Meeting #2: Chapters 2 and 3

In chapters 2 and 3 we continue working our way through the food chain from farmer to consumer.  We start by examining the farmer. In these chapters, Patel walks us through different scenarios involving farmers in countries Patel calls the “global south”. We are introduced to the plight of the rural farmer in India, Mexico and Korea as examples of the widespread failure to protect and uplift our growers around the world. Particular emphasis (and criticism) is placed on the trade and economic connections between these countries and the economic powers-that-be like the World Bank.

We began the discussion with farmers, the vice of globalization and government inattentiveness that squeezes them.  While capitalism and the pursuit of profit can send many into poverty traps, Patel notes how governments often share the blame in creating them.  Particularly, when governments manipulate statistics (which the Indian government did and does to, as Utsa Patinik says, abolish the poor when convenient) to give the illusion of prosperity or fails to shield losers in the game of international trade, the government becomes complicit in the plight of its most helpless people. This is a point that Patel drives home repeatedly with examples from all over the globe.

NAFTA proved a particularly good example of a government failing its people in the eyes of Patel. Patel (and perhaps more notably prominent members of the current political climate…ahem, Trump) harshly criticizes NAFTA, saying that it pits “the livelihood of Mexico’s poorest against the most productive and highly subsidized agricultural sectors in the world” (that of its northern neighbor). Because of the heavy corn subsidies in the US, Mexican corn farmers are unable to compete in the now shared market. This is a problem that was exacerbated by Mexico’s decision to devalue the peso soon after NAFTA took effect. The combination tore through Mexican society and sent a surge of Mexicans from a now bankrupt countryside into cities and into the United States.

In this mode of trade agreements, the consumer benefits while the producer suffers as the price of goods fall. Patel argues that this is particularly problematic in agriculture where most of the producers are poorer than their customers. The overall effect of these trade agreements and without any protection of poor, rural farmers against shifting markets, is increased inequality around the world.

In addition to economic perils, Patel addresses the shifting diets of populations in the global south stemming from globalization and trade. In particular, he discussed the effect of Walmart spreading south of the border into Mexico and the bulging waistbands that came with the move. Patel argues that with Walmart came more processed food, which in turn altered the diet of Mexicans for the worse causing a surge in obesity and other health issues, especially for those living near the US border.

Our main take-away from these two chapters is mostly how little we all know about economics and the intricacies within. Every “fix” seems to create new issues with unforeseen consequences (exactly how unforeseen they are is something about which Patel might argue with us). It helps to take a broad view of the roles things like trade has in agriculture. Patel also urges us to recognize that social issues play an important role in economics and trade at the same time that they are shaped by economics.

In the next two chapters we will explore more deeply how international trade in agriculture has shaped cultures around the world and how food was (and is, Patel would argue) used as a tool by those in political power.

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