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Literary Review

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Behind a billion-dollar industry


A rigorous inquiry into the often seamy global system that packages and places food in the supermarkets of the world.

Stuffed and Starved: What Lies Behind the World Food Crisis,Raj Patel, Harper Litmus (HarperCollins), 2008, p. 438, Rs. 495

At one level this book is a rigorous inquiry into the integrated global system that produces food and places it in supermarkets and stores around the world. At another, it is investigative journalism at its best, since this simple act has dark and shadowy implications, making for the ultimate conspiracy story. One involving angry, starving, mutinous peasants, greedy food processing industries, a medical and disease controlling establishment gone haywire, double-faced governments and fed up environmentalists. Patel takes one leaf out of Michael Moore and another from a typical academic thesis to make a fairly explosive assertion: the industrial food mafias of today formed during the industrial revolution and transformed sugarcane, corn, wheat, tea, coffee and soy from food into currency. A currency that transformed the way we consumed food for ever. A currency that ate into other food production practices and systematically destroyed them to create dystopic agro-industrial landscapes that rendered the food-growing farmer redundant and made living bio-soil a laboratory for synthetic chemicals. Those fighting for their rights (you rarely hear about them except when Nano connected) are literally at the final frontiers of our global world in which the environment has been reduced to a pretty digital image on your desktop.

Fundamental transformation

Something fundamentally changed in the last two hundred years when food was no more that steaming hot dish on your table but a colourful cardboard carton with a comic book hero smiling tantalisingly on its cover. The seduction of packaged food, which continues to rule the gastronomic roost, is part of a billion dollar industry that has changed the world’s ecological composition as much as that of polluting industries. Except that one does not see its effect in dramatic visual terms. Besides, the impact of the food industry on health is more insidious since it comes hand in hand with false promises made by the equally fattened and corrupt medical industry.


This book is a must-read for anyone interested in why diabetes competes closely with other killer diseases plaguing the world today, why it is virtually impossible to lead a healthy lifestyle without burning a hole in your pocket or why are there peasants on the verge of penury when your stores are bursting with expensive foods.

Building on an old tradition of inquiries into the anthropology of food (Cambridge don Jack Goody was a veteran on this theme) Patel uses a straightforward prose that uses facts and figures to maximum effect.

Well researched

The reader unfamiliar with the intricacies of this theme will be wonderstruck. Informed and concerned readers will have their doubts cleared up and cynics will find this a tough nut to crack. If this review sounds like a promotion there’s good reason. I have been tracking this theme for about 15 years. When I came across this book I was not sure how far it was willing to go with its arguments and whether it had managed to do justice to the millions of pages that have been published on this theme. On both counts I had to give it an A.

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Literary Review

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