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Raj Patel: Big Ag Can't Feed the World -- Here's Who Can

Critically acclaimed writer Raj Patel talks about the failure of the Green Revolution, the beauty of the commons, and why industrial agriculture will never be the answer to our food woes.

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MNM: So it’s the idea of food as “the opiate of the masses”?

RP: When you say it like that, it sounds ridiculous, but actually that thinking is with us today. The last thing that the former president of Tunisia, Ben Ali, did before he was chased out of the country was to announce that the price of bread would be reduced by 30 percent, or what have you. And why would he do that if it weren’t precisely this kind of thinking that all we need to do is feed the masses and their grievances would go away? That was the thinking that informed the Green Revolution. That it was a way of stopping Communism spreading by stopping the masses’ grumbling in their stomachs.

MNM: Producing food is one of the greatest stresses on ecosystems worldwide. So if not Big Ag, who’s going to feed the world? And what are some ways to make food production more environmentally sustainable?

RP: We’ve had decades of the Green Revolution. How’s that working out? We still have hundreds of millions of people who are going hungry. If you want to see the disconnect between producing more food and eating, all you have to do is look to India, the heart of the Green Revolution, where there is plenty of food to feed everyone but 900 million people don’t eat enough. The problem isn’t the production side of things; it’s the distribution.

The good news is that there are farming systems and food distribution systems that can ensure everyone gets to eat, but they are not about large scale industrial agriculture. And these are conclusions that come from a report that not many people know about. You would be entirely forgiven for not having heard about the I-A-A-S-T-D – the International Agricultural Assessment on Knowledge Science and Technology for Development – because no one’s heard of it. And that’s sad because it was sponsored by the World Bank, the US government, and a range of international agencies and governments. Many of the world’s leading scientists and agronomists and social scientists bent their minds asking: “So how are we going to feed the world in the twenty-first century?” And the answer they came up with was less industrial agriculture, more agro-ecological systems, more urban and peri-urban farming. We need agriculture that’s light on fossil fuel and water and much more regional and seasonal. We need much better distribution mechanisms in terms of human rights and much less in terms of free market.

It’s not surprising that the report was buried by the governments that paid for it. It wasn’t a conclusion they particularly wanted to hear.

MNM: In the  Value of Nothing  you talk about Homo economicus. What is Homo economicus?

RP: There’s [this theory of] the “Tragedy of the Commons.” It assumes that if we are unleashed on an environmental resource that nobody owns, then, because we are greedy and selfish individuals, we will destroy that resource even though we know that we are dependent on it. Actually, this was just a thought experiment. It was invented by a soil biologist in the late 1960s, a man called Garrett Hardin. If you look back in history, human beings are very good at managing our resources together. We are not hardwired to be selfish individuals; we are hardwired to be social and cooperative animals. Obviously we are selfish, but we are also generous and altruistic.

But when it comes to environmental destruction, there are these selfish individuals among us – and they are corporations. Corporations are constitutionally made to be selfish. If you look at the history of environmental destruction, you’ll often see examples where communities that had managed resources for a very long time were transformed either into the agents of their own destruction through the introduction of private property, or the resources that they depended on were destroyed by corporate interests.

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