Books: The world's eating disorder

This riveting book explains how corporate control of government food policy in the West dishes up a double helping of calamity. Craig Sams offers his own cure.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In 1944, Charles Wilson, president of General Motors, told Congress that if the US were to avoid a return to the dark days of the Depression, it would need a 'permanent war economy'. This gave rise to the military-industrial complex against which President Eisenhower eloquently warned in 1961. Its corollary was the nationalisation of farming in the form of industrial agriculture. After World War II, explosive factories converted to nitrate fertiliser production, tank factories turned out bigger tractors, and farmers were cajoled with subsidies and price controls to overproduce food.

A big beneficiary of this de facto nationalisation of farming and food trading has been processing giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), whose chairman Dwayne Andreas said: 'The competitor is our friend and the customer our enemy. The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians. People who aren't from the Midwest do not understand that this is a socialist country.'

Raj Patel's book Stuffed and Starved is a captivating historical analysis of how corporate control of government food policy has generated the diet-related disease that plagues rich countries while also being the primary cause of the poverty and starvation that kill millions elsewhere every year.

Chronic food surpluses have to go somewhere - mainly into people's mouths. The result, obesity, generates diabetes and heart disease and is second only to cigarettes as a cause of cancer. A billion people are on this path to a shortened lifespan. In the US, people spend less of their income on food (8%) and more on medical treatment (15%) than anywhere else.

Another billion are starving, mostly the families of small farmers who once produced their own food and enough surplus to generate cash. With prices artificially low, many abandoned the countryside and moved to urban slums.

How did this happen? At the heart of it are big grain traders like ADM, Cargill and Bunge. These push for free markets but do so because their domestic markets are rigged, with help from the US department of agriculture. With $180bn of annual subsidies, US farmers can sell the traders their soybeans and corn at well below cost, with the government making up the difference. On a domestic scale, this translates into cheaper and fattier meats and corn syrup sweetener - a recipe for obesity.

For farmers in the developing world, low prices are a disaster - their governments can't afford to subsidise them. Slave labour and cutting down the rain forest help some. For many more, though, it's off to the urban slums.

Since this book was written, the price of corn and soy has soared: surpluses are converted into ethanol and bio-diesel, thanks to a 50 cents a gallon subsidy. The impact on the world's farmers of artificially low prices is at last diminishing.

Patel doesn't do the sums in this otherwise copiously referenced book, but they're simple. EU and US subsidies of $350bn a year halve the value of benchmark food commodities. The rest of the world produces $2trn worth of food a year. If prices doubled, they'd be $2trn better off. That's enough to pay off all developing world debt in less than a year. There are hundreds of thousands of farmers in Mexico alone who are quietly celebrating rising corn prices.

Patel follows the debt/suicide trail: the big bulge was in the Midwest in the '80s as debt-ridden American farmers shot themselves (and sometimes their bank managers). Then it moved to India, where suicides are still rising as farmers struggle with debt from purchasing expensive GM seed that fails to fulfil its promise. In the UK, farmers have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession.

What other industry has such a record of despair among its producers and death from both excess and scarcity among its customers? This isn't how capitalism should work, but we've seen grim previews in the famine deaths of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and China in the 1950s that resulted from mixing socialism and food production.

Patel's solutions are mostly ameliorative, and this is the weakest part of what is otherwise essential reading. He proposes that we learn to cook and eat good food, seasonal, organic and fairly traded, bought and sourced locally, avoiding supermarkets: the individual pitted against the combined power of the state and multinationals. The booming organic market may show what consumers can achieve, but policy must change, too.

Which political party dares to put food and farming back into the free market? Free enterprise works for all other formerly state-controlled industries; why not food?

- Stuffed and Starved: Markets, power and the hidden battle for the world's food system; Raj Patel

Portobello Books £16.99

- Craig Sams is chair of the Soil Association and co-founder of Green & Black's.

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