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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.


Raj Patel is no fan of messiahs and iconic leaders. “One bright shining light is dangerous,” says the writer, activist, and academic who was once mistaken as the savior of humankind by an obscure religious group. Still, there’s no denying that Patel – young, charming, and sharp as a tack – does, in fact, shine. With his critically acclaimed books on food systems and capitalism he has distinguished himself as one of the progressive world’s up and coming public intellectuals.

His quest to understand the global inequities caused by free market economics took the London-born Patel from the halls of Oxford to the London School of Economics, to the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Along the way he wrote  Stuffed and Starved (2008), a cutting critique of how the free market keeps millions of people hungry and millions more obese. His next book, the 2010  New York Times bestseller The Value of Nothing, drew on the Great Recession to expose the core cause of our current social, political, and environmental problems.

Patel isn’t just armchair pontificator, though. A self-proclaimed “anarchist sympathizer,” he often can be spotted in the midst of street demonstrations, lending body and voice to grassroots protests against the very organizations he once worked with. Patel is currently traveling the world collecting material for a documentary film,  Generation Food, which will show how “people are doing amazing things to feed one another, across the table, across generations, and across the world.”

Maureen Nandini Mitra: What got you interested in social and food justice?

Raj Patel: When I was very young my parents took me to India. I was five or seven, and as most kids, I was impressionable. There was one incident where we were at a traffic light and there was a young girl on the outside, begging, and I couldn’t understand why we were inside the car and she was outside. We’d come from London, where we never had to worry about food, and here was as situation where this was a dire concern to the girl who was outside our window. It just made no sense to me. My parents mumbled their explanation and it wasn’t very satisfying. They passed some money outside the window and then we drove off. After coming back [to London] I started doing a lot of volunteering and researching and finding out why there was this global inequality.

MNM: Your first book, Stuffed and Starved, focused on the genesis of the Green Revolution. Why is the term “Green Revolution” the worst misnomer in history?

RP: The idea of a Green Revolution, if you’ve not heard the term before, sounds kind of cool. You’d think it would be something transformative, about sustainability and the environment, about bringing an ecological sensibility to the world. But the original context of the idea in which the term Green Revolution comes up is not about that at all. It was a term coined in the late 1960s by the head of the US Agency for International Development. What he was talking about was a Green Revolution that was the opposite of the Red Revolution of the Soviets or the White Revolution of the Shah of Iran. What he wanted was a way of getting food into the stomachs of hungry, urban people so that they wouldn’t protest. So the revolution that would happen would be that there would be a technical and policy change so that large scale farmers could grow more commodity crops so that prices of food in urban areas would be lower. It had nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with using food as a way of managing protest.

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