Activist Raj Patel: stop the magical thinking about food systems
Hunger is the result of many forces. In America there is no shortage of food but there are 50 million people who are food insecure. Worldwide we have more calories per person than ever, more than enough to feed today’s 868 million undernourished. Of those going hungry, 60 percent are women or girls. There’s no single thing that we could do to end this.
There is, however, one idea that gives me hope. It’s called ‘food sovereignty’. Most people define it as “a democratic conversation about our food system”. The most important idea here is that it’s democratic. Everyone should be able to engage in food politics.
The reason it’s exciting is because it’s so unusual. Although many of us live in democracies, we’ve rarely tried democracy. Instead, we’ve tried its poor cousin – consumer choice. We choose between different flavours of politician. But we’ve rarely tried to govern ourselves directly. Food sovereignty is an invitation to do that.
But before we can try democracy, we need fairness, particularly around gender. One of the ways to think about this is in the slogan “food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women.” This means ending domestic violence, but also ending the structural violence that prevents poor women from selling their food in the market because of cheap subsidized imports. When we have equality, we can start to govern ourselves fairly and democratically.
Even so, there are no promises. Genuine food sovereignty is about a community’s right to make democratic decisions about its food system. That means it gives the right to make mistakes.
What food sovereignty offers most of all is an end to magical thinking. It’s the chance for all of us to see the challenges in the world today, turn to the power of communities to learn, to exchange and to thrive on terms that, for the first time, we get to set by ourselves. That’s a lot of things to do. But it’s better that we live with our eyes open, than pretend we can solve hunger with a single fairy-tale solution.
Raj Patel – sometimes called “the rock star of social justice writing” – is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing. He is a visiting scholar with the Center for African Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, a fellow at the Institute of Food and Development Policy, and research associate with the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.