The following article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind

Changing Systems in a Hungry World:
An Interview with Raj Patel

It was an honor and pleasure for Inquiring Mind to interview activist, author and academic Raj Patel. As avid followers of Patel’s teachings on global economic policy, we engaged in lively conversation with this provocative thinker. Patel is an award-winning author and journalist with academic degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University. As a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, Patel recently co-taught a popular course on edible education with Michael Pollan, offering a timely investigation into the challenges facing the global food system. Committed to bold investigation, Patel not only has worked for the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, he has dynamically opposed their current practices and policies.

As the author of two incisive best-selling books, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, Patel explores the root causes of the global food crisis. His websites are www.rajpatel.org and www.generationfoodproject.org.

Is it possible to derive a Buddhist theory of value grounded in radical reconsideration of what it means to be human in these times? Immerse yourself in this interview with Raj Patel and uncover his response. Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wendy Johnson, along with Johnson’s daughter Alisa Rudnick, who works in the sustainable food movement, conducted this interview in San Francisco in June 2014.

INQUIRING MIND: In your writings and talks about the economics of world hunger, and particularly in the dynamic you describe in Stuffed and Starved, you present a system where consumers are overweight, in fact increasingly obese, but also malnourished. That’s a fundamentally broken system. Could you educate our readers about what’s going on?

RAJ PATEL: We certainly live a life that’s out of balance. I imagine a Buddhist audience can relate to that. There is nothing more Buddhist than steering a course between self-denial and self-indulgence. It’s the Middle Path. Our life is out of balance because the systems that we’ve put in place are out of balance. If you’re earning less than a living wage, those systems have made it impossible to eat well and have the time to cook. And God forbid, have the time to savor food and be connected to the labor that produced it. If you don’t have that time or that money, then you are going to be knocked on your heels. Particularly if you have children, you’re going to feed them what you can afford and what’s going to keep them happy. You can feed your kids what’s good for them if you have the time and ability to do that. But if you don’t, then you might just try to keep them happy. Children’s happiness is an important thing. So if you look for the things that keep children happy, salt and fat and sugar have great appeal. Food corporations have a lock on things that are high in salt and fat and sugar.

But high salt, sugar and fat fracture children’s bodies in a way that then makes it very hard in the future for those bodies to metabolize and to behave properly. I’m working on a documentary film project, Generation Food, which includes a segment on India, where people aren’t necessarily obese in the same way that you see in the United States but, in the cities, there are epidemic levels of type 2 diabetes, at levels higher than here. People are being exposed to precisely the wrong kinds of food. Poverty really has an impact—it makes bodies more predisposed to develop metabolic syndrome. And, worse, what we’re learning about epigenetics suggests that poverty and a poor diet harm not just the generation eating that food but the next generation too.

IM: What’s the relationship between world hunger and poverty?

RP: When I hear the word hunger what I think about is poverty. We have more than enough food to feed the world. The main reason why people go hungry is not a deficiency of food but because of poverty.

Poverty is an outcome of a system. It doesn’t happen by accident. It happens as a functional property of the world we live in, where people who have nothing to sell but their labor—people who are farm workers or living in rural areas—are those most likely to go hungry. And if you look globally, there is a structure to the nature of people who are poor. Sixty percent of the people going hungry are women or girls. We live in a world that’s sexist and patriarchal; it means men and boys tend to eat first. There’s nothing natural about that, but it is the way that most of our human societies are structured today. So when you start pulling at the thread of what is poverty, you have to look at the systems that produce it.

Today our economic system is capitalism. That has a lot to do with poverty. Feudalism wasn’t terrific, of course, but just because capitalism is in some ways better doesn’t mean we have to be satisfied with it, or that we need utterly to forget feudalism. There are certain ways in which resources were managed in common under feudalism that you might want to hang on to and reinvent. There has never been a perfect economic system where everyone was equal, but that doesn’t mean it’s off the table. Right now the way poverty is produced is through a system of capitalism that engenders deep inequality. But it’s not polite when you say words like poverty and inequality; it’s like you farted in a lift.

IM: When you speak about poverty and food, you often use the image of a great hourglass, with the people employed in agriculture—migrant and seasonal laborers—at the top. Then there’s a bottleneck of corporations controlling shipping, manufacturing, wholesale stores, food and beverage stores, and the consumers are at the bottom. Can we break open this hourglass system?

RP: The companies controlling the bottleneck from farmers to consumers have market power over the people who grow the food and over the people who eat it. In other words, at key stages in the chain that links field to plate, power is concentrated in a very few hands. We’ve ended up in a world with a few corporate buyers and sellers at the bottleneck who don’t have to play by the rules. But I definitely do think that there’s a way to change that. We have to. Historically we’ve had things like antitrust laws in the United States or antimonopoly laws. But governments are terrified to enforce those. That is something we can only change by making governments more terrified about not enforcing them.

In our documentary film, Generation Food, a couple in India, a mother and father, took on the Indian government. They decided they didn’t want junk food in schools. In India today, there’s a rich and noble vein of crap food and people are consuming soda, like Thums Up, India’s homegrown version of Coke and Pepsi, and lots of fried snacks, which are way more widely available and in bigger portions than Indians have been used to historically. This couple took the Indian government to court and won. Amazing things can happen when ordinary people take action.

IM: Tell us more about that film project.

RP: Generation Food is a documentary film directed by Steve James, who also directed Hoop Dreams. It’s about ordinary people who transform the world. And it’s about how to feed the world for the next generations. What we’re looking at are stories in Malawi, in Oakland, in Maine, in Peru, in Japan, and in India.

This father and mother in India were in many ways highfliers, with a car and a cricket club; they were soaring in the management consultancy world. But when their kid was born, he was treated very badly by the medical system. They were like, “Hey, our kid isn’t the only person who is treated badly by systems; lots of people’s kids are.” So they quit their day jobs and started a foundation to campaign mainly for children’s rights and against hospitals—but now they’re taking on not just hospitals but the entire processed-food industry. These are ordinary folks who got angry at junk food being sold in schools. They fought to have it stopped. They made such a stink about it that they changed the law for schools in New Delhi, and also changed the conversation in India’s capital city so that, very recently, the government felt powerful enough to levy a tax on soda nationally. That’s inspiring to me.

My favorite story from Generation Food is about a village in Malawi that seems to have ended child malnutrition, this in a country as a whole where 50% of children are malnourished. The village featured in the film helped to beat back malnutrition by doing agroecological farming—dry-land farming that works with nature where you’re intercropping in various ways. The farms are rain-fed, not irrigated. They are planted with a microgeographical awareness. And it’s not just like one guy comes in and says, “You shall plant this.” And everyone is like, “Yes! We Shall Obey." The people in the village figured out together the crops that contribute to building the soil fertility, to carbon sequestering and to shielding the skin of the earth. They became their own scientists rather than listening to a great white guru.

My very favorite thing about this story in Malawi is that these farmers managed to grow more food and to actually nourish the children. But that is often not the case. Here’s the puzzler. How can you grow more food and watch children’s malnutrition go up?

IM: A failure in the food-distribution system? Planting the wrong food? People somehow selecting not to eat more nutritious food?

RP: No, no, no. These villagers grow food on their own land. The food is nutritious. It’s diverse, because they’re not just growing corn anymore but also beans. The answer is that harvesting is women’s work. But so are cooking, cleaning, washing and breastfeeding. So when there is more harvesting to do because crops are more abundant, then breastfeeding goes down and children are undernourished. So these farmers figured it out and changed the system—not only what to plant and how to get men to harvest, but also how to get men to cook. And when they got men to cook, breastfeeding resumed, children’s welfare went up, household welfare went up. The farmers in the film attribute this, and the diversity of farming, to ending malnutrition in their village.

This change started in one village but now it involves five thousand farmers; it’s spreading throughout the country. It’s based in a terrific set of ideas about communities not simply being told what to do but discovering for themselves how to be researchers, how to be growers.

So often we live in a world where the solution is to go out and teach someone how to fish. Of course, that’s incredibly naïve. It assumes that people are sitting by the side of the lake looking at the fish going by, saying, “I had one of those once last year. I would really love to try another.” Whereas in this village in Malawi, people teach each other, and they teach each other how to teach and how to learn. And that is a radical pedagogy.

IM: One of the key elements in this pedagogy involves changing fundamental gender systems. How is this accomplished?

RP: For one thing, they have what they call “recipe days” where women and men get together to cook. It’s utterly taboo for men to be cooking. But recipe days are fun, and at the end of the party there’s delicious food. Also it’s a kind of “gamifying.” Cooking stops being a taboo thing that men can’t do and it becomes a contest that men and women can play. May the best food prevail. When you see men cook, initially it’s like they’re cross-dressing.

On many levels, this is a feminist organizing project. So at the same time that gender roles are changing in the fields and in the kitchen, families are also learning about the value of breastfeeding. They want their kids to live long so instead of breastfeeding less, they change the cycle and breastfeed six months minimum and preferably longer. Rather than re-creating cycles and traditions, they’re breaking cycles and saying: “That’s a nice rule; it worked in the twentieth century; that’s not when we live. We live now.”

IM: The stories you tell from Generation Food push against the stream, breaking open old cycles and finding fresh value. Buddhism also offers practical and philosophical teachings that push against the stream of conventional reality with deep meditation and practices to deconstruct the illusion of a permanent self.

RP: I agree—as someone who finds much that’s valuable in Buddhism (my book The Value of Nothing concludes with a call for more Buddhist economics), I think there are deep lessons for humanity about the deconstruction of the self. Yet there is a strain in some practices of Buddhism that seems paradoxical: you’re trying to transcend the self and you spend all day worrying about it, which is to some extent good and proper but also often selfish. There’s a danger here. This self-regard can, under capitalism, become Buddhism-lite. It can become a full-strength capitalist appropriation of Buddhism where individual voracious consumers are encouraged to buy more things that’ll help them be more Buddhist™, and in which the illusion of self is, if anything, made larger and more seemingly real.

I’m interested in the self and how the world we live in constructs that self in so many ways. Sure, by constant meditation practice you might come to understand ways you were built by the world around you, making you want to attach to things. You might come to understand your attachments and how they make you unhappy. You might come to see ways to transcend that. But isn’t there a better way to deal with issues around hunger?

If you’re interested in practicing letting go of attachment, I suggest starting a campaign to outlaw marketing to children, targeting children who are born to attach. Why encourage children in the art of desiring foods that have to be bought and paid for? Why train a new generation in attachment—making Buddhist practice even more challenging than it is right now? All advertising works to foment desire—and hence unhappiness. Individual Buddhists might be able to shrug it off, but I think there’s space for a collective Buddhism, a social-movement Buddhism here. A first action might involve Buddhists organizing to prevent advertising to children. It’s a way of transcending the self not just through meditation but through a collective action in which individual selves also become less important than the movement in which you’re a part.

A collective social-movement Buddhism would, I think, find a lot that’s objectionable about capitalism. The self that Buddhism encourages us to transcend is always there under capitalism, reinforced and rebuilt through law and systems. This is, after all, a system that demands that the same self pay the mortgage for thirty years, that it keep creditors happy or suffer jail.

The self that Buddhist practice is designed to pierce through and deconstruct, that self is constructed when you start advertising to it, for example. When you start saying, “What you want, Self, and should want, is this,” all of a sudden you’ve not just put a this in front of something, you’ve created the self that wants it. That’s a very complicated operation, but it is how desire works. Desire creates the self.

Practically, when it comes to food, I urge everyone—Buddhists and people with other affiliations and nonaffiliations—to get behind no advertising of crap to kids. In fact, advertising in general is not a terribly wise thing; you take that out of a system of capitalism and all of a sudden you have much less capitalism.

IM: What can we learn about the self in relation to the world simply through the study of the food system?

RP: If you’re interested in understanding self and desire, that actually is what the food system is ripe with. There are ways in which both ourselves and our desires can become more transparent and knowable to us by our connecting to the labor and nature that produce food. One of the things that food helps us do is firstly acknowledge that we are beings of flesh and blood. And that we eat in a time and a place. The industrial food system persuades us to eat in a kind of timeless zone where everything is always in season and everything tastes the same every time you have it. Being more connected to the way we eat puts us more in touch with seasons and life and death—the cycles of nature over which we have no control.

Food helps us see that our desires are trained by forces bigger than ourselves. Understanding food also becomes a way of training our desires. I’m not saying there will ever be a world without people wanting things. We’re creatures of flesh and blood. But I think there are ways in which we can manage and transcend some of those desires and understand where they come from and also understand the joys of fulfillment as well. The Buddha, having denied himself all pleasure, decided that that was a bad idea. I agree with him.

Studying food teaches us that our system contributes to our wanting. We get turned into these consuming monsters, the hungry ghosts. That’s not something anyone needs to be, but that’s what we’re encouraged to be by everything from the way capitalism is structured, to the structure of our family relationships, to the particular way our governments work. All of those structures are much less permanent than we think they are. The joy of this realization is something that should be open to everyone—not just those who can afford it. Which is why I think we need to close where we began. Hunger is a result of poverty, and poverty is the result of the systems of exchange we live under at the moment. A collective social-movement Buddhism can change that. And it should.

© 2014 Inquiring Mind