Battle cry, not a playbook

I’m behind! We just wrapped up our first book club reading Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel. Instead of writing individual posts I opted to write one final summary of my take on our discussions guided by the author’s main points.

After finishing the book we were left with one overarching thought: There is more to the food system than meets the eye. And it’s not all about feeding people. For better or worse, the food system is a market just like any other and is, therefore, vulnerable to economic shifts, politics and even social upheaval. Mr. Patel argues that food and the way it is produced, distributed and marketed to consumers underpins all of those things and is, in fact, used as a social and economic tool.

In the book, Mr. Patel tells a story about greed, power, money and the role the food system has played throughout history in setting up and perpetuating inequality. This is a story dating back to the days of European colonization of lands around the world, bringing foreign agriculture and social systems with them. In this context, settler colonies are something to be abhorred. Patel purports that exploring new worlds was more about expanding influence both economically and socially around the world by pre-emptively removing any possibility of commercial competition. What they found was land well suited for farming and people to farm it. Through slave labor, the colonists “extracted food resources” from these lands to feed the working class of Britain. Because a fed lower class is a passive one, the power hierarchy remains intact. And if there’s anything those in power want, it’s to remain in power. And consumers, without seeing the human toll in producing cheap food and faced with economic realities of their own, keep consuming along market trends. It is easy to see how this system is perpetuated. This is a theme Mr. Patel continues to weave throughout the book with example after example of how the food system fails us and our humanity.

And I’m not in a position to disagree entirely. It’s impossible to read these heartbreaking narratives and not feel anger and deep frustration that this is what the food system is, guilt for my role in it, and incredibly small in trying to fix it. This was the intended result. Stuffed and Starved is a battle cry, not a playbook. It reads like a call to action rather than a full, unbiased autopsy of what went wrong. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect it to be. I imagine that a report of the problems would be rather boring in comparison. Storytelling is powerful. We’re also told in science communication to tell stories complete with characters and plot. And it’s our job as scientists sharing our work to put those elements to work for truth with the hope that they emphasize not embellish. Reading Patel’s book as a student of science, there were many times I saw embellishment rather than emphasis.

Specifically, I have issue with the motivations he ascribes to the agents of food inequality. He paints a picture of the food executive or the produce distributor knowingly raping the soil of resources over here where labor is oppressively cheap, in order to feed, but mostly pacify, an affluent society over there. Images of hand wringing and the sound of evil cackling come to mind. While in some cases that may be more true than not I, perhaps idealistically, don’t think a person can knowingly doom an entire population to starvation and poverty. He makes it clear that there are bad and good people in his examples when in reality I think the situation is much more nuanced. You might argue that nuance doesn’t matter when the effect is people dying from starvation and obesity. You might be right but I think that if we want to really understand what is going on in the food system and more importantly, how to fix it, we need to see it for what it is. All the gray areas included. If it were really as simple as rooting out the bad guys then let’s get to it…but my gut tells me it isn’t.

Additionally, while I am certainly not equipped to argue the finer economic points of Mr. Patel’s assertions and illustrations, I can say something about the science. Most of this discussion happens in Chapter 6, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

If you’ve followed the talk around biotech (and GMOs) for any amount of time you already know what Mr. Patel is going to say about it. The whole thing is another scam designed to hold agricultural technology over the heads of the poorest populations on Earth in an attempt to keep them under the thumbs of the powerful (the global North, as Patel calls it). He brings up the suicide rate amongst farmers in India, a widely debunked cause and one that distracts from the real underlying causes; terminator seeds, an uncommercialized piece of technology created to protect intellectual property; and even touts golden rice as nothing but a useless ploy so biotech executives could feel good about themselves while solving nothing…or ya know, maybe not. Perhaps biotech executives, not having any expertise in solving the economic structure that prevents the poor from being able to afford a balanced diet, decided to try to alleviate the immediate crisis of children going blind and dying by doing something they do know how to do: engineer an essential vitamin into the food they have access to. And of course the most irritating and incorrect assertion of them all: that GM crops are not tested for environmental and health safety. They most definitely are.

(For a more detailed analysis of the inaccuracies in chapter 6 read this letter to the campus book project committee written by two UC Davis Biotechnology experts.)

These are the quintessential examples often cherry-picked from the debate and then used to paint a terrifying and terrible view of biotechnology. And something that should be particularly enlightening is the fact that this is not the story you hear from those who directly interact with and are impacted by biotechnology–farmers,

But it goes even further. Biotechnology, according to Patel, doesn’t just stop at the marketplace. Biotechnology is out to control the most precious of tools–knowledge. The section where he claims that biotechnology has changed the way science is conducted in academia is short but frightening. It’s a story accusation I’ve heard several times being a graduate student studying plants at a big research focused university. Sometimes it seems that you’re not really a plant scientist until you’ve been asked who pays you to say positive things about genetic engineering.

Patel asserts that industry influence (money) has changed the very questions we ask in the academic lab. I’ve been at UC Davis for 5 and a half years and I don’t see it. Yes, there is industry money funding projects on campus (including one in my lab) but it would be a disservice to science, the university, and to the biotech industry if that money came with intellectual strings. That’s why it doesn’t. The assertion that academic scientists are bought by industry is upsetting for several reasons, the main two being that it erodes public trust in academic science at a time when it is needed most and that scientific results change depending on funding sources. If I thought this were true and saw evidence of this embedded in university research systematically, I would not be at UC Davis training to become a scientist myself.

Mr. Patel visited UC Davis a couple weeks ago to give a public lecture. I asked him if he thought he was undermining trust in academic science with these assertions in his book. He didn’t exactly back down on the point but instead explained that disclosure of funding sources and peer-review is how scientists can be transparent and their results held accountable. Besides not really answering my question, he must have forgotten that these two things already happen. Funding sources are listed at the end of every research article and peer-review is the foundation of any reputable scientific study. Without it and your results amount to not much more than jargon-filled gossip.

Then it got weirder. As I was listening to his response I got frustrated at how obvious his statements were (see my above point about peer-review). My body language illustrated my frustration. And with a wave of my hand, which from the stage I can only guess must have looked dismissive, he jumped to the conclusion that I have a disregard for peer-review (I don’t) and that I probably shouldn’t be in science or at UC Davis if I held such views. …That escalated quickly. I’ve had my fair share of imposter syndrome in grad school but all in all, I think I’m where I’m supposed to be. So I got angry.

But I had a chance to explain myself in the lobby. He penned an apology in the front cover of my copy of his book while lightly questioning me about whether or not I see evidence of industry influencing academic research. I rebutted. He smiled and shook my hand while the next person in line handed him a book to sign. I’m sure I didn’t change his mind but I was glad I got to explain myself. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I have to defend my chosen career.

In summary, there is no question that the food system is flawed. Deeply. It’s not working for everyone. And there must be reasons for this. Some of which are probably in Stuffed and Starved, but I will caution anyone who picks it up to not get lost in the imagery and pathos of Patel’s argument. The effects of a broken food system are devastating to be sure, certainly meriting the feelings of anger and frustration and sadness evoked in reading Patel’s words. But I think that if we are to ever reach and accomplish the solutions Patel lays out in his final chapter, we must first stop demonizing entire sectors of modern life. In my view, we all want the same things: Equal access to nutritious foods produced sustainably and humanely. This is the common ground and I am happy to share it with Patel even if I disagree with some of his points. It’s clear that with as many people as there are to feed, it will take many people from many different areas and disciplines to fix the food system.

I will say that after finishing the book I am more aware of my role in the food system as a student of plant science but also as a consumer. And as frustrating as reading parts of the book were, I think I’m a more conscientious consumer having read how food can be much more than just food. His point that the way to create positive change in the food system is through examining the economic and political structures that underpin it is a valid one, but I think science has a major role to play in solving these problems too. Don’t write me and my career out of the fray. Let me use my abilities to help.

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Thanks for reading along with us. Stay tuned for future book club meetings! Email me (Destiny Davis, desdavis@ucdavis.edu) if you’re interested in leading a book discussion or to get on the email list for updates.

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