I am a somewhat inappropriate reviewer for Stuffed and Starved. For one, I am a foodie. In fact, till some years ago I was a voracious eater. Moreover, I am not quite versed with the intricacies of the economics and politics of the food business.
But there's something about Raj Patel's new book that appeals to me. In fact, I could well have been one of the characters of his book. But then I wasn't overweight. Before I corrected myself two years ago or so, I used to be a veritable fast food junkie. I would eat at almost any fast food joint--regularly. I thought my adipose tissues were well in control and that gave me the licence to indulge. When I wasn't eating fast food or pizza, I would eat high-fat restaurant food. And don't get me started on the number of sugary soft drinks I consumed in a day.
Raj Patel puts an academic's spin on what I used to feel then. He says "new tastes are being invented for us." How true. It was almost natural those days to head for a McDonald's outlet after a tough day's work. A crunchy patty and crispy fries were just perfect after a hard day's work. The boisterous college going kids were sometimes an irritant--but then it would also be comforting to be as cool as them.
I would assuage the occasional guilt pang by telling myself that there were people far worse than me. Alcoholics, for example. And I didn't even light up.
One day in early 2006, I felt a little breathless. My breathing became heavier in the ensuing weeks. It was an allergy, I was told. The doctor wasn't sure what caused it. Probably change of seasons. Over the next few months the allergy came and went. And I consulted five doctors. One of them had the sagacity to query my eating habits. I was asked to go slow.
It wasn't easy. The fast food outlet beckoned even more now that I could not binge. The cravings sometimes became difficult to resist. I might not have been amongst the billion overweight whom Patel describes as victims of the food industry. But I was truly stuffed and was addicted to eating out.
Patel's book has made me aware of the other aspect of this paradox the one billion malnourished. Don't get me wrong. I keep track of the happenings around me. I knew a bit about the acute destitution in our country. I read about the farmers' suicides in various parts of our country. But I rarely formed an opinion. At best, I blamed government policy.
It never occurred to me that there was a link between my condition and that of the malnourished--or destitute farmers. I did not know that the levers of the world's food industry are pulled by a handful of corporations. These are the global middlemen, who come between producers and consumers and, in doing so, control both. The system has worked to the detriment of all except "the corporate food executive".
Patel used to work for the World Bank and probably has access to a lot of data. Some of them are really startling. Retailers turned over us $3.5 trillion in 2004--a monstrous amount considering we in India could not stop congratulating ourselves when our gdp touched a trillion us dollars about a year ago.
Stuffed and Starved is lucid and breezy, and Patel makes sense of the global food system. But are there any solutions? Patel advises us "Buy local. Buy seasonal. Buy fair." But that is easier said than done, particularly for someone who rarely went shopping vegetables till two years ago. How do I know if a vegetable is from a nearby farm?
Besides, I still have the occasional burger craving.
Atreyo Mukhopadhyay is a lawyer who enjoys music besides food
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