The Hidden Battle to Control the World's Food Supply
The rise in global food prices has sparked a number of protests in recent weeks, highlighting the worsening epidemic of global hunger. The World Bank estimates world food prices have risen 80 percent over the last three years and that at least thirty-three countries face social unrest as a result. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned the growing global food crisis has reached emergency proportions.
In recent weeks, food riots have also erupted in Haiti, Niger, Senegal, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. Protests have also flared in Morocco, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Mexico and Yemen. In most of West Africa, the price of food has risen by 50 percent -- in Sierra Leone, 300 percent. The World Food Program has issued a rare $500 million emergency appeal to deal with the growing crisis.
Several causes factor into the global food price hike, many linked to human activity. These include human-driven climate change, the soaring cost of oil and a Western-led focus on biofuels that critics say turns food into fuel.
Raj Patel is a writer, activist and former policy analyst with Food First, which is based in the Bay Area. He has worked for the World Bank, World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and he's also protested them on four continents. He has just come out with a new book called Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. He recently joined me in San Francisco to talk about the book and the food-price crisis.
Raj Patel: There are two kinds of stories that we can tell about the food prices. One is an economic story, and that's a story about a perfect storm of poor harvests and a demand for meat in developing countries, which is diverting grain, and the high price of oil, which is driving up food -- farm inputs, and at the same time, the biofuels boom, the process of growing fuels in order -- sorry, growing food in order to burn it rather than eat it. All of these are economic factors that are driving up the price of food.
But at the same time, there's a political story here, and it's a longer-term political story about how countries have been forced to abandon their support for farmers and to abandon things like grain supplies and grain stores. And this is a longer-term story, and it involves organizations like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization that have a fairly iron control over the economies of most of the poorest countries in the world. And what the World Bank and what the WTO and, to some extent, the International Monetary Fund have done is force these countries to tie their hands behind their back, effectively, and to bind them very firmly to an international economy in food. And the consequence of that is that when the price of food goes up, these economies have very little recourse and very little possibility of defending themselves economically.
Amy Goodman: Raj, you worked at these institutions that you're now critiquing. You worked at the World Bank. You worked at the World Trade Organization. How much contact do you have with people at the other end -- for example, the people who are now rising up all over the world, the most destitute?
Well, I mean, I certainly don't have any contact with anyone at the World Bank or the World Trade Organization. I was there when I was doing my doctoral work. I did some research for the World Bank. It was a disaster. And I interned at the World Trade Organization just to find out what it was like.
But my allegiances are and always have been with the people on the streets. And I'm working right now with shack dwellers in Durban in South Africa. But also I'm connected to groups of peasants and of landless people around the world by occasionally doing some research for Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, that by some estimates has over 100 million members. So I'm definitely more connected and more supportive of their efforts to develop a more positive and more genuine food democracy.
In your work there, even as a researcher, what was -- how much understanding did people who work there have of what was going on and what their institutions were doing?
I mean, to some extent, there's a lot of creative denial about the suffering that these organizations cause. I mean, certainly within the World Bank, when I worked there, there was a banner, sort of five stories high, as you enter into the World Bank building, with a beautiful African child on it and beneath it the slogan, "Our dream is a world free of poverty." And certainly, there's a sort of myth-making enterprise within the World Bank that everything they were doing was for the benefit of the poor, whether the poor liked it or not. So I certainly think that there's a sense that when things are tough, it's tough love that comes from the World Bank.
But I don't think that they're terribly connected to the movements of poor people around the world, who are very articulately saying that what the World Bank is doing is actively destructive. And that's, in fact, one of the reasons that Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, started, was because the World Bank was introducing agricultural policy throughout the developing world, but they were doing it without any reference to the farmers' movements that existed or the movement of landless people that existed. And those movements got together to fight back against the World Bank. And they continue to fight back against the World Bank, and the World Bank has very little, if any, contact with them at all.
Raj, talk about coffee.
The price of coffee is absolutely a function of the way the food system works today. If you look at the path that coffee takes from the field to our cups, you will see that the farmers get paid a pittance. The processors get paid a little bit more, sort of twenty, thirty cents a kilo. The grain exporters get paid a little bit more, sort of fifty, sixty cents a kilo. But by the time it gets processed and turned into instant coffee, it's nearer $30 a kilo. And the people who make the most money out of that process are the coffee processors, the big international coffee traders, companies like Nestle, for example. And that's indicative of the way the food system works in general.
I mean, if you imagine a sort of hourglass, at the top there are the millions of farmers who grow the food that we eat, and at the bottom there are billions of us consumers, and in the middle there are just a handful of corporations that mediate between the people who grow our food and us. And those corporations, in many cases -- it's usually four corporations controlling more than 50 percent of the market. I mean, in tea, for example, one company, Unilever, controls 90 percent of the market.
Now, when you're in that position of market power, you're able to do a great deal. First, you're able to drive prices down for farmers. And of course the irony there is that farmers and farm workers are the poorest people on the planet. So you're paying the poorest people on the planet the least. And then you're processing the food so that what we end up with is food that is rich in salts and fats and sugars, food that tends to make us want to buy more, food that makes us obese. And that's why you're having a situation where there are six billion people in the world, a billion of whom are now overweight.
Explain that further, that connection that you actually start your book with. A billion people overweight, 800 million people who are starving, who are hungry, who are not fed enough -- explain the connection.
Well, I mean, in the past, it used to be that the people who were overweight were rich -- excuse me -- and the people who were hungry were poor. Today, hunger and obesity are both signs that people are unable to control their diets. They're unable to control, not in a sort of willpower way, but unable to control in terms of being able to access fresh fruits and vegetables, access food that is healthy. I mean, in the United States, for example, it's much harder for communities of poor people and people of color, in particular, to access fresh fruits and vegetables. In West Oakland, for example, near where I live, you have a situation where there's just one supermarket in West Oakland and dozens and dozens of liquor stores where there are no fresh fruits and vegetables, but there are these highly processed industrial foods. Now, that's a sign that in fact -- I mean, it would be wonderful for all of us to be able to access these fresh fruits and vegetables, but at the moment, particularly for people on low incomes, that's pretty tough to do. And so, the environments in which poor people find themselves and which are being built around poor people are more conducive to being overweight and to be unhealthy in the cities, and for poor people in the fields, those kinds of prices that come from the industrial food system are driving them out of business.
Soy. Can you talk about soy?
Soy is the ingredient -- I mean, it's weird. It's the perfect crop in so many ways. It's rich in proteins. It's great for the soil. It's really robust. But because the way that we grow soy is through industrial agriculture and monoculture, that process of growing it takes these biological virtues and turns them into social ills. Soy is now in three-quarters of everything -- of processed foods on the supermarket shelves and in almost everything that the fast-food industry brings us. Now, soy is -- and it's in these foods because it's very flexible. It can be used as a vegetable oil. It can be used as an emulsifier. It can be used as an additive in meat, for example.
But the trouble is, of course, that a lot of the soy that's grown in the world comes from Brazil. Brazil is, by some measures, the world's largest soy exporter. And those soy plantations have been encroaching on the Brazilian cerrado and also on the rainforest. Soy farmers are going into the rainforest, chopping it down and growing soy. And worse yet, Brazil is home to, according to the International Labour Organization, home to 50,000 slaves, slaves who work on soy plantations, and also the majority work in biofuels plantations and sugarcane plantations. And it's through the exploitation of these people that we're able to have cheap meat, that we're able to have these sort of food additives that shave a couple of cents off the price of our food. So, yeah, I mean, that -- soy becomes emblematic of everything that's wrong about the way we produce food and offers hope about the way we might reconnect to food in a different way.
Raj, can you talk about the corporations that have so much control over the food supply? Give us a history from, oh, United Fruit to, well, Duane Andreas's company, Archer Daniels Midland, that sponsors so much of the media that we watch today.
Yes. I mean, of course, the history of industrial capitalism and food is very long indeed. I mean, the East India Company, for example, the British East India Company was responsible for driving the colonization of India and of the subsequent imposition of markets in food.
But in the twentieth century, the poster child for corporate malfeasance is the United Fruit company. The United Fruit Company controlled vast swathes of Central America, and it's for their control of that part of the world for growing bananas that we have the term "banana republic." And "banana republic" is a sort of abject case of blaming the victim. These banana republics existed because the tin-pot dictators who ran them were in the thrall and responsible to the United Fruit Company, rather than actually to the people over whom they ruled. Now, the United Fruit Company found itself in Guatemala, where a democratically elected president wanted to institute just a basic fair system of taxation. And so, he wanted -- this was Jacobo Guzman, I believe, who wanted to tax the land at a fair market value. Now, rather than allow that, the United Fruit Company called its friends in the CIA, who instigated a coup. And as a result of that coup, there was a bloody civil war for forty years; 200,000 people died; and also, we could have cheap bananas. Now, that kind of utter manipulation of international economies is something that isn't just happening in the global south; it's happening right here in the United States.
Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, based here in the Bay Area.