Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System Book Review

Melville House, 2008

Melville House, 2008

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System by Raj Patel

Raj Patel’s bibliography describes himself as not only having worked for the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and the United Nations but also having been tear-gassed while protesting on four continents. Not surprisingly, I found Mr. Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved to be a stirring indictment of the global food network. The book is readable, informative, passionate, yet unabashedly biased.

In his introduction, Mr. Patel presents the global food system as being fundamentally imbalanced. He points out that while there are an abundance of food producers as well as food consumers, there are very few processors and distributors connecting the former two groups. Because such industries require tremendous capital, consolidation is the only way to thrive. Consequently, a handful of corporate conglomerates with vast resources at their disposal have acquired tremendous power in shaping the global food system. Stuffed and Starved investigates how our food decisions are influenced by the most powerful players in the industry and why we are left with a food system in which excess and deprivation exist side by side.

The global food system is a wide and diverse target, but Patel seems to be most comfortable attacking international trade agreements, which he argues have played a leading role in the demise of small farms. The first two chapters begin with a look at how international trade agreements cause debt and despair among farmers, leading to a worldwide surge in farmer suicides. The psychological impact brought upon by rapid changes in the globalization of food and the loss of small, family farms – a source of tremendous generational pride – is a serious public health concern. However, Patel’s dramatic depiction of Lee Kyung Hae – a mentally disturbed Korean farmer who killed himself with a pen knife at a World Trade Organization meeting – as somehow representing the plight of all farmers, does a disservice to the depth and seriousness of the issue. Patel’s preference for favoring drama over complexity and depth is a theme repeated throughout the book.

In describing the evolution of the global food system, Patel glosses through hundreds of years of history to portray the provision of cheap food as a method to prevent insurrection among the lower class. He then goes on to rail against the exorbitant profits and political favor earned by a few large agribusinesses. The facetiously titled chapter, “Better Living through Chemistry,” demonstrates how science and technology are used by large agribusinesses to promote their own agenda, while giving the appearance that they are designed to help the poor.

I believe the arguments presented by Patel have plenty of merit. But Stuffed and Starved falls flat in its inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to provide objective balance to such weighty issues. First and foremost, the premise of the book – the fact that there are more people starving (800 million) and more people overweight (1 billion) than ever before – is incredibly misleading. Public health students would always be wise to look at the denominator. Since the global population has consistently increased, the proportion of starving people in the world has actually been decreasing for several centuries. Some estimates show the share of starving people in the developing world has been more than halved during the past forty years. This begs a question that Patel does not bother to ask: is our food system doing something right if starvation seems to be steadily declining? Furthermore, the “cheap food policy” that Patel spends most of the book criticizing has its share of success. In 1900, more than forty percent of a US family’s income went towards paying for food and farming was the principal occupation of almost half of the US workforce. By increasing farming productivity and reducing the cost of food, families were able to spend money on other goods and services. As a result, the early US economy was able to grow and diversify.

Stuffed and Starved provides plenty of ammunition for anyone who vehemently opposes the global food system. However, a public health student would be better served if Patel had used his formidable intelligence and experience to objectively dissect global food policy, explaining both the positive and negative outcomes. Passion is commendable, but in order to enact future change, one must understand all sides of an issue.

Michael Best is a Third Semester MPH candidate with an interest in infectious disease. He will be attending medical school next year.