books consumerism development equality fair trade food globalisation social justice sustainability

Book review: Stuffed and starved, by Raj Patel

Capitalism should not be trusted to feed the world. That’s the basic message of Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. So far under the stewardship of the market, we have created a world where there are 800 million people going hungry, but who are outnumbered by a billion people who are overweight.

We’ve got a system where good food, organic and natural food, is a luxury, and the poor eat unhealthy, over-processed food. Wasteful subsidies undermine agriculture in hungry parts of the world. A few massively wealthy corporations control the distribution of the major food crops. Patented bio-engineered seed is promoted under false pretences to third world farmers. Food has become cheapened and devalued, unsustainable and oppressive. The market has failed to deliver on many, many levels.

Raj Patel has written a broad and ambitious review of the state of the world’s food system, and the economic drivers behind it. He draws the dots and makes all kinds of connections – the nearer to the US border a Mexican family lives, the more overweight they are likely to be. Unilever owns both the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream brand and Slimfast. After the initial attack on Iraq, Burger King had opened an outlet before the aid agencies had crossed the border. Facts like these cut straight through the globalizers’ propaganda, and show our priorities for what they are.

Food is far too important to be left to the forces of the market. Providing for the hungry will never be economically appealing. Standards of human and animal welfare will gravitate downwards as competition intensifies, not upwards. We need to take more responsibilty for our food.

Patel makes a number of suggestions. Most importantly, he recommends re-discovering food as a pleasure, urging us to ‘eat with five senses’, refusing the uncomplicated fat, salt and sugar combinations of processed foods. He suggests eating locally and seasonally, and supporting local businesses instead of national and international monopolies. Sustainable agriculture is vital, both environmental and social, and that includes dignity for suppliers for growers, fair wages, and democratic representation in trade.

Stuffed and Starved is an eye-opening and compelling read, and I highly recommend it. (It’s available from Earthbound Books UK and US)


  1. I think so, provided you make certain allowances. For example, I live in London, and it is possible to eat locally grown food. There’s even a restaurant where everything on the menu has been sourced within a 25 mile radius. If all seven and a half million londoners wanted to eat local food however, that would obviously be impossible. But the idea is to make local the ideal and get the nearest you can, to favour local food and support local business where possible.

    The most important thing in the list is to change our tastes, to develop a better appreciation of food, eat more balanced and better food, and that’s possible everywhere.

    Outside of cities, paying fair wages to farmers, land reform, and sustainable agriculture are all possible in our modern world.

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