“The day I start believing that what I have to say is much more important than the people who I learn things from, I will be crossing a dark line.”
Raj Patel is many things: an author of two successful books, an academic with degrees from some of the world’s most prestigious schools, a public speaker who addresses audiences around the globe; but first and foremost, he is an activist desperately fighting against social injustice.
All before the age of 40, Raj Patel has made a profound impact on the discourse surrounding social justice, and international development. Of the many causes he supports, two stand out as the most prominent: 1) the global food movement to secure food sovereignty, and 2) the fight against the current workings of market capitalism.
These particularly dense, and big topics have been captured in Patel’s two books: 2008’s Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System, and 2010’s The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy.
Stuff and Starved was my first introduction to Patel’s work, and it was enlightening to say the least. The book primarily unpacks the evolution of the global food system, and highlights the main reasons why the food we consume now is so unhealthy, and politically loaded. One statistic that was especially shocking was that as of 2008 the number of obese people had, for the first time in history, surpassed the number of malnourished people.
His second work, a 2010 New York Times best-seller, The Value of Nothing unpacks the ills, and injustices of the current capitalist market system. Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Patel details the extreme costs of our current economic system, and how many remain oblivious to the damage we are actually inflicting in the process. For example, he calculates that every Big Mac from McDonald’s, though you pay about $4, is potentially costing $200. This includes the environmental damage, hidden subsidies, slave wages for those who are picking the tomatoes, and so forth.
I seem to have caught Raj Patel at the perfect time for a chat on the issues he is most involved with. Days before we sat down for our interview a selection of events transpired: 1) the Occupy Wall Street protests began in New York, and 2) India filed a bio-piracy lawsuit against the corporate food monolith, Monsanto. Big things are happening, and they all relate to Patel’s theses: the financial and food systems as they currently operate are not sustainable, and people need to wake up and do something about it.
With an extensive knowledge on all things markets, food, and social justice there is much I WANNA KNOWfrom Raj Patel.
It was an honor and pleasure to sit down with Raj Patel and discuss his work and current events as he traversed through Toronto. A big thank you goes out to Professor Haroon Akram-Lodhi for facilitating this conversation, and providing a pleasant array of Thunder Bay cheese.
From Michelle Obama and Wal-Mart, to the Occupy Wall Street protests, to Monsanto vs. India, to Patel’s love of M.I.A and gaming, we cover it all.
Ryan Kohls: There is an actor that I feel perfectly bridges both Stuffed and Starved, and your latest work, The Value of Nothing: the recession proof, cheapest place to find food, Wal-Mart. What kind of impact is Wal-Mart having on the global food economy? And, if you had to put a price tag on the future damage of this corporation how high would it be?
Raj Patel: Good question, but a very hard question. It seems increasingly clear that Wal-Mart is looking for ways of re-inventing itself. What’s interesting to me is how aggressively Wal-Mart is pursuing its international ambitions. In a sense, that’s not surprising because it saturated the US market, whereas there’s still a lot of China and India that haven’t experienced the joys of Wal-Mart.
In that vein, there are ways that Wal-Mart is influencing the international food economy by pushing for things like fair trade agreements, by pushing for the kind of capital flows that allow it to bring in these huge deals. It’s also after the kind of PR endorsements it received from Michelle Obama. Did you hear about this?
RK: No, I haven’t.
RP: Oh, this is very interesting. Michelle Obama is being portrayed, especially on the Right, as this woman who is totally out of touch. “Yes, she may have an organic garden, but that’s her and her she-she friends. The organic food they consume is way beyond the means of ordinary people. They hang out with Alice Waters, and therefore they are snobs.”
Now, that’s a sting that a lot of people in the progressive food movement feel is justifiable, because a lot of the Slow Food stuff is quite bourgeois. As both a means to genuinely further the cause, and deflect some of the flack that they are getting from critics who are saying organic food is only for the rich, Michelle Obama and Wal-Mart partnered. She was photographed in front of the logo announcing she was very excited that Wal-Mart was making cheap organic food available. The vision there is that what everyone needs to be doing is still going to Wal-Mart but be buying the organic foods so that they to can be sharing the White House garden dividend. This achieves a number of things for Wal-Mart: it drives people into the stores, but it also helps push Wal-Mart further into being able to set the terms of a debate around organic food, and standards not just in the US but globally.
That’s one of the things we don’t hear very often, how grocery stores are writing the standards of the new global food economy in terms of safety, quality, standards; all the way to contracting arrangements. Back in the day one could have imagined this as something for the World Trade Organization, but increasingly this is stuff that is in excess of the WTO, and being rewritten as a constitution for a new global economy by supermarkets; Wal-Mart as first among equals there.
Getting back to Michelle Obama. This type of PR is signalling Wal-Mart as a “friend of the foodie,” which no serious foodie would genuinely believe. They are also trying to place themselves as a “friend of the working mother.” It’s true that for manufactured consumer goods, there are few places to find cheaper things. In terms of food, the jury is out on that, there was a story in Vermont that showed food from farmer’s markets was actually cheaper.
RK: Wal-Mart is still the biggest grocer in the world, right?
RP: It is absolutely still the biggest grocer, but there are other big grocer’s in the world. Although it’s important to point the finger at Wal-Mart, they are part of a complex in a world of supermarkets. But what they are doing is inserting themselves into places where government once operated. They’ve become an arm of government: a place where you can cash your food stamps. I worry a great deal about the increasing power they’re having in the US. If there’s a price tag to put on it? Well, it would be a BIG number.
The real question is what’s the opportunity cost? What’s the next best thing we could have done with all the resources Wal-Mart is using? How could we have used those resources better? The opportunity cost would be very high. We could imagine a way of organizing local food distribution where people are actually able to earn a wage that allows them to be able to eat, and have health care, and a range of other things. You have to be able to propose that other system with equivalent resources.
RK: It seems like many Americans, for example, would call that socialism and be afraid of changes like that.
RP: I think 46% would like to know about socialism, and don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s not an overwhelming majority, but it’s more than you’d think. I think that’s because people are sick of where we’re at.
RK: That leads perfectly into my next question. As we speak, people are occupying Wall Street, and rebelling against the capitalist system and the state of the American economy. My question is: how successful do you think protests like this can be in bringing about substantial change? And, what would a win look like in this case?
RP: Well, what’s different about this protest is that they very consciously came without a demand. One of the slogans coming out from Liberty Square is that the demand is going to be generated from the process. That’s different from an organized set of demands that were hammered out for say the WTO protest in 1999. It was easy: shut it down, this is not what we want. With the Occupy Wall Street, there wasn’t a preset group of affinity groups where people had spent a long time getting to know people, trusting each other, working on the message, the legal things.
I was there on the first day, and people were still figuring it out, and are still figuring it out. Some people are there to stay, and others are there during the day and buggering off at night. There’s clearly a sense of rage, but very slow politics in building a set of demands, and then building a movement. I like slow politics. That’s when you take time to get to know each other, learn how to work together, trust each other; that’s important. You’re right to ask the question, what does a win look like? And, I think people are still in the process of figuring that out. That doesn’t mean that’s it’s worthless because people don’t have a set of demands, and the fact that it’s persisting and growing, is a thorn in the side of the establishment. The suspicion was that on the first night it would spring up, and be gone the next day. That it’s persisting is a good sign to me. Will it end Wall Street? I don’t think this is the movement to do that. Will it remind people that Wall Street needs to stop? Yes, it will. If that’s a collateral objective, that’s great. I’m wishing them all the best.
What I want to emphasize is that the 1000 people in Liberty Plaza need to help organizing beyond Wall Street; having caught up with the news last night, the great news is that the organizing is spreading, and that’s going to be the engine of change. When we organize to Occupy Wall Street wherever we struggle, and when we’re clear not just on what we reject, but on the terms of getting what we want, that’ll be a huge win. The more I see coming from Occupy Wall Street, the more optimistic I am about that win happening.
RK: The police reaction has been quite heavy handed. How do you respond to that?
RP: In the US, especially after 9/11 and protests in Miami in 2000, decent has been criminalized. I stand for free speech, and you can tell who is exercising that right because they’re being arrested. One of the criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street is that they haven’t been enough of a thorn in the side of the establishment. But increasingly they are, because more are being arrested. I think that this Administration, in particular, is exaggeratedly concerned about public perception of its stance on questions of order. Whereas the previous administration didn’t give a shit about public perception, they were just jack-booting thugs. This administration does it for all the wrong reasons: they have this burning certainty that what they’re doing is right, and the burning insecurity that what they’re doing might not be perceived as welcomed by the other side. That to me seems all the more despicable about the Obama administration.
I think that repression of protests anywhere is reprehensible, and I condemn it in New York as I condemn it everywhere else. We need to be reminded of how public space works, and how politics work. What I love about Occupy Wall Street is that it’s like “This world is public, we’ve allowed it to be privatized, but we can rescind that at any time if enough of us decide that.” If that means we walk on a bridge and tell people what we are here for, and get arrested of it, then I commend the bravery of those who are willing to be arrested.
RK: The recent famine in the Horn of Africa brought the issue back onto the world’s agenda. As someone concerned with agriculture and markets, how to you rationalize famines? In general terms, why do famines continue into the 21st century?
RP: Well, you can’t rationalize famines. There are so many things that have happened in the Horn of Africa. It’s a confluence of bad policy, militarism, a food aid complex gone crazy, and of the ignoring of legitimate voices of forms of agriculture that are not necessarily sedentary. Pastoralism, for example, is a huge fucking deal out there. The way that states are set up historical is to absolutely override the needs of pastoralists in that part of the world.
Famines in general – I’m with Amartya Sen here – are a phenomenon where food is available in the region, and you have people who have been deprived of power and cannot command that food. Famine is everywhere and always a question of power, and not a question of food supply. There are one or two weird exceptions to that. Even in complex emergencies food is available in the region.
It’s difficult, there’s no way of telling a story where if you just change one thing everything is going to be fine. In terms of things we can change over here, I think we need to change our food policy. I think we need to be thinking quite seriously about purchasing food within the region, to distribute to the region. This is a case where food aid is warranted in the short term, but where serious investment in agriculture and pastoralism is warranted in the medium and long term. Of course that one of the things that’s also been absent in the area.
RK: Many people argue that the Green Revolution passed over Africa. Is that something you think hurt African agriculture, and could that technology be used to improve it now?
RP: A lot of agriculture research money has been spent in Africa, and people are wondering why the results haven’t been seen as we’re seeing elsewhere. That’s because we’ve forgotten how the Green Revolution worked. When we think of the Green Revolution now we think, “Africa doesn’t have improved seeds, irrigation, and fertilizer.” It has all these things, what it doesn’t have are States that are capable of providing credit, and subsidies for farmers, because all of that was destroyed in the 80s (structural adjustment). We’ve been told the Green Revolution was about technology, but it was mainly about State policy around credit and subsidies. Monsanto is there to profit of course.
RK: On the subject of Monsanto. You recently tweeted the story of India vs. Monsanto. This is big news: a country sues a massive corporation. What is the basis of this case? And, do you think India has a chance of winning?
RP: India, like most countries, has legislation that says, “If a company comes into this country and would like to access the bounties of our genetic biodiversity they have to enter into a profit sharing agreement with the sovereign.” A lot of countries have that, but few countries have the spine to say anything. Monsanto has been trying to get permission to do field trials of genetically modified eggplant. So, the Indian government noticed that a lot of the gene’s in this eggplant came from ones that were native to India. They noticed also that Monsanto didn’t have an agreement with India to do that. Last year, there was a huge outcry about genetically modified eggplant. A lot of Indians didn’t want GM eggplant because it was a hugely important crop, and they had been successfully persuaded of the dangers of cross contamination, and the loss of biodiversity if Monsanto were to be allowed. What the Indian government has moved on to is an aggressive stand against it.
It seems to me that this is a case they stand a chance of winning. But, one ought not to bet against Monsanto; they have very, very good lawyers. I will bet money that the Indian government isn’t going to win this, but it’s going to be settled. Monsanto will not admit that it has broken the law, but will send 100 million dollars to the Centre of Eggplant Studies or something. That’s probably the end game here.
It’s significant that the Indian government has figured this out. Not many countries have those resources. Bio-piracy, for those who don’t know, is the process whereby a foreign power – corporate or national – goes in to a country and finds some plant or something, takes that, goes away, patents it, and claims exclusive monopoly rights. That kind of piracy is hard to investigate, and prosecute. It’s very interesting that the Indian government is taking the lead on that.
RK: Do you have any religious affiliations that guide your ethical framework?
RP: I have the anarchist slogan, neither god nor master, deep in my heart. I think there’s something in there for everyone. In so far as we can find purpose in our lives, connecting to other people and fighting injustice doesn’t need a higher power to license that.
I’m a Hindu-Atheist; culturally Hindu.
RK: You’ve been referred to as the “rock star of social justice writing.” Jeffrey Sachs has also been referred to as a “rock star economist.” What does the rock star of social justice think of the rock star economist’s work?
RP: (laughs) Firstly of course, I dispute that I’m a rock star because I’m not trying to seek publicity. I’m not into that. You know how hard it was to have this conversation. The day I start believing that what I have to say is much more important than the people who I learn things from, I will be crossing a dark line. I think that’s the difference between me and Jeffrey Sachs. I learn things from other people, and I don’t think he does.
I have to say, personally he’s a very nice man. I think that he’s done a great deal of harm in the destruction of a range of economies in Eastern Europe and Latin America for which is yet to be held culpable. Although, Naomi Klein has done some wonderful work on pointing the finger directly at him, as well she ought.
I think the Millennium Villages are an interesting experiment but, as I think he might acknowledge, financially unsustainable. Attempts to make them financially sustainable rely on the private sector too much. The one time I met him was at his invitation at the Earth Institute in Columbia, and there was just a lot of people from the private sector there. Sachs was making the case that climate change is upon us and the private sector had something to offer. He said, “what if there was, for example, a gene for climate change, and what if Syngenta had that gene and was able to engineer it into crops. How awesome would that be?” Unfortunately, there wasn’t the space given for anyone to reply to that. Had people been given the chance, the first thing anyone would have said would have been, “climate change isn’t one thing. It’s change. It’s dozens of different things. It’s not something you can invent a gene for.” I fear that’s where he spends all of his time. Ultimately, I think he is someone who is atoning for his past, and finds himself attracted to the private sector.
RK: You are famously a former employee of, and now outspoken critic against, the World Bank. When I spoke with Oxford’s Paul Collier he defended the Bank saying that it was “a convenient whipping boy for people’s fantasies,” and its perception as a “right-wing American institution set to serve the Western policy to crash Africa collides against the reality of the people actually making these policies.” How do you respond to Mr. Collier’s analysis?
RP: The reason that the World Bank is a convenient whipping boy is because whenever bad policy has been made, the World Bank has been there making the policy. If you look at the Berg Report that the Bank did on Africa in the 80s, if you look at the way the Bank behaved on its lending policies throughout the 80s, it systematically favored the governments that followed particular courses of action. To then turn around and say, “well, it’s the Africans who took our money,” which is effectively what Collier is saying is to miss the point. Yes, it was Africans who took the money, and yes Africans make bad policy. But, the structures of the policy making environment is framed way more by the World Bank than Collier would like to admit. Through most of its existence, the World Bank has set the terms of which development policy is understood and made. That is why James Wolfensohn called it a “knowledge bank.” Among the weapons in its arsenal are people like Collier who offer knowledge about what places like Haiti should do. Famously before the earthquake, Collier said, “the reason they are poor is because their sweatshops operate only eight hours a day, and if they operated 24 hours a day, they would be much more efficient.” From a purely economic stand point that is true. Is that the reason Haiti is so poor? I don’t think so.
Is the World Bank a whipping boy? I don’t think so. A friend of mine Eric Holt Giménez, who runs Food First, described it quite well: The World Bank’s mission is to end poverty, but the World Bank’s job is to prevent the crisis of capitalism.
RK: Looking back, what drove you to pursue a career of academia blended with activism?
RP: It’s the social justice thing. Everything else I do is an appendage to issues around social justice, and that’s because the world is not just, and that’s not right.
That’s a brief answer.
RK: It can be easy to become extremely pessimistic in the business of international development, and social activism. What positive changes have you witnessed since you began writing, and researching that has inspired you, and allowed optimism to seep into your work?
RP: The Food Movement.
While the Battle of Seattle was epic, what we always understood about Seattle was that it was a moment after which we needed patient organization, and development of alternative demands about what we wanted. Of course, 9/11 was horrific for a range of reasons, but not least was the quieting affect it had on the possibility of dissent within the US, or elsewhere. You saw soon after 9/11 the prevention of terrorism act in India, which was used to clamp down on activists, and dissidents. This legislation gave states around the world the upper hand.
It seemed dark, but what’s been really exciting, especially in North America, is to see the Food Movement being driven by young people, who are increasingly interested in ideas around justice. We live in the post-Soviet world, and growing up without that around you means that political polarization is harder to see. It’s much harder to see what the left stands for now that there’s no actually existing left.
The food movement has been really amazing. Now to see over 200 food policy councils around the US, thousands of markets and community gardens, and farm’s run by young people with ideas of justice in mind gives me a great deal of hope.
RK: Who are some of your favourite musical artists?
RP: I’m listening to a range of people at the moment who I listen to because they help me work out something that I’m emotionally dealing with.
I like M.I.A. The most recent M.I.A. album is interesting, she’s clearly lost her sense of humor which is sad, but she’s got something else in instead which I think is quite interesting. I’ve had that around.
I listen to the Gorillaz because I liked the Danger Mouse produced album; it was mind bendingly good. It was like A.D.D. but turned into this wonderful world of, “look, if you don’t like this tune it’s OK, it’s going to morph into something else, and you will be amazed by not just what it turns into but how it got there.”
I listen to local bands: Rupa and the April Fishes opened for Manu Chao in San Francisco a little while ago. I listen to her.
DJ Spooky, I like his stuff.
To be honest I listen to a lot of classical music. I used to play the viola. One of my happiest moments was being in an orchestra playing the viola. It was a school orchestra, but we were really good. Being able to lose yourself, to be in the zone, and being part of this wonderful thing was fantastic. I get goose-pimples just thinking about it. We played some very technical stuff. We had a wonderful time. I often listen to that just to get the memories flooding back.
Philip Glass is stuff I wish we’d played, but we never did. One of the weirdest things that happened during the writing of The Value of Nothing was when we were in the jungles of the Lacondon at a Zapitista educational facility. Somehow they had wired the entire thing for sound – it was a good system too – and they were playing Philip Glass. They were playing his violin concerto. To be in the jungle, with the sun setting, was just mind bending. That stuck with me for a number of reasons.
RK: Is there anything that people might be surprised to find out that you’re passionate about?
RP: I think people would be surprised to find out that I think that gaming is interesting. I recently played Bio-Shock, which I think is a masterpiece. I think it rises the level of literature, and if only I had enough time I would write why I think that is the case. At some point I will. I think computer gaming, for people who scorn computer gaming, is worth a second look. I know that there are Call of Duty fans out there who will hate me for saying this but I couldn’t give a toss about that. But there’s some incredible storytelling and politics in something like Bio-Shock. It was a surprise to me how much I enjoyed it, and how much I would recommended it to other people.