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Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel, Analysis of Chapter 6: Better Living Through Chemistry

During the Cold War, India wanted to experiment with a program of sharing land between the government and the people. America also thought that they were in danger of falling to communism.
Like in the previous chapter, the response was for America to launch a
program of food and monetary aid. This caused the native production of
wheat to fall because they could not compete with the US aid program.


In order to keep India from falling to communism, America institutes a program of food and monetary aid. This had the effect of reducing
India's own production of wheat and other food as they could not compete
with the US food aid program. Like in chapter 4, this aid gave the US
government some political control over India. As India dissented over
the US actions in Vietnam, the US offered technology as well. This
technology added another element that made the situation in India much
different and more difficult to assess than that under the British
Mercantilism and American imperialism in chapter 4. While the crops
could produce incredible yields when properly managed and with plenty of
water, doing so reduced the water table, added salt deposits to the
land, and made portions of the land unsuitable for crops. The
technology was also expensive and sent farmers deep into debt.


Raj Patel compares this national famine and debt with the region of Kerala in India, which used decentralized government programs to provide
education, welfare, and health care. The system worked astoundingly
well, leaving the region with the highest literacy and life expectancy
rates in India. I am very impressed by this and would be interested in
learning more about it. Most government programs break down over time,
but some take longer than others. This one was able to keep the region
intact and prosperous while neighboring regions floundered. I don't
know much about it beyond that and couldn't find much information about
it on the internet.


In contrast to the Kerala program, Raj Patel follows the changes in the Public Distribution System, a Government program offering cheap food targeted at urban
areas. He shows how the distribution of food was reduced over the years
even as population increased. During the Bengali famine of 1943,
apparently people died in the street because they couldn't afford the
food in the granaries. The granaries apparently held enough food but
were not willing to sell it. The problem as he sees it lies in the
"hourglass" food system that we have developed, where there are plenty
of producers and consumers but only a few middlemen. This is probably
correct his solution is very carefully worded. He wants to guarantee
rights hungry people that trump the grain hoarders at the center of the
food system hourglass. He doesn't specify which rights however. My
first thought was that he was referring to "right to food" legislation
similar to the "right to water" debate that got pretty heated in the
forums late last year. He doesn't specify however. It could just mean
opening up the free market so that farmers don't have to be bound by
copyright, patents, or ridiculous contracts. It could mean protecting
farmers from eminent domain seizures or bad legislation. Admirably, he
plays it safe and focuses on his area of expertise, analyzing the
problems.


The rest of the chapter focuses on the complex relationships of biotechnology corporations, universities, and local farmers. Most of the biotechnology corporation focus is on
Monsanto, a company that produces and licenses seeds for genetically
modified crops. Monsanto's primary business market seems to be large
scale US farmers who have easy access to water and industrial farming
equipment. They are comfortable with abundantly spraying pesticides and
can move to new land if they need to.


India, however, is a different market. Farmers do not have access to abundant sources of water and the use of Monsanto's seeds has drastically lowered
their water table. While American farmers can reliably produce large
harvests making the purchase of specialized Monsanto seeds worth it,
Indian farmers have found the difficulty of meeting those same
production levels and the processes effect on the environment make their
use a much more difficult proposition. Monsanto seeds have not
captured the marketplace in India, though they have destroyed quite a
few farmer's businesses in the process.


Because of special patent legislation, Monsanto's seeds are protected legally as intellectual property by the governments of both America and India and
that causes most of the problems in this section. Monsanto is able to
use force, both legal and financial, to keep competitors out and keep
its control on the market. Many of the Indian farmers come to hate
Monsanto so much that they actually burn the crops while they are still
in the fields.


If Monsanto did not own the Intellectual Property but only the seeds themselves, theoretically, a competitor could use their technology and produce Genetically modified
seeds which were cheaper and safer for the environment. The problem is
more that Monsanto has a legal monopoly over this technology than that
the food is genetically modified. By extending the American laws to
India, the laws become even more complex while consumers lose the
minimal protections they have to challenge them in court.


Another problem is that universities are under extreme pressure to cooperate with corporations in exchange for research funding. This creates a
moral hazard however, in that the company providing the funding gets a
very powerful claim in what research is performed, how it is done, and
what the conclusions are. Note that much of their funding comes from
the federal government which causes similar moral hazards, but that is
expected under the current university system. I will write more about
the problems of universities in another post.


One of the worst stories from Africa is how a local government granted the entire village's land for a large cotton crop. Because the machinery
being used needs large, contiguous tracts of land, they forced the
landowners to give it up for the Makhathini Cotton Company. We call
this "eminent domain" in the US and it is a pretty nasty practice.
There are a ton of other problems with this setup and apparently the
cotton isn't very profitable there even in ideal conditions.


Finally, Raj Patel explains how some cultures have succeeded. One of the most notable ones is Cuba, which after having its economy collapse with the
fall of Russia, needed to develop its agriculture without the use of
expensive technologies. Farmers are given some control over state lands
to grow their crops. Because of this, they are in much less risk of
going into debt. They still use pesticides, but they have learned to
use them rarely and only in high doses. Some of their production,
including milk and beef, is using methods comparable to America. He does
not claim that it is an ecological paradise, but a qualified success.


As we have all been taught that American capitalism is superior to Cuban communism, Raj Patel explains the real differences between the two
systems. While Cuba has its central planning, so does the United
States. The national government distributes money and has special
protective legislation, as I mentioned in the chapter on Mexico and
corn. I guess that in Cuba, farmers are encouraged to share their
knowledge, which is discouraged in America under our patents.


Cuba isn't Raj Patel's only success story though. India, Japan, and Latin America all have their own grass roots movements to educate and empower
farmers. He even mentions that Cuba's system largely grew out of the
Latin American Campesino a Campesino, or "Farmer to Farmer" movement.


Even assuming that Cuba's agriculture is centrally planned, Cuba is a much
smaller country, both in terms of number of people and the amount of
land. Central planning works much better the closer it is to the people
it is governing. This was one of the biggest reasons for the American
Revolution, that Britain was too far away to govern America. Even if
America was capable of sending representatives over, they would not be
able to communicate with their constituents in order to effectively
represent them. While we are much better able to communicate over seas
now, we still have problems understanding the problems and issues
outside of our local communities. America can take advantage of this as
well, by abolishing laws which should have been addressed by state or
city laws, especially the agricultural ones, and privatizing the
businesses it runs.

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Tags: Africa, America, Cuba, India, Latin, Patel, Raj, biotechnology, capitalism, cotton, More…farmers, free, government, grass, local, market, pesticides, roots, universities

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Comment by Bryan Rosander, FL on August 1, 2010 at 6:29pm
Agreed. Most of the problems in the book come from America and need to be solved here.
Comment by Kenny (TOK) on July 31, 2010 at 12:34pm
Thank you for an interesting post, I shall make read the book if I remember to grab it from the library. I did want to note though that when you say, "US farmers who have easy access to water and industrial farming
equipment. They are comfortable with abundantly spraying pesticides and can move to new land if they need to," this may not be something that we can do forever.

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