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The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

Written by Raj PatelAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Raj Patel


List Price: $19.95


On Sale: June 05, 2012
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-61219-128-7
Published by : Melville House Melville House
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Revised and Expanded Edition

"For anyone attempting to make sense of the world food crisis, or understand the links between U.S. farm policy and the ability of the world's poor to feed themselves, Stuffed and Starved is indispensable."
—Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma

It’s a perverse fact of modern life: There are more starving people in the world than ever before, while there are also more people who are overweight.

To find out how we got to this point and what we can do about it, Raj Patel launched a comprehensive investigation into the global food network. It took him from the colossal supermarkets of California to India’s wrecked paddy-fields and Africa’s bankrupt coffee farms, while along the way he ate genetically engineered soy beans and dodged flying objects in the protestor-packed streets of South Korea.

What he found was shocking, from the false choices given us by supermarkets to a global epidemic of farmer suicides, and real reasons for famine in Asia and Africa.

Yet he also found great cause for hope—in international resistance movements working to create a more democratic, sustainable and joyful food system. Going beyond ethical consumerism, Patel explains, from seed to store to plate, the steps to regain control of the global food economy, stop the exploitation of both farmers and consumers, and rebalance global sustenance.


Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight. Global hunger and obesity are symptoms of the same problem and, what’s more, the route to eradicating world hunger is also the way to prevent global epidemics of diabetes and heart disease, and to address a host of environmental and social ills. Overweight and hungry people are linked through the chains of production that bring food from fields to our plate. Guided by the profit motive, the corporations that sell our food shape and constrain how we eat, and how we think about food. The limitations are clearest at the fast food outlet, where the spectrum of choice runs from McMuffin to McNugget. But there are hidden and systemic constraints even when we feel we’re beyond the purview of Ronald McDonald.

Even when we want to buy something healthy, something to keep the doctor away, we’re trapped in the very same system that has created our ‘Fast Food Nations’. Try, for example, shopping for apples. At supermarkets in North America and Europe, the choice is restricted to half a dozen varieties: Fuji, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and perhaps a couple of others. Why these? Because they’re pretty: we like the polished and unblemished skin. Because their taste is one that’s largely unobjectionable to the majority. But also because they can stand transportation over long distances. Their skin won’t tear or blemish if they’re knocked about in the miles from orchard to aisle. They take well to the waxing technologies and compounds that make this transportation possible and keep the apples pretty on the shelves. They are easy to harvest. They respond well to pesticides and industrial production. These are reasons why we won’t find Calville Blanc, Black Oxford, Zabergau Reinette, Kandil Sinap or the ancient and venerable Rambo on the shelves. Our choices are not entirely our own because, even in a supermarket, the menu is crafted not by our choices, nor by the seasons, nor where we find ourselves, nor by the full range of apples available, nor by the full spectrum of available nutrition and tastes, but by the power of food corporations.

The concerns of food production companies have ramifications far beyond what appears on supermarket shelves. Their concerns are the rot at the core of the modern food system. To show the systemic ability of a few to impact the health of the many demands a global investigation, travelling from the ‘green deserts’ of Brazil to the architecture of the modern city, and moving through history from the time of the first domesticated plants to the Battle of Seattle. It’s an enquiry that uncovers the real reasons for famine in Asia and Africa, why there is a worldwide epidemic of farmer suicides, why we don’t know what’s in our food any more, why black people in the United States are more likely to be overweight than white, why there are cowboys in South Central Los Angeles, and how the world’s largest social movement is discovering ways, large and small, for us to think about, and live differently with, food.

The alternative to eating the way we do today promises to solve hunger and diet-related disease, by offering a way of eating and growing food that is environmentally sustainable and socially just. Understanding the ills of the way food is grown and eaten also offers the key to greater freedom, and a way of reclaiming the joy of eating. The task is as urgent as the prize is great. In every country, the contradictions of obesity, hunger, poverty and wealth are becoming more acute. India has, for example, destroyed millions of tons of grains, permitting food to rot in silos, while the quality of food eaten by India’s poorest is getting worse for the first time since Independence in 1947. In 1992, in the same towns and villages where malnutrition had begun to grip the poorest families, the Indian government admitted foreign soft drinks manufacturers and food multinationals to its previously protected economy. Within a decade, India has become home to the world’s largest concentration of diabetics: people – often children – whose bodies have fractured under the pressure of eating too much of the wrong kinds of food. India isn’t the only home to these contrasts. They’re global, and they’re present even in the world’s richest country. In the United States in 2005, 35.1 million people didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. At the same time there is more diet-related disease like diabetes, and more food, in the US than ever before.

It’s easy to become inured to this contradiction; its daily version causes only mild discomfort, walking past the ‘homeless and hungry’ signs on the way to supermarkets bursting with food. There are moral emollients to balm a troubled conscience: the poor are hungry because they’re lazy, or perhaps the wealthy are fat because they eat too richly. This vein of folk wisdom has a long pedigree. Every culture has had, in some form or other, an understanding of our bodies as public ledgers on which is written the catalogue of our private vices. The language of condemnation doesn’t, however, help us understand why hunger, abundance and obesity are more compatible on our planet than they’ve ever been. Moral condemnation only works if the condemned could have done things differently, if they had choices. Yet the prevalence of hunger and obesity affect populations with far too much regularity, in too many different places, for it to be the result of some personal failing. Part of the reason our judgement is so out of kilter is because the way we read bodies hasn’t kept up with the times. Although it may once have been true, the assumption that to be overweight is to be rich no longer holds. Obesity can no longer be explained exclusively as a curse of individual aff luence. There are systemic features that make a difference. Here’s an example: many teenagers in Mexico, a developing country with an average income of US$6,000, are bloated as never before, even as the ranks of the Mexican poor swell. Individual wealth doesn’t explain why the children of some families are more obese than others: the crucial factor turns out not to be income, but proximity to the US border. The closer a Mexican family lives to its northern neighbours and to their sugar- and fat-rich processed food habits, the more overweight the family’s children are likely to be.2 That geography matters so much rather overturns the idea that personal choice is the key to preventing obesity or, by the same token, preventing hunger. And it helps to renew the lament of Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s late-nineteenth-century presidents and autocrats: ‘¡Pobre Mexico! Tan lejos de Dios; y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos’ (Poor Mexico: so far from God, so close to the United States).

A perversity of the way our food comes to us is that it’s now possible for people who can’t afford enough to eat to be obese. Children growing up malnourished in the favelas of São Paulo, for instance, are at greater risk from obesity when they become adults. Their bodies, broken by childhood poverty, metabolize and store food poorly. As a result, they’re at greater risk of storing as fat the (poor-quality) food that they can access.3 Across the planet, the poor can’t afford to eat well. Again, this is true even in the world’s richest country; and in the US, it’s children who will pay the price. One research team recently suggested that if consumption patterns stay the way they are, today’s US children will live five fewer years, because of the diet-related diseases to which they will be exposed in their lifetimes.

As consumers, we’re encouraged to think that an economic system based on individual choice will save us from the collective ills of hunger and obesity. Yet it is precisely ‘freedom of choice’ that has incubated these ills. Those of us able to head to the supermarket can boggle at the possibility of choosing from fifty brands of sugared cereals, from half a dozen kinds of milk that all taste like chalk, from shelves of bread so sopped in chemicals that they will never go off, from aisles of products in which the principal ingredient is sugar. British children are, for instance, able to select from twenty-eight branded breakfast cereals the marketing of which is aimed directly at them. The sugar content of twenty-seven of these exceeds the government’s recommendations. Nine of these children’s cereals are 40 per cent sugar. It’s hardly surprising, then, that 8.5 per cent of six-year-olds and more than one in ten fifteen-year-olds in the UK are obese. And the levels are increasing. The breakfast cereal story is a sign of a wider systemic feature: there’s every incentive for food producing corporations to sell food that has undergone processing which renders it more profitable, if less nutritious. Incidentally, this explains why there are so many more varieties of breakfast cereals on sale than varieties of apples.

There are natural limits to our choices. There are, for instance, only so many naturally occurring fruits, vegetables and animals that people are prepared to eat. But even here, a little advertising can persuade us to expand the ambit of our choices. Think of the kiwi fruit, once known as the Chinese gooseberry, but rebranded to accommodate Cold War prejudices by the New Zealand food company that marketed it to the world at the end of the 1950s. It’s a taste no-one had grown up with, but which now seems as if it has always been there. And while new natural foods are slowly added to our menus, the food industry adds tens of thousands of new products to the shelves every year, some of which become indispensable fixtures which, after a generation, make life unimaginable without them. It’s a sign of how limited our gastronomic imaginations can be. And also a sign that we’re not altogether sure how or where or why certain foods end up on our plate.



"Compelling. At first glance, Raj is another depressing voice in the chorus. But in traveling the world researching the book, he also found hope in international social movements working to create more democratic, sustainable, and joyful food systems."
—Mark Bittman, New York Times

"For anyone attempting to make sense of the world food crisis, or understand the links between U.S. farm policy and the ability of the world's poor to feed themselves, Stuffed and Starved is indispensable."
—Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma

“One of the most dazzling books I have read in a very long time. The product of a brilliant mind and a gift to a world hungering for justice.”
—Naomi Klein, author of No Logo

"Patel's broad treatment helps the layman connect the dots, as well as hear the voices of those who occupy the lower rungs of the global food chain."
Time Magazine

"A blistering indictment of the policies of multinational agribusiness conglomerates and charges that their drive for profit at any cost has left the developing world starving while wealthy countries like the United States are experiencing epidemic obesity rates and related health problems."

"For Patel, it is a short step from Western consumers 'engorged and intoxicated' with cheap processed food to Mexican and Indian farmers committing suicide because they can’t make a living. The 'food industry’s pabulum' makes us all cogs in an evil machine."
The New Yorker

"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."
The Guardian

"Stuffed and Starved remains a brilliant didactic account of the powerful interests (dis)organizing our food systems, and why, when food is an object of profit, there are no modern solutions to modern problems such as endemic hunger, ill-health and environmental degradation...Raj Patel’s unique sensibility and intelligence in evaluating grassroots alternatives provide a road map to understanding and changing the world through re-centering food as a cultural anchor rather than a product, especially at this moment of environmental uncertainty." —Philip David McMichael, author of Development and Social Change

"With its conversational tone, sense of humor, and real-life vignettes from the author's travels around the world, the book is accessible to general readers and will be as classroom-friendly as Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma." —Reference and Research Book News
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


 “For anyone attempting to make sense of the world food crisis, or understand the links between U.S. farm policy and the ability of the world’s poor to feed themselves, Stuffed and Starved is indispensable.” —Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma 


One billion people in the world are mal-nourished and almost twice that are overweight. In this updated paperback, UC Berkeley professor Raj Patel explains that the problem is not that the global food system doesn’t make enough to feed everyone, it’s that the priorities of consolidation and profit prevent justice for farmers and quality food for consumers. 

To find out how we got to this point and what we can do about it, Raj Patel launched a comprehensive investigation into the global food network. It took him from the colossal supermarkets of California to India’s wrecked paddy-fields and Africa’s bankrupt coffee farms, while along the way he ate genetically engineered soy beans and dodged flying objects in the protestor-packed streets of South Korea. What he found was shocking, from the false choices given us by supermarkets to a global epidemic of farmer suicides, and real reasons for famine in Asia and Africa. 

Yet he also found great cause for hope. Patel explains, from seed to store to plate, the steps to regain control of the global food economy, stop the exploitation of both farmers and consumers, and rebalance global sustenance. 


Raj Patel (rajpatel.org) is an author, journalist, and food policy expert who continuously challenges our presumptions about the global economy with his work both as a policy analyst and activist. Cuurently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies and a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, Patel has worked for the World Bank and the World Trade Organization and protested against them around the wold. 

In addition to numberous scholarly publications in economics, philosophy, politics and public health journals, he regularly writes for The Guardian and has contributed to the LA Times, NYTimes.com, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Observer. He is currently working on a documentary about the global food system with award-winning director Steve James. An engaging speaker, Patel rouses his audience through his highly pertinent discussions of globalization and the world’s food system. 


Chapter 1: Introduction 
1. Explain why the apparent choices that supermarkets present us with—whether it be varieties of apples, brands of cereal, or kinds of coffee—are not really our own. If the food we find there is not dictated by the consumer, the seasons, our locations or by the full range of foods, fruits, and vegetables available, explain how corporations the ones to be in control? (page 10) 
2. When children grow up malnourished, they have a greater risk of obesity when they become adults because their bodies metabolize and store food poorly. Can you suggest some solutions for this problem? (page 12) 
3. Why is it significant that we don’t know anything about the farmers who grow the crops for the foods we find at our supermarkets? What are some questions we could be asking if we want to be informed consumers? (page 16) 
4. Explain how the laws of supply and demand work for coffee growers like Lawrence Seguya, a coffee-grower in Uganda. (page 17) 
5. What does it mean when author Raj Patel says that “there’s a bottleneck in the [global food] distribution chain.” Examine the charts on page 21 (see below). Who is at the top? Who is at the bottom? How does the system work in terms of the concentration of power for the players involved? 
6. What are some of the ways that farmers and consumers are fighting back? (page 23) 

Chapter 2: A Rural Autopsy 
1. Why are farmers in India, Sri Lanka, East Asia, Astralia, and other countries committing suicide? (page 29) 
2. How are these terrible tragedies of the working poor and the struggles of women being written out of the story of poverty? (page 38) 
3. According to Patel, what are some reasons why inequality might continue to be a major problem in India? (page 41) 
4. Who was Lee Kyung Hae and how was he involved with the Koren producer’s movement? (page 43) 
5. Why can’t farmers pay their debts? (page 47) 
Chapter 3: You Have Become Mexican 

1) How has NAFTA effected Mexican farmers? (page 56) 
2) What does Patel mean by “creative destruction” and how does this notion affect the poor? (page 60) 
3) How has NAFTA and economic liberalization impacted migration? (page 69) 
4) Today Mexicans drink more Coca-Cola than milk. What are some other changes to the foods people eat as a result of NAFTA? (page 71) 
5) How did the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement in California organize grape growers in the 1960s? (page 77) 

Chapter 4: “Just a Cry for Bread” 
1) Why was tea such a popular drink in England starting in the mid-1600s? 
2) Where did the tea leaves come from and how did the global tea market work in terms of supply and demand? (page 88) 
3) What is Rhodes’ Conundrum? (92) 
4) How did the Marshall Plan influence the global food economy after WWII? What were the international and domestic worries about food surpluses in the US? (98) 
5) Why was the inclusion of agriculture a key addition when the World Trade Organization was launched in 1995? (104) 

Chapter 5: The Customer Is Our Enemy: A Brief Introduction to Food System Business 
1) You might think of the clothing store when you hear “Banana Republic,” but how does this term apply to countries in Central America and the Caribbean? (109) 
2) Explain how the concentration of market power in the food system (including seed supply companies and the packaged foods industry) has become a trend. (110) 
3) Why was the discovery of high fructose corn syrup in the 1970s a breakthrough that would change the lives of millions? (123) 

Chapter 6: Better Living through Chemistry
1) What was India’s “Green Revolution”? Would you say that it was successful or not? (page 134) 
2) The Indian state of Kerala opted for a political solution. What did they do and why does Patel say that this approach to agrarian change “seems to have had a more enduring impact than the Green Revolution”? (page 137) 
3) How will a “second Green Revolution” in India be based not on fertilizers and improved seed but on biotechnology? (page 141) 
4) What can engineered crops like Bt Cotton and the RoundUp-ready crops produced by the Monsonto Corporation promise to farmers? (page 143) 
5) How can the pesticide industry be compared to the software industry? (page 144) 
6) Describe some attempts to develop cros that will help the poor. (page 146) 
7) What are some problems with geneically modified crops? (page 148) 
8) How are agricultural biotechnology advances playing out in Africa and Cuba? (page 156) 

Chapter 7: Glycine Rex 
1) What is lecithin, one of the “secret ingredients” you’ll find in a chocolate bar? (page 174) 
2) Why did the popularity of soybeans reach a high point in the 1970s? (page 188) 
3) Who is Blairo Maggi and what influence did he have on Brazil’s soy boom? (page 195) 
4) What is the “sustainable soy” movement? (page 209) 
5) What is the Landless Rural Workers Movement (“Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra” (MST) in Portugese) and why has Noam Chomsky called it “the world’s most important social movement”? (page 211) 

Chapter 8: Checking Out of Supermarkets 
1) How did the “Self-Serving Store” patent influence the evolution of supermarkets in the US? (page 224) 
2) How is the consumer controlled and tracked in a supermarket? (page 230) 
3) What are some surprising facts about Walmart in this chapter? (page 237) 
4) How do systems like Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) or coops like The People’s Grocery in Oakland offer effective alternatives to supermarkets? (page 254) 

Chapter 9: Chosen by Bunnies
1) How does the history of the invention of food processing involve military conflicts? (page 261) 
2) What is the Slow Food Movement? (290) 
3) Analyze the chart on the next page. What are the consequences of cooking less in the home and spending less time preparing food? (page 292) 
4) What is “food sovereignty”? (page 297) 


Conclusion: Inside the Hourglass 

In this final section, Raj Patel offers ten ways that we can, as individuals, can begin to change state of the world’s food system. 

1) Transform our tastes—don’t eat processed food, eat slowly, prepare your own food, and savour it. 
2) Eat locally and seasonally. 
3) Eat agroecologically—try to eat food grown in harmony with its local environment, learn about your local environment and grow your own food. 
4) Support locally owned business. 
5) All workers have the right to dignity —freedom to organize and work without persecution. 
6) Profound and comprehensive rural change —build rural areas with economic opportunities and a quality of life that attracts families. 
7) Living wages for all. 
8) Support for a sustainable architecture of food—rethink open space and sprawl as we develop. 
9) Snapping the food system’s bottleneck— among other things, end subsidies to agribusiness, aggressively police their monopolies and tax processed food to a level where it reflects the harm it does. 
10) Owning and providing restitution for the injustices of the past and present—that rich countries of the Global North such as Britain forgive debts and pay reparations to countries exploited in the Global South. 


1) Which suggestions he gives do you think are most effective? 
2) Which are most imporatant? 
3) Are there any you disagree with? Explain your choices. Download a PDF of the Teacher's Guide

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