Raj Patel, food activist, scholar, and author of two important books: Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and his new book (now on the New York Times Best Seller list), The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy shares his views about our market driven economy, and what he sees as a necessary direction forward for civilization to survive, and people and communities to flourish.
In his previous book, Stuffed and Starved, Patel examined the global food system, and the transnational corporations that ultimately control the price and availability of the food we buy in the supermarket. From giant food processors to goliath food distribution and transportation companies to global agrichemical and seed companies, the bigger the corporation, the greater their potential competitive advantage by managing costs through economies of scale, and through the ability to exercise monopolistic might and political power. In key sectors of the global food system, the cost of entry demands a substantial degree of largesse--money. Do these advantages result in substantial benefits to the farmer, to the eater, to local communities, to the environment?
To Patel, the answer sadly, is a resounding, no! We have created a system that delivers cheap calories, but cheap we discover contains only the illusion of being cheap. The price we pay for this market driven, industrial agriculture system exacts a deferred subsidy from the planet (in the form of increased atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulations, and other forms of environmental degradation), and according to Patel, also, a disproportionate subsidy from poorer nations (the global south), and from women whose work is undervalued and often unpaid. Economists refer to these costs as externalities. These are largely hidden costs that are not incorporated into the price of the final product, nonetheless they represent real costs that eventually come due.
In Patel's new book, The Value of Nothing, he hones in on what it means to have corporate monopolies that can manipulate both price and supply, coupled with a "free market" philosophy that hijacks government oversight and public protection, where the price of something bears little relation with its true value.
Patel argues that corporations, driven only to achieve profits, do not try to satisfy real human needs. For example, Patel presents us with the true cost of a hamburger, not a $10 hamburger (that would be considered to many, pricey enough) but a $200 hamburger! How can that be? When you factor in all the externalities, including the loss of biodiversity, the clear cutting of vast areas of rainforests to raise cattle to supply ample meat to the fast food industry, the fertilizer and fossil fuel needed to grow and transport corn for animal feed used to feed cattle, and other costs--it adds up to being a real whopper.
Of course, this isn't just about hamburgers, or the cattle industry in general--Patel explains further, it's the global south that subsidize the price of food in our industrial food system. The full bill will be presented over time in the form of greater weather variability, increased drought, reduced agriculture production zones, increased food and energy prices, increased poverty and greater food insecurity, and increasing levels of diet related illness: diabetes; heart disease, cancer, and other chronic afflictions. These maladies are not mere future predictions, many of these problems already exist, and have increased in severity over the last several decades, attributed in part, to our global food system.
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