Trade Organisation and in Zimbabwe, the organisation that wanted to give me a job was Food First, which worked very well because I knew the WTO and I was happy to bend my interest towards agriculture. That’s when I got in thick with La Via Campesina, being able to work with them through people like Peter Rosset.
A. So you came out of school and into the anti-globalisation movement.
R. Yes. Earlier you were saying you didn’t know what you wanted to do when you came out of school, in part, I didn’t either and still don’t, and in part, I’ve known since I was five. So it’s been a sort of dual track of knowing what it was that I’m here to do and then figuring out how it is that I’m going to make that happen.
A. The food movement seems to be about so much more than food; food as a door to many interrelated rooms. What does food mean to you?
R. It’s obviously an intimate and sensual experience, and it’s a place to explore, and a place to do science, and a place to learn culture. And then it’s a battleground, and it’s a place to learn how other places have fought and won. For me, in America there is a sort of mythical figure, Johnny Appleseed, who goes from one place to another spreading seeds. And that’s been my great privilege, to be fluent enough in enough languages and a couple of cultures to be able to bump around from place to place, and often just be deeply incompetent about things in a way that people are open to schooling me.
A. When referring to the food movement you’ve talked about “mixing pleasure with transformation”, is that some of the power it holds?
R. Earlier this week we heard the news that the planet has only twelve years to get to zero carbon. If you’re in the climate change world, and many of my friends are, this is just magnificently bad and apocalyptic news, and a lot of what I’ve been seeing is depression. Now, I get that, I was lecturing about this a couple of weeks back and all I saw was a room full of stupefied people who didn’t know what to do with this information and how to process it. Luckily the food movement has some great answers and they’re very pleasurable. The idea that you can sequester carbon through polyculture is not just a policy idea that exists in a vacuum, it’s also about power and community and deliciousness.
So while I’m with my comrades who are climate change activists first and foremost, and it’s right to take a dim view of capitalism’s capacity to absorb this, I think there’s more pleasure and joy and transformation to be had if you have a spoon full of deliciousness with the bad news. I also think that if you can’t find the joy of where it’s already being transformed, the depression overwhelms what is actually happening right now, and you let it blind you to the fights that are being fought.
A. You’ve been in New Zealand for the World Indigenous Business Forum. You’ve just mentioned capitalism’s incapacity to deal with the future we’re facing and you clearly have a serious critique of capitalism. In your recent book The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things you explicitly tie capitalism to colonisation. So I wonder, through that lens what does indigenous business look like?
R. I was there talking about enterprise, what is it to be an entrepreneur if you’re not being an entrepreneur in a capitalist system. I went through the ‘seven cheap things’, talking about how the food system depends on a frontier of colonialism, even today. I quoted a Global Witness report from last year which observed that of the many indigenous people killed defending their land, most were killed by agro-business. People think ‘oh yeah that colonialism, it’s all very bad, but it’s all done and dusted’, but it’s not, it’s ongoing and indigenous people are still dying. The message was not, these people are mowing everyone down and they’re coming after you, it was about how there is no way that you can win on this terrain. Sure there may be some wonderful novelty or a super high end indigenous food thing that is sold as a luxury good, but that doesn’t win.
Some of the most enterprising and entrepreneurial indigenous food movements I see are those that are not just about making money but are about transforming the rules of the game in which they make money. One of my favourite examples is a medicine woman called Valerie Segrest of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe who runs the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project. She’s making amazing teas and beverages that you could imagine being sold alongside Pepsi and Coke, but she’s not there to provide an alternative to Pepsi and Coke, she’s there to provide an end to Pepsi and Coke. She’s selling these things so that they don’t exist anymore and that’s a very different kind of approach to what enterprise is for. It’s not about winning against the competition, it’s about eradicating that type of competition. It’s important to remember that if you like free markets and free exchange, which I do, then capitalism is the opposite of that. Pick a commodity any commodity: we’re being recorded on an Apple device, I have one in my pocket, that’s part of the duopoly of what capitalism has given us – you get to chose this or this. These are not infinite worlds of free exchange, these are concentrations of power.
A. We’ve touched on the IPCC report, and on how the food movement is working to address many of those issues, but what role can indigenous knowledge and traditions (both in growing food and organising community) play in helping us to unwind industrial agriculture and re-localise as we confront climate breakdown?
R. At the most basic level there are indigenous practices of managing food ways that are sometimes about agriculture, sometimes are about hunting and gathering. Other ways of providing food that are not about mining soil and then destroying the vibrant ecosystem that surrounds the food. The milpa system in Mesoamerica for example – where you’re growing corn and beans and squash – is a fantastic system that’s incredibly productive; it sequesters carbon and has a very low carbon footprint compared to the alternatives.
But indigenous movements aren’t just peddling a technology, they’re asserting a right to autonomy; to be scientific and to have sovereignty over their land. This is important to remember, because I don’t think that there is any solution in sight without this idea of sovereignty. The idea of being powerful enough to be able to demand, dictate and shape your own food policy and your own policies within your community are vital. Of course the fascists want to do that too. Then the important question becomes, not just can people control and have their little territories where they’re running white supremacy, but can we have an eye to history and to historical understandings of justice and reparation. To be able to rebalance what it is that a few people have extracted from the many.
A. I wonder also, beyond the agricultural discussion, whether there are value and community structures that come out of the indigenous world view that can help us open doors to other ways of being modern. Reframing the way that we perceive of being in the world at this moment in time and ridding ourselves of some of the shackles of industrial society and the extractive mindset.
R. And whether that’s the idea of having a treaty with nature, with certain species or points in the web of life, rather that imagining that the web of life is there for us to extract and toss away. That shift is absolutely part of what it is that it will take for us to live in the 21st Century in a world of dramatic climate change.
A. You touched on Valerie Segrest producing these drinks in a sort of alternative entrepreneurialism. One of your ‘seven cheap things’ is food, you propose its role is to subsidise labour costs and maintain social order. Is it possible to change our food system within capitalism?
R. I don’t think any one strategy is going to work, the approach of multiple assaults is important. We need to evade capitalism where we can, we need to ameliorate it, we need to provide alternatives to it and then we need to transcend it. Food movements are working on all of these things. I don’t think you beat the current food system by just creating an alternative on a farm somewhere, you have to engage with what’s there right now and articulate it with other struggles. So the food movement needs to recognise the labor movement; and the movements against patriarchy, racism and casteism; and also recognise deep ecological connections. But the best thing about the food movement is that in its glorious moments it is getting to do all of those things. When La Via Campesina tackles cheap food at the same time as talking about land reform at the same time as talking about climate change and gender justice, it’s bringing all of these things together.
A. Can you talk a little bit to La Via Campesina, because some of our readers may not have heard of them.
R. This is a movement that started in the 1990’s as a response, in part to the forming of the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank, but also to the idea that international development organisations could pretend to know what was going on in rural areas by asking a few consultants or small NGO’s. When actually, there has been a long history of movement based peasants who were thinking for themselves, acting in their own interests and being very articulate about it.
Those movements came together in 1992 as an international body – La Via Campesina. Their arrival on the world stage was at the 1995 Food And Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations World Food Summit, where they made a big splash when they started talking about the idea of food sovereignty.
Since then this idea of food sovereignty has been such a wonderful plastic concept. Basically it means that communities have the right to define their own food systems. But then what that means is that you need deep participation and deep equality; and you need a stable ecosystem around you for that to happen. So from starting off saying ‘get agriculture out of the World Trade Organisation’, which was the original slogan of La Via Campesina, it has morphed into an organisation that is about preventing violence against women, because that’s an important barrier to food security; it’s starting to think about agroecology (regenerative agriculture), and there’s now an archipelago of agro-ecological schools throughout Latin America doing great work.
This movement is now 200 million farmers, farm workers and peasants from around the world. It’s not a perfect organisation by any means – I have been critical of some of the member organisations and their politics – but it’s important to do that while at the same time recognising that many of these organisations are fighting very noble and very tough fights.
A. So it is a network of organisations?
R. Yes, with a very thin secretariat at the top.
A. A very horizontal structure is part of its design isn’t it?
R. Yes, exactly.
A. And aren’t they currently celebrating a recent victory?
R. That’s right, last week the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a declaration on peasant rights. Because it’s a declaration, nobody has to sign up to it if they don’t want to, but to be able to have the language officially approved over the objections of the agribusiness lobby is already a victory. Now the hard work gets kicked back to nation states where peasant movements get to fight for the actual legislation to be recognised.
A. Our world is run on stories, which story do you believe we most need to challenge?
R. I still think the idea that There Is No Alternative (TINA) is the defining one. In fact I was just reading a poem by Diane di Prima that a friend David Bollier was quoting a small part of in an article. She says:
The war that matters is the war against the imagination
All other wars are subsumed in it….
The war is the war for the human imagination
and no one can fight it but you/ & no one can fight it for you
The imagination is not only holy, it is precise
It is not only fierce, it is practical
Men die every day for the lack of it,
It is vast & elegant.
I love the idea that to imagine alternatives is actually not to pipe dream, but to architect, to be very precise. Because if you want to live in that world, you have to be precise and you have to be practical. The story that there is no alternative leads to the outcome where most of us can imagine the end of the world but we can’t imagine the end of capitalism. That narrative absolutely needs to be challenged.
A. In our first issue a writer expressed concern for our ability to sustainably ‘feed the world’ without destroying the habitability of the planet, an understandable concern but also a common narrative with its root in a book from 1798 by Thomas Malthus. How do we sustainably feed the world? And can you explain the ways in which this ‘Malthusian Trap’ narrative has been used politically?
R. The agribusiness lobby gets its way in large part because of these narratives that “there will be 9 billion people by 2050, how will they all eat unless you give us all your land and don’t ask too many questions about the chemicals we’re selling. Everyone is going to die horribly…”. These narratives have propelled social change from before Malthus ever talked about them. And the concern of the ruling class about hungry people taking to the streets and demanding change drove The Green Revolution through the Cold War and we saw it in the Arab Spring in responses from leaders like President Ben Ali of Tunisia. It’s a warrant for all kinds of dramatic transformations in our food system. For example, we allow the meat industry access to stretches of rainforest to grow soy for their product.
The thing is, it is possible to feed nine billion people sustainably, but it means a transformation in diet as well – much less meat is just part of the challenge ahead.
A. Yes, a transformation of diet and agriculture. What often frustrates me in this conversation is that it’s set up as a dichotomy. We clearly have to dramatically reduce our meat consumption, but a truly sustainable agriculture requires some animals within a system in order to fertilise our farms. We eat almost no meat as a family – my sons are vegan and vegetarian, which I very much support – but I saw an infographic recently illustrating all of the companies who are jumping into the ‘plant-based’ food space. I wonder whether that is a new frontier for the industrial food system, with climate change as a PR tool?
R. A friend of mine pointed out that in fact the plant-based food system is also part of the problem now. Whether it’s sugar or potato chips, these are all plant-based, and I’m with you, the Impossible Burger is really not a nice thing to eat.
A. Have you eaten one?
R. I have, and it’s the sort of thing that you could stomach while you transition your diet to where you actually enjoy the taste of plants. But I don’t see it as being part of the solution unfortunately.
A. You’ve written and spoken a lot about ‘the commons’, can you give us a very brief definition of what a commons is?
R. Although we see its remnants every day – the House of Commons, the tragedy of the commons, commons as a park – the original idea of the commons is lost to most of us. That’s because we think of the commons as a place, rather than as the process of how humans and place make one another. A short definition of the commons: “A way that humans manage their relationships to one another and the rest of the web of life so that their communities can thrive in perpetuity.” Commoning is a mutual way of managing, preserving, stinting, caring and insuring one another for today and tomorrow.
A. Do you have an example of us reclaiming or rebuilding physical commons in this era?
R. A simple idea of the commons is around books. A public library is not a commons, because it is run by a government – possibly a local and benign one – for the people. But the blossoming of Little Free Libraries* is a commons, because although the books may be the same, the way that a community is made, managed and supported happens in the absence of the state, and in the presence of mutual aid.
A. Where does food sit in this space?
R. It’s harder to find big food commons, in part because it requires community control of land. So while there’s abundant evidence of food being part of successful indigenous community commons (for example within forests managed as commons**), there’s a little less when it comes to food systems. One place to look though, is Detroit***, where my friend and comrade Malik Yakini is leading both the fight to secure land, but also to manage it as a commons – through the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, D-Town Farm and the Detroit People’s Food Co-op under the umbrella of Detroit Food Commons.
A. Is ‘the commons’, which often refers back to the pre-enclosure British Isles another ‘Anglo’ idea being foisted on indigenous populations or does it tap into their traditions also?
R. No, the commons predates the invention of whiteness by millennia.
A. I think you’re the only person I’ve ever spoken to who has had to publish an article denouncing himself as a messiah, stating “I don’t think a messiah figure is going to be a terribly good launching point for the kinds of politics I’m talking about”. What action can you suggest we take responsibility for as individuals to move towards the politics you are talking about?
R. Part of the reason this is such a difficult question is that we can’t do this alone, yet we’ve been schooled in the high church of capitalist individualism. Revolutionary politics have to be collective, not individual – otherwise, it’s just therapy. So the first action has to be to find your community and figure out what changes you’re going to fight for together. You’ll be surprised at how big those changes can be, and how quickly you’ll win them.
A. Who are your heroes?
R. Good lord, I have so many. And they’re people who folk may not have heard of, like S’bu Zikode who is one of the most amazing leaders I’ve ever come across. He is the leader of the South African shack dwellers movement; he’s fearless, an incredible intellectual, and right now he’s in hiding because the ANC wants him killed. His work is amazing and I’m inspired by him every day. Valerie Segrest again, she’s brilliant and the way that she holds herself is just fantastic. And Malik Yakini, a leader in the Detroit food movement. So that’s the joy of being in the food movement, there are loads of them – in whose orbit I always learn something.
A. I want to know if there is one book that you believe everybody should read?
R. I recommend Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis’s book on how the Third World became the Third World, very very often. It’s something that everyone needs to confront and wrestle with. It’s also a book about climate change and about the economy, it’s beautifully written and the man is a genius.
A. You have been in production of a documentary for a while now, what is its focus and when can we expect to be able to see it?
R. The reason I believe that big change can come quickly is because I’ve been working with the award-winning director Steve James looking at how hunger has been fought in a region of northern Malawi by a group called the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities. They’ve taken on industrial farming and patriarchy, with big victories against both. Last year, they asked if we could bring them to the US to take on American resistance to climate change. So we whipped out our credit cards and spent three weeks traveling the US to talk to climate sceptics, food justice warriors and anti-hunger advocates. We’re fundraising to finish up, and with luck it’ll be done this time next year!
To read more about those Raj has referenced:
And about the contemporary commons movement you could check out: