We are stuffed and starved. Stuffed, because we produce more food than ever before, and there are 1 billion people who are overweight. Starved, because at the same time, 800 million people are hungry.
These two factors are symptoms of the same problem: the control of giant corporations in the food industry.
Raj provides a helpful diagram outlining where power is concentrated in the food industry. At the top and bottom of this diagram are billions of people, who take the form of consumers and farmers. But in the middle, there is a much smaller bottleneck. Here, the number of companies in play is much less than the number of farmers and consumers. These companies buy food from farmers and sell it to consumers. By controlling this gateway, they have the power to control—and exploit—those who grow food as well as those who eat it.
Raj begins with the farmers. Coffee is much loved is in the West. But consumers are many worlds away from the coffee growers who work in places like Uganda, and who are consistently underpaid. With not many companies in the bottleneck, these farmers do not have much choice on who they can sell their produce to. This exploitation of indigenous resources becomes a sort of colonisation as well.
Some farmers have found themselves sinking into debt trying to grow more crops. Many of these farmers do not want to sell their land. Often, their land has been in the family for generations, and ending that legacy is too painful. Consequently, many of these farmers commit suicide. As Raj puts it, these deaths are not simply full stops. They represent a bigger social problem; these deaths are “tragic ellipses in the struggle of a community”, a struggle to have some dignity against those who control them.
Raj also delves into new agricultural technologies. However, these are not the right solution either. Genetically modified seeds can indeed create crops in abundance. But such seeds need irrigation, a process which drastically drops groundwater levels. These seeds also promote monocultures, dangerous when biodiversity is key to survival.
Such agricultural technologies have their own controversies. The companies that are creating these genetically modified seeds are chemical companies as well. For example, Monsanto produces a genetically modified crop called “RoundUp-ready”. These crops are engineered so that they can survive being sprayed by a kind of pesticide, and therefore can become extremely resistant to pests. This pesticide is also produced by Monsanto. So, in order to use these seeds, farmers are instructed to buy Monsanto pesticides as well. The seeds are simply “an extension of their pesticide product line”. Unfortunately, this is not a reasonable long-term solution, since spraying with pesticides can cause secondary pests to thrive and wreak havoc.
Another set of giant food corporations thriving in the bottleneck are supermarkets. Often, supermarkets are not buying from small producers. As a result, small producers suffer and have to carve out their own outlets. However, small food outlets such as greengrocers and butchers cannot match the prices of supermarkets, whose size and breadth of control means that they can keep their prices extremely low. Consumers then stuff themselves on supermarket products, which are often over processed. And so, these small producers disappear.
The convenience of supermarkets is alluring, but this convenience “anaesthetises us as consumers”. It makes us accept things from for what they are, cheap and seemingly plentiful, and it stops us from asking more questions. Like, why is this food so affordable? Where did it come from? Looking beyond mere convenience means recognising that some products are only cheap because somebody was underpaid or mistreated up the line. It means recognising that some products are shipped over oceans from other giant corporations, while local producers struggle to feed their families.
Overall, Raj covers the starved aspects off his agenda very well, but there is not that much work on what makes us stuffed. I would have liked Raj to talk about food waste as well. What kind of mentality keeps us stuffing ourselves full and throwing away food while others starve to death? Raj makes a brief comparison, but does not go into much depth.
Raj also provides quotes at the start of most chapters and sections. Only some of these quotes were linked to the text that came after. And these quotes were used excessively, their novelty wearing off for me. I soon became tired of them, as they seemed to be just a way to fill space and a long winded means of introducing a point.
Still, Stuffed and Starved is a helpful introduction into the food industry’s daily manipulations. Large corporations are toxic in their vast power. And opening the bottleneck that is suffocating the food industry involves questioning the things we love. It reminds me that supporting local and small businesses—by walking a little further to a local outlet, by paying a little more—is worth losing that convenience. And I find a different kind of love, a love and appreciation for where my food comes from that is much more fulfilling.