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This interview with Raj Patel, award-winning writer, activist and academic, was originally featured as a two part series on Nourishing the Planet.

Name: Raj Patel

Affiliation: Visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First.

Location: San Francisco

Bio: Raj Patel has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and protested against them around the world. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he regularly writes for The Guardian, and has contributed to the LA Times,, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mail on Sunday, and The Observer. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and most recently, The Value of Nothing.

Can you please explain the concept of food sovereignty, and what policies and programs will help encourage it?

Food sovereignty is about communities’, states’ and unions’ rights to shape their own food and agricultural policy. Now that may sound like a whole lot of nothing, because you’re actually not making a policy demand, you’re just saying that people need to be able to make their own decisions. But, actually, that’s a huge thing. Because in general, particularly for smaller farmers in developing countries, and particularly for women, decisions about food and agricultural policy have never been made by them. They’ve always been imposed.

That’s why La Via Campesina, the organization that really invented the term, says that one of the visions behind food sovereignty is that food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women. That may sound something not at all to do with food, but of course, if we’re serious about people being able to make choices about how their food comes to them and what the food system looks like, then the physical and the structural violence to which women are exposed in the home, in the economy and in society, all need to be tackled. Otherwise we will continue with a situation in which 60 percent of the people going hungry today are women or girls. So food sovereignty, to boil it down, is really about power – who has it in the food system, and how to redistribute it so that those who have concentrated it, have it taken away from them.

In terms of specific policies, what Via Campesina are calling for is for agriculture to be removed from the World Trade Organization, which is a way again in which local countries’ sovereignty is already been given away. They also call for large corporations to be booted out of agriculture. There’s strong opposition to Monsanto for example, and the way that they’ve been behaving in many developing countries, and many Via Campesina members are campaigning against Monsanto in their home countries.

Will another Green Revolution or more food subsidies help reduce hunger?

To answer the question, let’s look at Malawi. It’s the poster child for what a new green revolution in Africa might look like, with widespread subsidies of inorganic fertilizer for farmers. When I went there, late last year, what you found was long lines at the gasoline pump, because all Malawi’s foreign exchange had been spent on importing this fossil fuel-based fertilizer. The country had bankrupted itself in order that it might be a showcase for the new green revolution in Africa. And of course, there are alternatives right there in Malawi, driven by farmers – invariably by women who are innovating around sustainable systems like poly-culture – growing lots of crops simultaneously together, building soil fertility for the long run.

What this shows is that there are some basic incompatibilities between varieties of ways of addressing agrarian problems in Africa. Some organizations, Worldwatch included, adopt a ‘big tent’ approach, in which solutions that keep the status quo but improve it marginally sit alongside far more radical approaches. Ultimately, you can’t promote genetically modified monoculture or techniques that make large-scale commercial farming less destructive at the same time as wanting something like food sovereignty, which calls for much more of a deeper structural rethink of the way the food system operates. Food sovereignty is about democracy in our food system so that everyone gets to eat – industrial agriculture involves a food system run by technocrats for profit. At the end of the day, you can have one or the other –not both.

How does global agricultural policy affect small-scale farmers across the world?

In general the policies foisted on developing countries through organizations like the World Bank is that large scale agriculture is the way to go: that small farmers are a relic of the past. They are of purely cultural significance but economically, socially, and agriculturally, they stand in the way of development. So the policies that are essentially designed to increase farm size and kick off rural populations to the cities are ones that you see in pretty much every country around the world. And yet of course, it is the poor in rural communities that are being forced to bear the brunt of these policies and these are the communities that are least able to afford it. And again – you can never say it too often – it is on women’s shoulders that the bulk of the pain of moving from agrarian society to a so-called modern industrial society one, falls.

Why should American food consumers care about the fate of agricultural producers halfway across the world?

Not out of any sense of pity or charity, but because the struggle that farmers in developing countries face are very similar to the struggles that farmers in the United States face. Industrial agriculture wreaks havoc. We’ve seen the deaths from E. coli, we’ve seen industrial agriculture and the rise of BSE, we’ve seen the massive dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico because of the run-off from animal feeding operations flowing down the Mississippi. If you’re in America and you’re concerned about the quality or safety of your food, or about the consequences of the way your food is produced, then you’re not alone. Those are all things that farmers elsewhere in the world are worried about, and that consumers elsewhere in the world are worried about too.

There’s a proven way in which those concerns can be addressed. It is to wrench power away from the corporations that profit from low standards, from the ability to off-shore pollution, and the ability to evade the costs of defective products. So I think in the US, if you’re at all concerned about food safety, health, obesity – any of these things, then you would want to have more control of your food system. And wanting more control over your food system is exactly what food sovereignty is about. In a globalised world, you can’t have control over your food system in this country while people elsewhere don’t, and this is what makes it a common struggle.

Funding for agricultural research has declined in recent decades. Where should funding for agricultural innovation and research come from?

Funding for agriculture ought to come from the places where research used to come from: the government. I don’t have any stars in my eyes when I think about governments in developing countries having a ton of cash in their coffers for research into this. But governments that are net food importing developing countries, found themselves after the last food crisis in very dark times. They’re keen to develop new ways of doing things. A lot of these countries haven’t had the money to be able to invest in agricultural extension and research, and so what we need are two things: One is a cancellation of the illegitimate debt that these countries have racked up with organizations like the World Bank. There’s a huge debt that rich countries owe poor ones – for colonialism, for the ecological damage we have caused and continue to cause by the way we consume. Yet through the World Bank, the debt has been flipped over, and has become an agent for controlling these economies.

So we definitely need a change in the way international development and finance work, but we also need to support change within developing countries so that agricultural extension becomes something that once again is funded and is geared towards the kinds of research that is about low-carbon, that is about democratic control over resources, rather than about pushing a particular kind of product and particular kind of vision of agriculture that is ultimately unsustainable for the majority of countries in Africa.

To learn more about food sovereignty and fair trade, see Depending on A Global Workforce,  In a Global Food System: Breaking Down Barriers and Improving Livelihoods for Food Workers and Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Raj Patel for allowing us to profile him on the Nourishing the Planet blog. We’re a big fan of his work with Food First and promoting food sovereignty. While we’re grateful to Raj for highlighting the importance of protecting the livelihoods of millions of farmers all over the world, we would like to respectfully disagree with his suggestion above that Worldwatch has promoted "genetically modified monoculture" systems. Worldwatch has a long history of writing about sustainable agriculture systems that encourage crop diversity and support the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, including our early writing on the local food movement in Brian Halweil’s book, Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Solutions in a Global Supermarket; our first-hand reporting in 2001 on why genetically modified crops are not necessarily the best, or most appropriate, or only available solution to agricultural challenges; and Danielle Nierenberg’s writing on the spread of factory farming into the developing world and how it could be stopped in Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry.

This blog has taken a "big tent" approach, so to speak, in that we’ve featured many voices as we scour Africa for examples of farmers, scientists, politicians and others doing great work. This doesn’t mean we think all solutions are equally worthy of attention or support. In fact, we have tried to make clear in our posts that we think current investments in agricultural development are irrationally skewed towards crop breeding and big infrastructure projects, like dams for irrigation. Many of the innovations we have profiled—from low-cost ways to cut waste in the food system, to mixed-cropping systems with livestock, to farmer-organized marketing and research cooperatives—aren’t making "large-scale commercial farming less destructive," as Raj writes. But, used widely, they could change the very structure of the food economies throughout the world. And that’s what will successfully eliminate hunger and poverty.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty.  She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Burkina Faso next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.  

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on  Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates.  Also, please don’t hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you.

Originally posted to BorderJumpers on Fri Jul 09, 2010 at 06:52 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Another great diary. I'm always so interested (9+ / 0-)

    to learn about those that care and have progressive ideas are watching over developing countries.  I get concerned about the effect of American corporations.  This gives me hope.  

    Dear Father, hear and bless the beings of the sea and singing birds; and guard with tenderness small things that have no words. ~A child's prayer

    by ParkRanger on Fri Jul 09, 2010 at 07:10:49 AM PDT

  •  one of the best in the series (8+ / 0-)

    I am truly fascinated about Patel's works, actually interested to obtain his books.   He neatly ties so many important ideas together.  Food security is often overlooked in the US, we ignore the problem of hunger here, we think its someone else's problem, in other parts of the world.   But food on the table/mat anywhere is a major driving force in existence.   One of the great differences in the US now vs. the Great Depression is access to inexpensive locally grown food.  It makes us less secure.

    In so many parts of Africa and Asia, etc., its a major driving force behind violence, towards women, the cause of wars.  

    Thanks again for such a valuable series.

  •  So much info! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Unduna, Dar Nirron, BorderJumpers, Joieau

    I just found Raj Patel's name written on one of my many little scraps paper in a pile of "people to follow".
    I think I saw him on Bill Moyer's show. This is a good reminder for me to keep up with him and you've given me more names for more scraps of paper. Thanks.

    Tracy B Ann - technically that is my signature.

    by ZenTrainer on Fri Jul 09, 2010 at 07:20:34 AM PDT

  •  A goldmine of a diary (5+ / 0-)

    Thanks for writing about this in plain language and in great detail.  It was an excellent read.

    I have been thinking a lot about changing structures of things, rather than just changing "things" lately.
    This leaped off the page at me:

    What this shows is that there are some basic incompatibilities between varieties of ways of addressing agrarian problems in Africa. Some organizations, Worldwatch included, adopt a ‘big tent’ approach, in which solutions that keep the status quo but improve it marginally sit alongside far more radical approaches. Ultimately, you can’t promote genetically modified monoculture or techniques that make large-scale commercial farming less destructive at the same time as wanting something like food sovereignty, which calls for much more of a deeper structural rethink of the way the food system operates

    The idea of tackling a problem holistically -  assessing the problem, figuring out what result you want, and discarding actions that may seem to be "improvements" but don't achieve your goals..this is an important idea which can be applied to many of our goals.

  •  Really important stuff - thanks for posting (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Unduna, BorderJumpers, Joieau

    I added eKos to your tags so you'll get more reads.  The diary will also show up on the list in the next Earthship.

    Tipped and recced.

  •  Once again, thank you so much. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BorderJumpers, Joieau

    This is one of the best in your series.

    One obvious point, that doesn't seem to get highlighted very often in these discussions, is that most communities used to have effective local agriculture. In many instances, all across the globe, the US included, we simply need to return to what we used to do.

    A return to rice patties in the Mountain Province and lowlands of the Philippines, for instance. The fact that Filipinos are now importing their rice is simply insane. They don't need research - they just need to listen, and remember, and start again.

    Excellent diary, guys. Thanks so much.

    "In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder, a secret order." Carl Jung

    by Unduna on Fri Jul 09, 2010 at 08:33:14 AM PDT

  •  Great Post. (3+ / 0-)

    We get a system that is against small farmers in this country.  Monsanto just paid a $2.4 million dollar fine for selling mislabeled genetically modified cottonseed to 10 counties in the Texas over the last few years.  I have no doubt they did this on purpose.

    Big ag does not like the attention the USDA is giving to alternative agriculture now.  Their farm state senators are making a ruckas with Vilasak.

  •  Point of Info: World Bank advocates family farms (6+ / 0-)

    Thanks for another informative diary and the explanation of food sovereignty.  

    I just wanted to point out what I think is an overstatement or error in Mr. Patel's interview.  He said:

    In general the policies foisted on developing countries through organizations like the World Bank is that large scale agriculture is the way to go: that small farmers are a relic of the past. They are of purely cultural significance but economically, socially, and agriculturally, they stand in the way of development. So the policies that are essentially designed to increase farm size and kick off rural populations to the cities are ones that you see in pretty much every country around the world.

    I know the World Bank (and IMF) are easy targets, but they are much more complicated than their stereotype, especially the former.  I would note that the leading critic of globalization and a hero of many on the left who oppose it in its current form, is Joe Stiglitz who wrote Globalization and its Discontents.  

    Stiglitz was chief economist for the World Bank at the time.  One of his main complaints was that the World Bank had bound itself to follow the policy guidelines of the IMF, which at the time, under Camdessus was extremely reactionary and economically destructive.

    But it's important to keep in mind that both institutions were founded by the 20th century's greatest liberal economist, John Maynard Keynes, and the IMF was hijacked for a long period around the age of Thatcher and Reagan through the Clinton years.

    But they are not inherently reactionary institutions.  Today, the IMF is headed by a French Socialist.

    As for the WB's agricultural policy, when I was doing a lot of southern African and Chinese agricultural policy analysis in the mid to late 90s, I read a lot of the material coming out of the Bank.

    Their main policy recommendation, which they repeated like a mantra, was that in no country, and in no economy, has it every been demonstrated that there is any scale of agriculture more efficient than the family farm.  

    The Bank argued that all advantages of larger scale farming was a result of "rent seeking" behavior (kind of like corruption) or transactions costs.  They therefore advocated the break up of large scale farms into family farms -- in other words, land redistribution.

    The main person making this argument was the economist in charge of their agricultural policy unit, Dr. Hans Binswanger.  

    The Bank is not "one thing."  It's more like a university with lots of different units pursuing various goals and policies, and it's true that the financing arm funded large scale agri-business projects when developing country governments asked for such funding.

    But I think it would be a huge overstatement to say that the Bank advocated that "large scale agriculture is the way to go: that small farmers are a relic of the past."

    Here's an example of the World Bank's view of family farms:

    Power, distortions, revolt, and reform in agricultural land relations

       * Binswanger, Hans P.,
       * Deininger, Klaus,
       * Feder, Gershon

    Most work on the relationship between farm size and productivity strongly suggests that farms that rely mostly on family labor are more productive than large farms operated primarily by hired labor. This study began as an inquiry into how rental and sales markets for agricultural land in the developing world affect efficiency and equity. What emerged was the clear sense that great variations in land relations around the world and over time cannot be understood in the common paradigm of property rights and competitive markets. Under that paradigm, land scarcity leads to better definition of rights, which are thentraded in sales and rental markets accessible equally to all players. The outcome should be the allocation of land to the most efficient uses and users, yet this rarely happens. Instead, land rights and ownership tend to grow out of power relationships. Landowning groups have used coercion and distortions in land, labor, credit, and commodity markets to extract economic rents from the land, from peasants and workers, and most recently from urban consumer groups or taxpayers. Such rent-seeking activities reduce the efficiency of resource use, retard growth, and increase the poverty of the rural population. The authors examine how these power relations emerged and what legal means enabled relatively few landowners to accumulate and hold on to large landholdings...

    more at linke

    •  Thank you for adding this information. I (4+ / 0-)

      knew a very progressive politician who worked for the World Bank insuring development money was available for small landholders and marketing infrastructure while also working on larger scale ag development projects in Central and South America.

      "Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied." Friar Lawrence, Romeo and Juliet

      by the fan man on Fri Jul 09, 2010 at 08:59:35 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Sane central ag planning (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cassandra Waites, HamdenRice

      is necessary, but in this country has turned into an enforced cash cow for Monsanto [et al.], ADM, Cargill, etc. Big monoculture agribiz hogs the great majority of subsidies, growing things people don't eat (including many GE cultivars not even approved for human consumption), while crops people do eat tend to be isolated also to agribiz in a few states. Food processing is energy-intensive and resource wasteful, delivering (after more subsidies for transportation energy usage) super-packaged foods with little to no actual nutritional value that often can kill short term or long term.

      We also need serious local/regional planning, from committees of extension agents and their land grant institutions, local farmers and producers, and local consumers. Re-educate ourselves and go back to providing for ourselves that which connects us to our planet and our own communities.

      Heck, there are many men and women in the two generations behind mine (Boomer here) who don't have the foggiest idea how to cook real food and have never really tried! They subsist on fast food and junk, then spend thousands a year to not control their weight with diets and gym exercise. Dumb. My kids' and grandkids' friends come over and see my abundant organic garden and express amazement that food actually CAN grow on trees (and out of the ground). Then I feed them and they act like they've never had real food with real flavor before. That's tragic.

      Now, more than ever, we need the Jedi.

      by Joieau on Fri Jul 09, 2010 at 10:10:17 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  An avid urban gardener here too (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Cassandra Waites, Joieau

        I live in an outer borough of New York (Queens) and in my tiny backyard grow raspberries and blackberries (heck -- they're practically a weed that has taken over!), tomatoes, cukes, squash, herbs, arugula, lettuce, collards, etc., although this year and last year, the weather has been awful compared to other years.  

        I grew up in NYC, but my grandparents were farmers I visited every summer and it's amazing to me that many younger people have no connection to the animals -- the flock of chickens we fed every morning, the hogs in the pig pen in the woods behind the house, the big old plow horse, etc., that made our food possible.  I guess my experience with my grandparents is why as a city kid, I ended up spending a part of my career in agricultural policy focusing on small scale farmers.

        The US is really much worse off than many other countries because of the iron grip big ag has on us, the lack of interest among young people in small scale farming, and the general lack of understanding most people younger than boomer age have of where food actually comes from.

        •  The absolute Poster Child (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Cassandra Waites, HamdenRice

          of our cultural disconnect is to me the fact that people buy water in half-liter plastic bottles for a buck or more and believe it makes them cool.

          If their tap water is bad, it's highly likely that chemical ag made it bad. But getting your daily super-dose of plastic chemicals in that ridiculous landfill-buster bottle makes the bottled water as bad as the tap water for messing with hormones and turning male fish female.

          P.T. Barnum was right... a sucker IS born every minute!

          Now, more than ever, we need the Jedi.

          by Joieau on Fri Jul 09, 2010 at 11:02:09 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Another take on fertilizer use, from African (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    HamdenRice, Joieau

    Studies Quarterly, written about 1999:

    ... Africa has to have more fertilizer use and the only way to promote fertilizer use is to subsidize it.  Part of the problem, however, is that fertilizer subsidies have not been supplemented by government investments in infrastructure, institutions, and policies that permanently reduce farm level fertilizer prices (e.g., reducing transportation costs and increasing efficiency in the input and output markets).  It is both more equitable and efficient to use scarce development resources to reduce or eliminate these constraints to the wider use of fertilizer.  Fertilizer subsidies should be conditioned on investments that reduce the structural impediments to increased fertilizer use in the future.

    At the same time, there is a certain degree of ambivalence on the whole subsidy issue.  Eventually the question comes up, "what are the tradeoffs"?  If government uses its scarce development resources to subsidize fertilizer in the short run, it has to be at the expense of longer term investments that eventually would lower fertilizer costs.  What we as economists can contribute to this debate is to look carefully at the tradeoffs and estimate just how much long-term physical infrastructure versus how much of the domestic fertilizer industry can and should government subsidize.  How much agricultural research can government provide if it is also subsidizing short-term fertilizer benefits that nobody would pay for privately?

    According to the paper's authors, (which discussed Malawi specifically) both chem and green fertilizers were needed in many areas, but little formal application of this approach had been tried. Moving back to traditional crop varieties and green manure (animal manure was no longer an option) resulted in 1/3 less production per hectare. There wasn't enough ag education to make effective use of either green and chem approaches. There were also gender differences in fertilizer use, men using chem for cash crops, women using green for food crops, but not using them correctly.

    I enjoy Raj's rhetoric and his deep understanding of the structural problems of ag policy, but he, like many advocates, throw out the baby with the bathwater when discussing restructuring agriculture. I think he is 100% wrong arguing against "big tent" approaches.  We are going to need a bioregion specific "best practices" manual that embraces all best methods that traditional, modern ecoag and modern chem/gm bio ag has to offer. BJ's discussion of farmer to farmer mentoring will be a key component of this transition.

    "Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied." Friar Lawrence, Romeo and Juliet

    by the fan man on Fri Jul 09, 2010 at 09:37:59 AM PDT

    •  Agree -- let's not reinvent the wheel in Africa (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      the fan man

      I'm always a little puzzled by the insistence that chemical fertilizer not be a part of ag development in Africa.  

      The green revolution wheel was invented and applied primarily in Asia and the increases in productivity are well documented.  These techniques involved new hybrid varieties (not GM, hybrids) and fertilizer, and as you point out, education through ag extension services.

      The green revolution has barely been applied in most of Africa, and most experiments show that if applied, there would be big increases in yields.  That includes chem fertilizers.  Compared to the 60s, I think I agree with the interviewee that we now know that green manuring, inter-cropping and other greener techniques can help a lot, but writing off chem fertilizer seems like trying to avoid recognizing that the wheel was invented.

      I also read sometimes that we don't have enough oil for chem fertilizer.  This actually misunderstands where chem fertilizer comes from.  It actually is manufactured from natural gas, not petroleum oil, and there is a lot of natural gas available, and there will be even more available as we figure out ways to recapture waste gas.  The reason it seems like there's a shortage of gas is that because it substitutes for oil in things like electric power production, it's price varies with oil.  But if there were effective market interventions, there's no reason to believe that we're going to run out of chem based fertilizer any time soon.

  •  Who ain't interested in quality food? (0+ / 0-)

    Great diary. Although the last time I actually set foot on a farm was back in the 4th grade this is a subject I think about often. Damn near every day. We get our food (like we get everything else) from countries (and companies) that have zero concern for our health or the quality of the products they export to the U.S. of A. When I buy bananas or veggies I wonder aloud, "where did these come from?" And, which "Health Inspectors" looked the other way to get it into the country? I know Wally World don't give a flip where they get their produce from - or how they get it to their doors. Just that it gets there at "Always Low Prices." Well, I suspect we get what we pay for. I'll be reading that blog. Thanks.

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