"Unless you are a corporate food executive, the food system isn't working for you. If you are one of the world's rural poor dependent on agriculture for your livelihood - and roughly half the global population of 6 billion fall into this category - you are likely to be one of the starved. If you are an urban consumer, whether an affluent metropolitan or slum-dwelling industrial labourer, you are likely to be one of the stuffed, suffering from obesity or other diet-related ills.
Raj Patel's fascinating first book examines this apparent paradox. His thesis is that the simultaneous existence of nearly 1 billion who are malnourished and nearly 1 billion who are overweight is in fact the inevitable corollary of a system in which a handful of corporations have been allowed to capture the value of the food chain. Moreover, government policies through history have been designed to control our food. Their aim has been to provide cheap food for the urban masses and so prevent dissent at home. The instruments of colonial command may have been replaced with newer mechanisms that give a greater role to the private sector, but control our food they still do with disastrous social consequences, despite all the neo-liberal rhetoric of free trade and choice.
Patel's range is impressive, taking us from the soaring suicide rates among Indian farmers faced with a 20% fall in rural income after liberalisation of agriculture and trade, to the emergence of social movements among the landless in Brazil and Africa, and the sophisticated manipulation of consumers in the rich north.
Patel uses the Mexican experience as one among several telling examples of what has gone wrong. The North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) in 1994 was the first to unite the economies of two rich countries and a poor one. Some 60% of cultivated land in Mexico at the time was used to grow corn, the key staple of the population. One of the arguments for free trade is that by forcing producers to compete with each other, prices fall, helping the mass of urban poor. The price of corn on the Mexican market indeed collapsed as US imports flowed in. US corn farmers are heavily subsidised by their government, and small Mexican producers were never going to be able to compete. The livelihoods of 3 million farmers, 8% of the population, were decimated. But the urban poor didn't benefit. Most Mexicans eat their corn in the form of tortillas, made from corn flour. The price of tortillas didn't fall as free market logic would lead you to expect; instead it went up seven-fold. As part of liberalisation the Mexican government removed some of the supports that kept tortillas cheap in government stores. But just two processors control 97% of the Mexican industrial cornflour market; so it was they who captured the value of the fall in corn prices. Nafta is said to have forced 1.3 million Mexicans off their land, swelling the numbers of urban poor, leading to a fall in urban industrial wages, and an increased flow of illegal workers to the US. Poverty rates overall increased 50%. Meanwhile, Mexicans have become fat. A spike in obesity levels has followed the changes in diet that accompanied urbanisation. International retail has arrived too with Wal-Mart in its Mexican Wal-Mex incarnation taking three out of every 10 pesos spent on food in the country. It is a pattern repeated around the world and through history.
Britain as imperial power pioneered the grain trade, encouraging India and others to sell their wheat stocks, bringing famine back to Asia, but providing cheap food for its factory workers and keeping insurrection at home at bay. After the second world war the US used its agricultural surpluses as food aid to head off the communist threat.
More recently, international financial institutions and debt have been used to make countries cede decisions about their food production to their creditors. Patel used to work for the World Bank and is excellent on all this.
Now 40% of world trade in food is controlled by transnational agricultural corporations in strategic partnerships with biotech seed and pesticide companies such as Monsanto, and they pull the levers.
Fighting back against this is the movement to regain "food sovereignty" or the people's right to define their own agriculture and food policies. The idea originated with the global network of peasant farmer organisations, Via Campesina, and has been honed through the early 2000s. Patel sees it as the hope for the future and ends with an impassioned call to action. The "honey trap" of ethical consumerism will not do it, he says; we must organise and reclaim our control of the food system, just as the landless in Brazil and cooperatives in America and Europe have done. Some of this is familiar territory. Aid agencies such as Oxfam, ActionAid and Christian Aid have argued the case on free trade agreements. Sidney Mintz has described the relationship between patterns of consumption and patterns of trade between empire and slave colony in his brilliant history of sugar. But Patel puts all these threads together compellingly, and there is much that is original.
The debate on food sovereignty will become more clamorous, though questions remain. The models Patel holds up for a new sustainable food system are Cuba and the Landless Movement of Brazil. The former was forced to reinvent its agriculture after the collapse of Soviet Union deprived it of its oil and the US embargo prevented it buying stocks elsewhere, but it has depended on a totalitarian ability to impose on consumers and producers. The landless of Brazil, educated first in the ways of cooperative action in tough land occupations, find, as Patel says, that their children are drawn away to the material pleasures of the city. Will soaring commodity prices change the picture?
This is a book full of insight, that makes an important contribution to understanding that the politics of food is not a narrow matter of shopping, ethical or otherwise. It involves the urgent study of globalisation and social justice, and the politics of modern capitalism itself.
· Felicity Lawrence's Eat Your Heart Out: Who Really Decides What Ends Up on Your Plate, will be published by Viking next spring