We have consolidated all of our University news sources into one location called BingUNews. Inside stories published through 2016 will remain available here. Stories published in 2017 and later will be found at BingUNews. Enjoy!
Food activist and author Raj Patel delivers the Research Days keynote address in the Mandela Room on April 22.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
‘Stuffed and Starved’ author kicks off Research Days
April 27, 2015Tweet
Research Days kicked off with a look at extremes by keynote speaker Raj Patel, introduced by Provost Donald Nieman as a scholar and activist who exemplifies an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary approach to research. Patel took the audience of over 300 from the 1700s to modern day as he discussed his research into the world’s food crisis and the paradox of mass starvation and obesity.
Patel, author of “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System” told the audience we need to think systemically to change.
He started with a multiple choice question: What is the most important agricultural technology? Possible answers included the plow, fencing, the seed drill, inorganic fertilizer and genetically modified crops. While the audience seemed to veer toward inorganic fertilizer, Patel said fencing was the correct response “because it’s the reason we have the others.”
When lands were enclosed, “it was a way to pay debts,” he said. “You had the commons where peasants were able to share and manage resources together. To stint. To save. And they learned to hold off using something this year so they could use it the next year.”
Fencing allowed people to survive, he said. “The fencing made possible a way of enclosing the land and returning investments made into it to the owners. And it worked well for some.”
But others were not as fortunate. Land was appropriated as part of an expanding international agricultural system, Patel said, referring to slave rebellions and uprisings against large landowners in the 1700s as demonstrations of “inequality and what can happen when a poor country and rich city clash.”
Our modern food system can be traced to the land enclosures of the 1700s, Patel said. Exhibit A: a McDonalds ad promoting a burger for only $1. But when one considers the labor and the land that went into creating that burger, “all of a sudden a dollar burger has cost $200 to produce, yet we need cheap food.”
The modern food system is part of a cycle of cheap food, work, care, credit, nature and energy in which people are able to survive and work for a living. “The system keeps food prices and wages low, but breaking the cycle is not just about addressing food, it’s also about care.”
Those who can afford it pay for expensive food, but think about other parts of the world. “What about feeding the world?” he asked. “It’s a good and important question to bring to bear.”
To break the cycle is not an easy task, Patel said, but he has seen success through research and practice in Malawi, which suffers from low life expectancy and high childhood mortality rates.
Though shared research had resulted in increased crop yields – more food, and more nutritious food, coming out of the ground, Patel said, child malnutrition in Malawi increased. Why? Because women not only harvest the crops, but they fetch the water, do the cooking and cleaning, and breastfeed and care for the children.
Even with more and better food available, women had so much work to do that breastfeeding was sacrificed, and children suffered as a result. Some progress has been made in Malawi to lower the child mortality rate. How? By getting men to cook.
“Initially, we went around with a nutritionist house to house,” said Patel. “We also turned it into a social game, the process of cooking, with women and men able to learn with one another without the patriarchy issue. It becomes about peer-to-peer learning and reimagining what society might be like beyond their horizon.”
Some women have become self-sufficient and are mentoring other women, but what’s interesting, said Patel, is it takes us back to where we began. “Who owns the land? Who does the reproductive labor? It transforms people into researchers and makes them partners in research about social relationships as well.
“What I’ve tried to show you so far is an understanding of how good research fits in and, instead of treating the soil as a factory, it’s not just about producing more food, but about making sure people get it,” Patel said. “The solution here is about making more food and distributing it better and breaking the chains of cheap food and cheap care, so the rates of exchange are fair.”
Patel said this needs to start from a place of love, from talking about the food system, wages, social security, physical security.
To translate Malawi’s success to a larger scale is not an easy task, he said. “We need to recognize the work that goes into every element of raising food. We need to be thinking of raising welfare standards and also engaging in the principal work to ensure the cycle is broken. Raising the minimum wage is just one piece. Everything plays a part.”