The lite choice, baby

The lite choice, baby
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First Published: Fri, Aug 29 2008. 12 23 AM IST

Updated: Fri, Aug 29 2008. 12 23 AM IST
Having grown up with plain cornflakes in India, I was excited to find a seemingly infinite variety of cereals in the West— Froot Loops, raisin bran, muesli, banana nut and so much more. Then they started arriving in supermarkets in India. Yes, I thought, choices! Finally.
But in his new book Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel says what we are really getting is the illusion of choice. Western supermarkets have about half a dozen varieties of apples but it’s always the same half dozen. We never see any others because only the kinds that can be waxed and shined to perfection, that can withstand over a thousand miles of travel from orchard to supermarket aisle, that are easy to harvest mechanically, ever make it to the grocery store.
What we think are our choices, says Patel, are really the choices of giant food production companies. Millions of farmers grow food, six billion people consume it. But in between them are a handful of corporations creating what Patel calls “an hourglass” model of food distribution. One Unilever controls more than 90% of the tea market. Six companies control 70% of the wheat trade. Meanwhile, farmers across the world are pitted against each other, trying to sell these gatekeeper companies their produce. And if you think the consumer comes out on top because of all this competition, think again. “The choice between Coke and Pepsi is a pop freedom—it’s choice lite,” writes Patel.
Patel, who cheekily describes himself as having been “tear-gassed on four continents” protesting the World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO) and the UN, is not a shrill Luddite polemicist or a nostalgist for Old McDonald’s farm. He has actually worked for the World Bank, WTO and the UN. He just carefully connects the dots between the food that ends up on our tables and where it’s grown.
Pick and choose: Do you get confused by what’s in the supermarket?
It’s not a pretty picture. Patel meets Parvathi, who lives 5 hours outside Hyderabad. When the rains failed one year, her husband Kistaiah, already sinking in debt because of the loans he’d taken to drill for water, consumed a packet of pesticide and lay down beside her. He died without even waking her.
From India to China to the UK, why are farmers committing suicide? Patel’s answers about public assistance for farmers biting the dust in the age of the free market will probably not satisfy free market champions. His dismissal of the potential of a “second Green Revolution” in India will certainly raise the hackles of generations brought up on stories of the miracles of the first one. But the decimation of rural India is real. It is India’s inconvenient truth.
It’s not just India. In the 1980s, 90% of research funding in Latin America went towards food crops. In the 1990s, the numbers flipped: 80% went to research export crops. Now there are acres of “green desert” growing only soya bean in Brazil.
In this globalized world, the farmer is at the bottom of the food chain. If the coffee crop fails in Uganda, Nestlé can still get its beans from Vietnam. In a world that seems increasingly headed towards Walmart-ization, is food sovereignty the indulgence of one’s own private backyard?
Patel is not quite a prophet of doom. He also tells stories of people, groups and networks fighting back. For example, the Via Campesina (The Peasant’s Way) from Brazil now represents 150 million people worldwide. The Slow Food Movement, which tries to nurture a social connection with the producer of the food, has chapters in 100 countries.
Patel believes that the future for massive industrialized agriculture is bleak. The cheap oil that transported food across thousands of miles doesn’t exist. Bird flu, he points out, is called a disease borne by migratory birds, but really originates in giant poultry plants. Does that mean the age of “cheap” food is over? Does the food crisis need a technological fix or a political solution?
Whether or not you agree with Patel’s answers, Stuffed and Starved is bursting with facts and examples. It is thought-provoking, rather than guilt-provoking.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 29 2008. 12 23 AM IST