Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Speech by Raj Patel

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing Raj Patel speak in San Diego. I'm always attracted to a man with a big brain, so of course I had to go hear him speak. And his speech was so great that I felt it was worth taking the time to transcribe the whole thing - with links to cite various references he made throughout the talk. This post does not contain the entire speech, mainly because it's just an awful lot to read at any one time. So here's the first 15 minutes:

Thank you all so much for coming. I get to go to many food justice conferences but there's a really good energy here. I'm really excited to be part of this - not least because things are dark right now. As a matter of fact, since we met, the number of hungry people has gone up. Today there are a billion people who are getting less than 1900 calories a day and at the same time there are a billion people around the world who are overweight.

I don't have anything terribly sophisticated to offer in terms of analysis or powerpoint, but I notice a white board here... Instead of a powerpoint, I'm going to ask you to use your imaginations, which is "kicking it old school," I believe. [Draws an hourglass shape on the white board]

This is kind of a diagram of basically the kind of world we find ourselves in. At the top [points to wide part on the top of the hourglass], if you imagine all of the farmers in the world, millions of farmers around the world who produce the food that we eat every day. And on the bottom [points to wide part on the bottom of the hourglass], the six, nearly seven billion people on earth who eat every day if we can. And in the middle [points to very skinny part in the middle of the hourglass], as arbiters of food that goes from farmers to us is just a handful of corporations. This hourglass diagram is a sort of back of envelope representation of the way the world's food system works. But it is an accurate one.

In the world today - in every major commodity, in every major food commodity, whatever that commodity is - there's usually five or six corporations that control the global trade in that commodity. It varies according to the thing that we're talking about. The global market in tea, for example, the world's market in packaged tea, is 94% controlled by ONE corporation, by Unilever. But in every major commodity market there are sort of five or six. In grain, the global trade in grain, there's like an A, B, C, D of these corporations. There's Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus. These are the corporations that sort of run the global grain market.

And you might think "Maybe it's all right to have corporations distributing our food for us because, you know, when you have corporations competing, you win!" Or so we are told on late night television. But, of course, in the global market in food, there is no such thing as a free market - and particularly, when it comes to food, there's not really that much competition. Now, you don't have to take my word for it, you can believe the words of a man named Dwayne Andreas. And Dwayne Andreas, when he said the quote that I'm about to give you, was the chairman of Archer Daniels Midland, one of the largest corporations involved in the manufacture of food. And he had to say this about competition. He said:

"The customer is our enemy and the competitor is our friend. And there is not one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market - not one! The only place you see free markets are in the speeches of politicians, and people who are not from the midwest do not realize that this is a socialist country."

That's an odd thing for a CEO of a top Fortune 500 company to be saying. He's saying that actually we don't live in a free market, we live in a world where corporations basically suckle on the teat of government money. A couple of years ago when I was trying to explain this to people, particularly in America, people were saying, "That's not true! We would never have corporations holding out their hands and the government giving away trillions of dollars." So it's a little easier to explain that now.

And we kind of understand that that's the situation we live in. But we ought to also understand that that's why it is that we live in a world where people go hungry and where people are overweight. Because, if the corporations in the middle of that bottleneck want to stay where they are, if they want to stay profitable, they will do two things.

Firstly, they will manufacture goods that are profitable for them. Things that are highly processed. Things that have salt, fat, and sugar in them. Things that our bodies are hard-wired to crave. It is profitable to make people overweight! And so, companies that are in the position to be able sell this processed foods have every incentive to shift them onto us as far as they can.

The other thing that corporations do is pay very little for the inputs that go into making their food. And the hungriest people in the world today are the people who grow the food. The poorest people on earth, and therefore the hungriest people on earth, are, ironically, farmworkers: people who work in agriculture making our food for us. And that's a contradiction that isn't accidental. That's to do with the way the world works and to do with the way we have allowed corporations to be able to run our food system. And in a sense, we shouldn't be surprised by this.

We shouldn't be surprised that corporations will evade regulation, they will lie to us and cheat and steal and break the law if they can get away with it. It is absolutely reasonable to expect the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to try to get government to ignore regulation about genetically modified organisms, for example, because, as an employee of his organization, his job - and it's usually a he - his job is to maximize profit for his shareholders. And if he does not maximize profit, then he will be out, because those are the rules of the game. And if he does not underpay his workers, and he does not drive down the price for their wages, then he's not doing a good job.

We shouldn't be surprised by this. We shouldn't be surprised that corporations commit capitalist acts... because those are the rules of the game. We should be asking a much more interesting question. The question we should ask is: why do we have markets in food at all? Why do we have markets in food? Cuz historically it's weird! I mean, the world's first global market in food was the global market in wheat. And that was only really completed about 130 years ago.

So historically it's very new to have these global markets. And to understand why we have these global markets and whose interests they serve, let me take you on a historical journey to India, which is one of the sort of epicenters of the global market in wheat. Now before the British arrived in India, India was a feudal economy. What that means is that India had a lot of landlords who owned tons of land, and on that land toiled peasants. And the peasants worked and they produced food and the landlord would take that food away and give back to the peasant just enough for them to survive. That was feudalism.

It was an awful system. But the only silver lining was that in times of famine, when the rains didn't come, when the crops were decimated by pests, it was the landlord's responsibility to feed the hungry. So it's a crap system, but at the end of the day at least people tend not to go hungry under feudalism.

So the British arrived, and they saw landlords giving away food for free. And they said, "Landlords, you don't need to be giving away food for free! What you need is markets! Markets are terrific. You will find that when you introduce markets in food, a number of things will happen. Your productivity will go up because you have incentives to produce more food than you need, and you'll be able to sell that surplus and you'll become rich beyond your dreams. And also, you won't have to give away stuff for free because you will employ your workers and they will buy food with their money and there'll be none of this handout business and instead we'll have an efficient, tightly working market economy."

And the Indian landlords said, "No thanks, actually we're fine."

And the British said, "No, no, we have guns."

And so it was. (Often down the barrel of a gun.) And so the British imposed these markets. And, in some cases, the British did not lie. It was true that after the British imposed these markets in food, productivity in Indian agriculture went through the roof! India exported millions of tons of grain, wheat in particular, to Britain. More food than ever before in India's history - more food per person. And of course, this was why the British introduced these markets. They wanted cheap grain from India to feed their workers in Britain.

And that's what happens when you introduce markets. When you introduce markets, you introduce two very simple rules. The first rule is: If you have money, you get to eat. Even if that food comes from halfway around the world, you get to eat. And, of course, that was the conduit, that was the mechanism through which food circled the world in order to feed workers in Manchester. But there's a second rule with markets. And that rule is: if you don't have money, you starve.

And there are plenty of stories of workers loading sacks of wheat onto trains that would end up in Bombay and would then go on to circle the world. Those workers died of hunger as they loaded the grain onto the trains. And they died of hunger not because there was a shortage of food. There was more food produced than ever before in history. They didn't die because they were unable to access the food. The food was right there, on their backs. The reason people starved is that the way that we distribute food is through the market, and those people were too poor to be able to afford that food.

And that's a lesson for today because, in the United States today, according to one survey over Christmas, one in five Americans - sixty million Americans - went hungry. Now you can't say that's because America's overpopulated. You cannot say this is because America lacks food. Go into any supermarket and you will see aisles of food. The reason people go hungry in the United States - as anywhere else in the world - is not for a shortage of food but because the way we distribute food is through the market and the poor are too poor to be able to afford it.

Now, the spread of the market is something that is continuing today. And again, if you want to see the effects of markets and globalization gone wild, the place to look is India. India, to many people in the United States, India is the place where all the high tech jobs have gone. India is the land where everyone has a PhD in Computer Science. People are defragmenting hard drives on street corners. Everyone in India can tell you how to use Windows Vista, which is absurd. I mean, no one can tell you how to use Windows Vista. There is this sort of myth.

And if you go to Bangalore, for example, you will the glittering towers of information technology capitalism. But India is still an agricultural country. One in six of the world's farmers is Indian. And so the stories that matter most in India are not stories about Windows Vista. They are stories about agriculture. And in India, farmers have been having a particularly hard time of it of late. And I'll give you a story of a family that's five hours out from Bangalore.

A story of a farmer, let's call him Kistaya. Kistaya had a wife, two kids, and a couple of acres. And like any father, like any farmer, like any entrepreneur, he wanted to leave the land better off than when he found it. So he does what every farm does, he tries to improve his land. He borrowed money from the only place that he could. He borrowed money from the local moneylender. And he used it to drill a well that then he would use to irrigate his land. So he borrowed the money and he drilled and the well was dry. So now he was in trouble because he wanted to leave something better for his kids but he needed to repay the moneylender. So he borrowed and he drilled and again the well was dry. He borrowed and he drilled, he borrowed and he drilled, five times in all.

And one summer day when the rains refused to come, he despaired. That night, after his wife and kids had gone to bed, he pulled down a packet of pesticide called phorate. It is illegal in the United States, though it is sold by U.S. corporations in India. And he mixed it with water and he drank it. And it would have been an agonizing death. His nerves would have jammed. He would have asphyxiated. But he can't have convulsed very hard because he died without waking his wife and two kids. And all of this for a debt of $325.

Now, that tragedy is being repeated thousandfold in India. But you mustn't think that this is an Indian phenomenon or there's something strangely subcontinental about this. This is happening the world over. It's happening in Australia where farmers are being driven to the edge of despair by an incredible drought. Being unable to service the debts they have on their land and then choosing to take their own lives. You see it here in the United States. I was reading a horrific story of a farmer in upstate New York who slaughtered his cattle and then shot himself because, again, he was unable to pay his debt.

And always, the same story rebounds over and over again. It's a story about farmers pushed to the brink of debt and then all of a sudden some minor tragedy that, in better times, they would be able to overcome, will hit them - and that's the moment where they lose their land. And they don't just lose their land. They lose the land that has been in their families for generations. They lose their identity. They lose who they are. And rather than facing that oblivion, some farmers have chosen to take their own lives.

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