Now all that’s changed. Patel has been on talk shows; he’s being interviewed several times a day. He’s testified in Congress. A local Indian weekly talked about his Amir Khan good looks (“My mother will be thrilled,” he says wryly). With the global food crisis hitting the headlines, and rice riots around the world, Patel has become the go-to guy for the food crisis (and the British accent doesn’t hurt, either.)
Patel grew up around food. His father, an immigrant from Fiji, owned a corner store in London, and then brought one brother over, and then another. “Like the Patels and motels in America, in Britain, it’s Mr. Patel’s cornershop,” he chuckles. Patel started worrying about what we eat after his father had a series of heart attacks in the late ’90s because of his diet.
“He found it impossible to change his diet,” says Patel. “It was oily and greasy. But it made me interested in the footprint of what we eat on our bodies.” Patel started looking around, and the high incidence of diabetes in the desi community was hard to miss. While rates in the white population for diabetes might be 4 percent, among South Asians it could be as high as 20 percent. “Every male in my family over 50 does glucose tests every morning,” he says.
But instead of just becoming interested in figuring out a healthy diet for desis, Patel started looking at the bigger picture, connecting the dots between the food that ends up on our tables and where it’s grown. The problem, he says, is that when you look at supply and demand, it looks a lot like an hourglass. “We have millions of farmers who grow our food, and there are six billion of us consuming it,” he says. “But between the farmers and us is just a handful of corporations, and they control the world market in whatever food you care to think of.” For example, Unilever controls 90 percent of the tea market. With most agricultural products, says Patel, we don’t realize it, but there are usually just four or five companies controlling more than half the market.
And when food prices go through the roof, it’s these companies that reap the big profits. It’s just like the oil industry, says Patel: “When the price of oil goes up, who makes the money? It’s not the oil workers or the people at gas stations; it’s the oil companies and the oil traders. With food, it’s much the same. The large players in the food industry, the large farmers, the large corporations, and the people in the commodity markets are speculating on this.”
In fact, oil and food are quite closely linked. When the price of oil shoots up to over $140 a barrel, the price of food goes up as well. “Why is that? Because the way we grow food today requires food to be shipped halfway around the world,” says Patel. “Food is also grown in organic fertilizers, and you need natural gas to make those.”
The current food crisis, to use a well-worn cliché, is a perfect storm of “high oil prices, demand for meat, biofuels policy, climate change, bad harvest, and financial speculation.” But the interesting question is not why the price of rice is up. Rather, as Patel asks, “Why are so many countries so vulnerable to these price shocks?”
“There was a time where most countries were able to provide enough food to feed their populations. Today, 70 percent of developing countries are net food importing countries.”
Patel says a lot of the problems can be laid at the feet of organizations like the World Bank and the WTO and the economic reforms and liberalization policies that they have pushed through in many countries. Patel has had first hand experience of that. He’s worked for the World Bank, WTO, and the United Nation, and, as his book jacket proclaims, “been tear-gassed on four continents protesting them.” Patel was most optimistic about the U.N., where he served as a consultant in Geneva, but despite the wonderful ideals upon which it’s based, “behind-the-scenes politics hobbles everything except disaster relief.” He says the report he worked on about how states were failing in the least developed countries was so heavily edited by management that in the end it became a pointless exercise.
“Do you know about this fish born in the open sea that finds a rock where it will breed? It then clamps its jaws on the rock, and it eats its own brain?” He pauses, and then says, “Geneva can be like that.”
While doing his Ph.D., he had the chance to help his supervisor write the World Bank’s World Development Report on poverty based on the bank’s own internal documents. But he and the other students working on it were told to narrow their focus of inquiry. His supervisor resigned. They ended up writing “a report pimping out the World Bank, a sort of ‘Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us?,’ a screwed up ‘we’ve-listened-to-the-poor-people thing.’”
The WTO, he says with a grin, was much more “a standard infiltration.” He took an internship to see how it worked inside the belly of the beast. And then he crossed the line from being a WTO insider to a WTO protester when he joined the thousands protesting free trade at the summit in Seattle in 1999. Patel had had the experience of running into tear gas during the poll tax riots in Britain, but this was the first time he “was targeted as part of a global justice movement.” The experience was scary because an asthmatic fellow protester almost died. Luckily, Patel had an inhaler with him.
Other tear-gassing experiences have been less dramatic. In Zimbabwe, the police were so incompetent they fired into the wind, and it drifted back at them! “I was quite happy about that,” he says. “It’s only later you feel angry about it.”
All this was a far cry from what his parents had hoped for him. “We are good Gujjus,” says Patel. “The hope was you’d do well in maths and be an accountant. When I got my Ph.D. in Sociology, they were happy I was at least a doctor of some kind.” Patel was shuttled between London and India so he could learn Gujarati. He remembers hating it. He was five years old, and he still remembers vividly a one-armed beggar woman leaning against the car. “That was one of my first moments of having a sense of inequality and injustice,” he says. “After all, we had the house and the car.”
At seven, he was collecting funds at a school for Ethiopian famine victims. Eventually he ended up in Zimbabwe doing his Ph.D. research in the middle of elections. The authorities caught him photographing a polling booth. He pretended he was a clueless Indian who didn’t know what he was doing. They bought it for a week and then denied him a visa and said if he ever came back he would regret it. “So I couldn’t finish my Ph.D. then. I needed a job and found an organization in Oakland called Food First,” says Patel. “That gave me the food focus.”
But it wasn’t just a focus on food. The job allowed Patel to study linkages around food. What was the connection between farmer suicides in India, British farmers reeling from foot and mouth disease, and Australian farms going under because of drought? How did a wonder bean like soy end up being a scourge in disguise? In a world that seems increasingly headed towards Walmart-ization, is food sovereignty just the indulgence of one’s own private backyard?
“I’m not getting misty eyed about anything,” says Patel. “Not even the corner shop. Face it; we didn’t see good things in our corner shop. It was a lot of high fat and sugary food.” At the same time, he says, he doesn’t make “a fetish out of organic.” What he’s trying to talk about are the “social relations around our food.” Patel gets frustrated sometimes with the various food movements he encounters in the west. “I take exception to white, middle-class foodies who seem to suggest that all working class people need to do is choose their food better,” he says. “There is a complete lack of appreciation about how few choices there are for most people.”
What inspires Patel are organizations like the 150 million-strong Via Campesina, probably the world’s largest independent social movement organization. Or the Bay Area’s People’s Grocery, which works toward “sustainable food systems in [poor] communities.”
“Or in Los Angeles,” he adds, “where the South Central Farm is talking about it in terms that are not ‘foodie’ but are about food.” For example, he’s against the “fetishization of the local” that is part of many food movements. The reality is that immigrant communities will be a hankering for the tastes of home and that needs to be acknowledged. He knows Alphonsos shipped from India carry a huge carbon footprint. “Maybe we need to create space so immigrant communities can grow their methi and tulsi here,” he says. “Maybe even Indian mangos in the Central Valley.”
He realizes quite clearly that it’s one thing to plant Victory gardens in front of City Hall in San Francisco and quite another thing to talk about food battles and principles in countries of the so-called Third World, many of which seem ready to jettison their farmers as they pursue GDP growth. Patel remembers awkward moments in India when interviewing the widow of a farmer who had committed suicide because of crushing debt. The whole village turned out to watch him interview the woman through a translator. “I didn’t enjoy that at all,” he says. “I lived in Amreeka, and I was weird for having an interest in this woman.” He knows Indians (even in the West) who have stopped reading his book after getting to the part about farmer suicides. For many Indians, flush with economic success, that sounds just like the kind of downer story the West loves to do about India—a flashback to his early childhood memory of the beggar woman with a stump for an arm.
But Patel says it makes him angry to hear Indians talk blithely about “a second Green Revolution” that will address India’s agricultural problems. He worries that is really about “the Bill Gates-way and proprietary technology.” “That’s not cutting edge,” he says. “Science is really about customization, which is very far from the one size fits all. It’s almost a Soviet model of the Green Revolution.”
But if all of this makes Patel sound like the angry young man of food justice, that’s pretty far from reality. Patel’s not militant about his food: “I’m not one of those people who says if it doesn’t come from within 100 miles I won’t eat it. I am one for compromises.”
And he makes some of his own when it comes to food. “It’s around booze,” he says with a grin. “Bollinger’s beer. It’s brewed in Manchester. And it comes halfway around the world to get here. I don’t have it often, but once in a while that’s my guilty pleasure.”
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|