Stuffed and Starved makes sense of global capitalist food system

Stuffed and Starved. By Raj Patel. HarperCollins, 438 pp, $29.95, hardcover

On September 6, 1916, Tennessee retailer Clarence Saunders opened Piggly Wiggly, the world’s first self-serve supermarket, in Memphis. Within a decade, there were 1,200 of them across the United States.

On June 26, 1974, at a Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio, a package of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum was scanned at a checkout, becoming the first item in grocery-store history to have its price tallied from a bar code.

In 2004, when Hurricane Ivan started lurching towards the Florida coast, Wal-Mart’s command centre knew exactly what it had to do: flood its Gulf states’ inventories with Kellogg’s strawberry Pop-Tarts.

These three apparently disparate events are milestones in the emergence of a monopolistic global system of food acquisition, distribution, and marketing that has created a surreal and unjust world of manufactured desires, grotesquely impoverished agricultural societies, and legions of obese people.

So writes Raj Patel in Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System, and he makes a fairly convincing case, although in an unfortunately meandering sort of way. The dust jacket describes the book as written “in the style of No Logo”, Naomi Klein’s 2000 anticorporate manifesto. And so it is. This is its strength and its weakness.

Patel, a smart young economist who divides his time between the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and the University of California at Berkeley, expends far too much effort establishing the familiar hierarchy of virtue established by Klein and her imitators: campesinos and peasants of the “Global South” at the top, villains of the World Trade Organization and shadowy American architects of free-trade deals at the bottom.

Still, Stuffed and Starved is accessible and breezy, and Patel makes clear sense of the weird hourglass shape the global capitalist food system has taken on, with its unseemly concentration of money and power in the wholesale corporate bottleneck, and the rest of us, the masses of producers and consumers, relegated to the margins.

The trick is to reshape the thing, and here, Patel leaves one a bit hungry. He does offer some good advice, though. Buy local. Buy seasonal. Buy fair. But perhaps most importantly, think carefully about how your tastes and desires are being shaped by the market.