Raj Patel: A Brief Introduction
Dr. Raj Patel is a Research Professor at the LBJ School. He studies the global food system and alternatives to it, works for which he recently received a James Beard Leadership award. He is currently working on a ground-breaking documentary project about the global food system with award-winning director Steve James. In addition to numerous scholarly publications in economics, philosophy, politics, medical and public health journals, he regularly writes for – and appears on – national and international media. His first book was Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and his latest, The Value of Nothing, is a New York Times best-seller.
Pat: I understand that you’re working on a new documentary which is part of a larger project called Generation Food. Can you share a bit about that project and how it came to be?
Raj: Generation Food emerged from a struggle with what it means to be an activist/academic. I wrote Stuffed and Starved, and The Value of Nothing as tools for movement building. Although I’m very pleased with the way these books have been taken up in classrooms, having books taught isn’t the same thing as building a base for organizing. Generation Food is an experiment in creating content about world-changing food movements that actually help to change the world. Our idea is to reach people who have neither the time nor means to read door-stopper books and to reach them in a way that takes them into organizing. Initially, it was going to be a long-form documentary, in the vein of director Steve James’ other works, like Hoop Dreams. But we’ve come to realize that while a long-form version is good, much more important is having shorter versions cut to work for unions, cooperatives, and religious groups – wherever people meet weekly to change the world.
Pat: I understand the film looks at food movements in a variety of different places, including Malawi, India, Peru and the US. I imagine these different food movements are working toward different individual goals based on the social, political and economic conditions of each location. What is it that you find unites these movements that could help change the world?
Raj: e picked these examples because they go beyond the standard individual fixes to the food system – fixes like eating organic, or shopping at a farmer’s market. They address systemic problems, like patriarchy, class, the division between society and nature, or corporate power. What unites them is that they break the rules of the food system, that they invite us to think beyond the world as it is, to imagine it as it might be.
Pat: When we start talking about food, it can get very tricky to isolate the political aspects of the food system and pinpoint where policy can and should play a role. Since this interview is being done for a policy journal, I was hoping you could talk about what role policy plays in all this and how and through what kind of policy enactments or changes we might create a more equitable global food system?Raj: I’ve just finished some research with my colleague Erin Lentz and some of our graduate students from the LBJ School in Austin, Texas, looking at the kinds of food policy that residents might want. The first rule of food policy is that it’s never just about food policy. The issues that our respondents cared about ranged from hygiene and food safety to the low level of SNAP benefits and the difficulty of accessing them (especially in Texas) to high rents, racial segregation, low wages, poor transportation, confusion about the definition of ‘healthy’, no sidewalks and a lack of dignity in their treatment by the city. All of these are food policy issues too. Breaking through the different policy silos, always with equality in mind, is central to a better global food system. But that change isn’t going to come naturally through policymakers – they will be made to do it through movement organizing, and politics more radical than policymakers can accommodate. This is, almost without exception, the history of movements toward equality.
Pat: Knowing that change isn’t going to come naturally through policymakers, what advice can you give students of policy? How do they deal with the struggle of being a student in a world where movement organizing and a politics more radical than policymakers can accommodate are so crucial to creating a more equitable society?Raj: I’d advise policy students to think historically. How did your favorite policy come about? It was always a compromise. Could it have been better? Always. What made the compromise? A balance of political forces far beyond policy schools or analysis. So, understand history, and then get your theory of change straight. How is it that you see yourself moving social forces to a more just and equitable society? As an advocate within the system? If so, to whom will you be accountable? Who will tell you that you’re betraying the very things you sought to honor? And what will you do when you hear this critique? There are no easy answers in these questions, but no policy student should go into public service without honest answers to them.
Pat: You’ve been involved with the movement for food sovereignty for a long time. Can you explain what food sovereignty is and how it relates to the broader Social justice movement?
Raj: Food sovereignty has a long, and varying, definition. The short version is that it’s about communities’ ability to shape their food policy. In order for that to happen, you need equality, which is the vision for social justice. In particular, those involved in La Via Campesina – the authors idea of food sovereignty – have understood that this equality needs to happen within households, as much as across society. One slogan: “Food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women.” Because you cannot have democracy around food policy if there is domestic violence, systematic violence, economic exploitation or patriarchy. These issues are ones very close to a range of movements concerned with social justice.
Pat: One ongoing topic in food policy that has serious ramifications for food sovereignty is the issue of GMOs. Often the simple argument for them is that they are necessary to feed the worlds growing population. Can you give your take on this issue? Is there a place for GMOs in our food system and if so, where could they be useful?
Raj: There may be a world where GMOs as currently conceived can assist sustainable agriculture, but we don’t live in that world. GMOs are products of the pesticide industry, and their model of industrial agriculture isn’t one that offers a path to sustainability in the 21st century.
Pat: Much has changed in the world in the short time since you published Stuffed and Starved (2008) and The Value of Nothing (2010). Are you optimistic about what seems to be a growing consciousness surrounding food and social injustice? Do you see shifts taking place (socially, politically and economically) that are creating or might create openings for the kind of changes you would like to see in the global food system?
Raj: I’m very excited to see increasing numbers of young people ready to entertain ideas about what happens after capitalism. This is a tremendous step. Most people in my generation can imagine the end of the planet but they can’t imagine the end of liberal capitalism, as Frederic Jameson once put it. As we reach the apex of a number of crises in capitalism’s ecology, it is important to think through what might follow. It’s also important to realize that what might follow might not be better than what we currently have. I can easily imagine a far more authoritarian set of state and economic arrangements. Donald Trump’s world isn’t so far away from such a scenario, and his popularity is a sign of the need for a more enlightened vision of the future. The inequality that capitalism has brought about can’t be sustained under the politics it espouses – so we’ll get new politics. If we can get a new way of organizing the economy, the chances for equality are substantially higher. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the inevitable changes ahead. I’m just aware that, as Michel Foucault once said, everything is dangerous.
Pat: What would a new way of organizing the economy, that would be better than what we have and would increase our chances for equality look like to you?
Raj: It would have the collectivity of socialism, the human flourishing of communism, and the individual autonomy of anarchism.