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Commentary :: Food From the Grassroots

Raj Patel, author of ‘Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,’ presents a grassroots fix for the food crisis.

Raj Patel
Raj Patel

The food crisis is only getting worse. With the floods in the Midwest, the price of corn has now broken through the $8/bushel mark—it was barely above $2/bushel in 2000. The price rises in corn and other staples threaten to push nearly a billion people toward hunger worldwide. Thousands of the world’s hungry have taken to the streets in food protests in dozens of countries. But, despite the outcry, governments are doing little to substantively change course in the way the world’s food is produced.

World leaders met in June at the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome to address the challenge. They concluded in fairly general terms that there was a need for food aid, investment in agriculture, and support for more research. While these are important, they’re not new ideas. Indeed, much more time was spent, not coming up with new solutions, but redoubling a commitment to old ones.

Unfortunately, it’s the old ideas that have created the conditions for the crisis. They have moved us to a world in which more and more food is distributed by multinationals, where that food is grown and shipped around the world using fossil fuels, and in which poor peoples’ entitlements to food have been pared to the bone.

There is, however, no shortage of serious thinking about how the world might feed itself in the future. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a brain trust of over 400 scientists from industry, governments, the academy, and international organizations, recently bent themselves to the question of how we’ll feed a world of 9 billion people (the number projected for 2050).

The answer, they suggest, is right under our noses. It involves a deep shift in the way our food comes to us. More and more scientists are encouraging us to abandon the food system of the past century, and to go local and organic. Instead of industrial agriculture, they recommend increasing support for agroecological farming—a way of growing food that builds, rather than destroys ecosystems. Instead of spraying chemicals to get rid of pests, grow plants that attract beneficial insects. Instead of applying fossil-fuel-based fertilizers to the soil, a technique that destroys the soil’s own capacity to regenerate, lace the fields with legumes, which naturally help to fix nitrogen in the soil.

Improved farming science alone won’t fix things, though. As much as they need nitrogen in the soil, tomorrow’s food systems need democracy on the ground. The problem of starvation is one not of production—we produce more than enough food to feed everyone—so much as poverty and distribution. To fix this deeper problem, progressive groups and citizens are showing national governments that the best way to solve hunger is through active citizen participation.

Groups like Via Campesina, the 150-million-strong international movement of peasants and landless workers, have advocated a suite of policies that, together, they call “food sovereignty.” They’re policies that are exceptionally forward-thinking. A central demand is for women’s rights—not a demand that we might normally associate with peasants. Similarly, they call for a progressive reorganization of the international economy—an end to the unfair trade systems that the European Union and United States governments are so very keen on. Instead, they propose the one thing that governments are most afraid of—a democratic conversation about food, about how it should be grown, how shared, how distributed.

It’s a call that’s being heeded around the world. In increasing numbers of city halls, people are making it happen. By making local governments pay attention to hunger, a range of organizations, working on everything from local food purchasing programs to farmers markets, are shaping the future of food. The lesson is clear—to feed the world, we’re going to have to develop a taste for more democracy.


Raj Patel wrote this article as part of Purple America, the Fall 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Raj is author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Melville House, 2008).

Interested?Watch an interview with Raj Patel and Amy Goodman at www.YesMagazine.org/patel.

Book cover of Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel
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