Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Talking about Food Sovereignty with Raj Patel

Photo Credit: Flickr user hwilkinson

The Ottawa Writersfest continued Monday night with Raj Patel's talk on his new book, The Value of Nothing. Who's Raj Patel? Well, he's an academic, an activist, a new father, an author and an engaging public speaker. He has every reason to be entitled and pompous, but he comes across as probably one of the most honest, down to earth people who could most likely get along with anyone, anywhere in the world. After hearing him speak, I look forward to reading both of his books, most notably his previous book that discusses the world's food system -- Stuffed and Starved.

In large part, his lecture discussed food issues. For a general recap of the event you can click here to read what I wrote for the Writersfest discussion board. For now, however, let's talk food.

Patel highlighted La Via Campesina, an organization also known as the International Peasants Movement. In a nutshell, this organization is trying to bring democracy back to our food system. They single handedly coined the phrase "food sovereignty" and they have been known to target corporations such as Monsanto. In general, they are attempting to tackle patriarchy in the food system. Patel quoted la Via Campesina: "Food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women". According to Patel, the main issue is inequality and abuse of power all the way down the food system. Food sovereignty is defined as "the claimed "right" of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to international market forces"(Wikipedia).

As the lecture went on, Patel talked about the decision to buy fair trade coffee versus what he jokingly called "bastard coffee" (in other words, exploitative coffee). It is absurd that we should even have to make this choice at all. Patel is all for making responsible shopping decisions, but he doesn't think that alone will change the food system.

Photo Credit: Flickr user

He asked a question of us all: "How are we going to feed the world in 2050 when there are 9 billion people and we mostly live in cities?" His answer to this question involved new farming technology, food sovereignty and new democratic systems. The future according to Raj Patel includes less private property and more shared land in the form of community gardens, for example. The alternative of continuing to source our food in supermarkets is sometimes necessary, but definitely not ideal. We are sitting ducks when we roll in with our carts, with all of these food products telling us to take them home. "Everything in a supermarket is engineered to make you consume more", says Patel.

Artistic Director Sean Wilson asked some very good questions, one of them being: "Wal-Mart is the top seller of organic food in North America. Is this a good thing?" to which Mr. Patel gave a great explaination. First of all, Wal-Mart is the biggest grocer in the world, so that explains the high volume sales, and if people are going to get food from Wal-Mart, obviously organics are preferable. However, the issue is actually the fact that some people are in such a dire economic situation that they are relying on places like Wal-Mart for food because it's the only place where they can afford to shop. Patel claims that this is the question people are "not allowed to ask." He even went as far to say that Food Inc., a film he did enjoy, came up short by not answering that question. It isn't enough to buy local, sustainable and organic; what Patel is saying is that parts of the food movement are forgetting about the poorest people in the equation. They are the very people who are picking the fruit and harvesting the vegetables that all of us are buying, but they cannot even afford it themselves. In other words, slavery is not a thing of the past. The tomato farmer who picks the tomato to go on a $1.00 McDonald's value meal can't even afford to eat it himself.

The idea that it's even called a "value meal" is ridiculous, anyhow. It's a burger that may only cost $1.00, but its environmental, social and human cost is so much larger. "The value is entirely not in the meal", says Patel.

In a nutshell, Patel is saying that sensible consumption is good, but not enough. We need to take action on a municipal level. We need to be more civically engaged. So, from where I'm sitting, this not only means voting with my dollars, but also rolling up my sleeves and getting involved on a local level. One way I'm doing that is by helping out my pals at Vegetable Patch. It's groups like this who I hope will help change the urban landscape and provide local, secure food sources for all. What are you doing to get involved in your local food scene?


  1. Sounds like a great lecture!! I can't wait to hear what you think of his books. Food issues are so very complicated...

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  3. Excellent post! I very much agree wit Patel. In Food Inc, the interview with the family who's father thought that a dollar something for a lb of broccoli was too much so let's-go-to-McDonald's instead was a substantial part of the film yet the makers of the film offer no suggestion or anything to the viewer as to what can be done. It's true that it's definitely not an easy question to answer in a matter of minutes but I feel that any other viewer (as opposed to myself who's very much involved with food) would just be left confused and become preoccupied with something else in a matter of time. It's sad but true that in today's time and day, people don't like to think, they need to be hand fed everything. Which I feel that that's part of the problem when it comes to the problem with industrialized organics (have you read The Omnivore's Dilemma?), just with something being labeled organic, people will buy it. Even if it's something ridiculous like frozen chicken breast with mango salsa-concoction frozen dinner. With so many different elements shipped from all over the world. If it says organic, people will buy it. It's too much work for your regular folk to look deeper than that into what they're buying.

  4. Thanks for this Heather: I've posted a link to this over at our Transition Ottawa site. ( - / jd

  5. We've joined a CSA Farm to get our veggies locally this year! And Transition Ottawa is organizing tours of local Community Gardens this summer to share gardening tips and encourage more backyard gardening!