As we went around the table introducing ourselves we noted a major theme arising in our motivation to join the bookclub. We all joined to learn more about the entire food system, and how our college major or thesis work or personal background fits in. We are all students at UC Davis. Some of us are in graduate school, a couple of us are undergraduate students. We are studying things like global disease, animal science, cell biology, biochemistry, plant biology and plant breeding (with a minor in Spanish!). All subjects pertinent to the conversation of food on some level.
Following introductions and after establishing expectations of our discussions of Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved, we went to chapter 1: Introduction.
Chapter one lays the framework for the main issue Patel aims to breakdown in the remainder of the book: Why in a world where so many people (entire populations in fact) are overfed to the point of obesity are there people in other areas dying from starvation? Clearly there is a something wrong with the food system causing this discrepancy, right? At the very least something (or most likely, several things) is not working like it should. And how do we fix it?
Patel lays out the situation in terms that will bring you to tears, anger and frustrate you and, for me at least, make you feel tiny and insignificant in solving the apparent myriad of problems in our food system. You cannot read the first chapter without feeling something. Whether or not you agree with his verdicts and accusations against the causes of such food inequality, the first chapter reminds you that feeding people involves an intricate web of many industries, resources and people. But understanding is the first step in forming a solid game plan to solve a problem, even one as complicated and expansive as making sure everyone on Earth can get a nutritious meal.
It’s no coincidence that Patel chooses the coffee grower as his first example of a failing food system. Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world. I was drinking a corporate cup as I read this chapter (gasp). He chooses an evocative example of a food system issue, to which many of us can connect, in order to give us pause in examining how our role as consumer might be contributing to the problem. He wants this to be personal. And it is. We all need nutritious food to survive and lead long, healthy lives. And with scary statistics about farmer suicide rates, correlations between marketing strategies and increasing health concerns, rising undernourished populations in developing countries with climbing obesity percentages in developed nations, it’s difficult to ignore the possibility that the way in which we get our food might be causing harm to those who grow it.
With the stage set, Patel aims to explore and dissect the forces that shape the food system in order to get at the causes behind its major failings and offer potential ways out. He will take us from the farm to the distributor to the processing plant to the market and eventually to our plates.
As a bookclub, we will follow Patel through his logic, criticize his points, discuss our thoughts on his conclusions and report back here.
Next up, chapters 2 and 3…farmer suicides, NAFTA and California. It wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your knowledge of economics…