Back Talk: Raj Patel
Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved (Melville House, $19.95), a book that asks why it is that around the world a billion people are overweight and nearly a billion are starving. As a food activist, he debunks myths about the "choices" we have--which so often boil down to "Coke or Pepsi?"--and asks how we can move toward true freedom in our diet. Here's a hint: It's not about individuals buying better; it's about groups rallying for systemic change to the networks of food production and distribution. --Christine Smallwood
You testified before Congress recently. What did you say?
Food riots are demands both for food and also for government accountability. In the US, in 1917, there were food riots. There were increases in prices after WWI and women in particular found it hard to put food on the table. But at the same time, in 1917 women couldn't vote. If you look at Haiti, [the riots are] not just riots for food--they're protests for the restitution of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for example.
You seem different from a writer like Michael Pollan, who places such a burden on the individual to, say, plant a garden.
I respect Michael a great deal. He's out there every day doing benefits for farmers' organizations and a range of things. I'm down with him. But we do need to be wary of the fact that some people can't have their own garden. Here in San Francisco, we're planning to dig up the land outside City Hall and plant a victory garden. It's a kind of organizing tool, to bring immigrants and seeds from the Mission, Chinatown, all over. To bring them all together as a way of showing that there is space within cities for people to access and grow food, but it requires political will. You can't just start planting. I am in favor of guerrilla gardening. Plant shit where you can. But if you want access to water, etc., then you need to be politically involved.
How can people be convinced to give up certain foods?
There's a social basis for slow food--it came from the communist party in Italy. They realized that for people to enjoy their food they need time and money, so they organized and unionized. You need social policy in order for people to savor and connect with food. At some point we are going to have to mature away from the sickly sweet taste we've been reared on and start getting serious about food. It's all well and good for kids to be running around with orange-stained teeth from drinking sugary things, but when grown-ups do that, I worry a little bit. And this is not to blame anyone in particular, but it's to say: this is the society in which we live in; this is what capitalism is doing to us; it's making us buy crazy stuff. It's making me buy crazy stuff. My PhD was basically underwritten by Red Bull. And yet it's an insane drink! It looks like urine, has many of the same things that urine has in it, the creotine and the taurine, but at the same time the sugar and the caffeine. It's an industrial capitalist beverage. But the way in which we eat and consume today all kinds of monstrous things has become normal. And I'm disappointed with myself that I have an ongoing addiction to Red Bull. I'm disappointed in the society in which I live in that we're accelerating our lives so much--and we need to in order to earn money to survive, and I'm pissed off about that. I'm not guilty; I'm pissed off. That's one of the key lessons that I'm trying to get across. You shouldn't feel guilty; you'll be paralyzed and end up shopping your way out of unhappiness.
You write about the problems with supermarkets, but don't working mothers especially need the convenience?
When people don't have time, the most outrageous things become convenient. It's hard for working mothers, for example, to find the time to be able to do this sort of thing. So what's the solution? Either we consign working mothers to feeding their kids stuff that's bad, or we engage in social policies like day care, maternity leave. Show me a mother who doesn't care about what her kids eat, who wouldn't, if she had the time and the money, make her kids eat properly and eat well.
Does the way the media frames the debate confuse the issue?
I was just writing an article for the Guardian about an article in The Lancet that said that obese people consume more energy and require more fossil fuels than non-obese people. The BBC is leading with the headline "Obese Blamed for the World's Ills." It's nuts! But it is the most e-mailed article on the BBC website today. That shows to me the general impulse here. We're encouraged to see these social problems as individual problems. It's about dieting, not political action--about some ethic of control of the self. It's much easier for media left and right to be thinking that if we shop ethically and make the right choices, we will be free. We can only be free if we get involved in the politics so we can make free choices.
I'm gonna try and write a book in response to the issue of guilt. Often when I give talks, people are sort of paralyzed by wondering, What are we gonna give him to eat, or drink? Is he going to rain hellfire on us for choosing this brand or that brand? For me that's not the point. So I'm looking at a range of movements around the world. It's not just about food, but people who live in shacks, are homeless, etc., who are radical, democratic and angry, and who offer a great deal of hope. The working title is How to be Unhappy. The way that we behave at the moment, being unhappy is either the self-help book or the misery memoir, a very individual experience. If you're going to be pissed off, you might as well do it together.