Utne Reader Visionaries share their latest projects, ideas, and visions for the future.
Raj Patel is a writer, academic, and activist. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, and the New York Times and international bestseller, The Value of Nothing. He has also published widely in the academic press, with articles in peer-reviewed philosophy, politics, sociology, science, and economics journals. Patel is currently working on Generation Food, a multimedia project about reinventing our global food system. He was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2009.
When it comes to feeding the world, most of us support the idea. We are taught from a young age that if someone is hungry it’s our moral duty to feed them, whether they live down the street or in another country. For decades, agriculture companies have used the noble goal of “feeding the world” to increase yields by any means possible, from genetic modification to the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This logic has justified ecological destruction from prairies to rainforests. It has wreaked havoc on indigenous and small-farming communities. And with 870 million chronically undernourished people on earth right now, it has failed to get food to the people who need it most.
Instead of a fed planet, we have monoculture farms, poisons on food, and toxic runoff in our land and water. Into our air, the global agriculture industry emits about 14 percent of total greenhouse gases, according to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). If we include agricultural deforestation, that number jumps to 27.5 percent. “[I]t’s impossible,” writes CGIAR, “to address climate issues without including agriculture—and vice versa.”
Fortunately, real solutions aren’t difficult to imagine. Raj Patel interviewed one Wisconsin farmer, Jim Goodman, who seems to have a lot of this figured out.
In the first minute-and-a-half, Goodman tackles climate change, the politics of feeding the planet, the risks of monoculture and globalization, the aging U.S. farmer population, corporate greed, indigenous rights, and the failure of our globalized agricultural system to feed the people who need it most. “We need to let the world figure out how to feed themselves and we need to be able to let them do it politically. […] We’ve got more hungry people now than we did 20 [or] 30 years ago, when there was much more subsistence, much more local farming.”
He then moves on to the inspiration he finds in the growing number of young adults interested in a different kind of farming. “They want to grow food,” he says. “Not corn and soybeans. […] They want to grow vegetables, they want to grow small livestock operations, they want to do CSAs and farmers markets. And, you know, that’s the way most of the world really feeds itself is with small-scale, local production.”
More young farmers are part of the answer, and debunking the myth that it’s our job to feed the world is another. Also important: acknowledging that industrial agriculture cannot accomplish this. But, says Goodman, the most essential part must be accomplished on a political level. “The corporations that control the food system are no different from corporations that control the energy system, or whatever else. […] It’s all the money that goes into politics and lobbying that dictates how we live. And that’s what has to be changed.”