Interview with food systems activist Raj Patel

Raj Patel Headshot

Interview by Kayla Frost

If you know anything about Raj Patel, you know he has a lot to say about our food system, capitalism and activism. After Patel delivered a Wrigley Lecture at Arizona State University in November 2018, we asked some follow-up questions over the phone. But before we get to the interview — an introduction.

Patel, a research professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, has written several books including “The Value of Nothing,” a New York Times and international best-seller, and “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.” Patel’s most recent book, which he co-wrote with environmental historian Jason W. Moore, is “A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things.” He’s also a co-host of the food politics podcast “The Secret Ingredient.”

Patel’s biggest current project is a documentary film he’s creating with Oscar-nominated director Steve James, which he will discuss in the interview below in addition to topics ranging from the need for collective action to what he wishes the media would report on in regards to our food system. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: Could you tell us about the film you’re working on?

Raj Patel (RP): It’s part of a broader project called Generation Food, and what we’re looking at is a group that started around the turn of the Millennium called the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities project. They managed to address malnutrition in northern Malawi through a combination of tactics, in ways that matter not just in Malawi, or for Africa, but everywhere.

They’ve been experimenting with agroecological farming, moving away from industrial and traditional agriculture toward a very sophisticated and scientifically informed set of agricultural practices that involve planting nitrogen-fixing crops alongside the cereal crops that everyone wants, alongside crops that attract beneficial insects and provide shade cover against weeds. They’ve developed these smart farming systems, but growing food isn’t enough in the battle against hunger. They’ve also taken on issues like gender inequality because it’s such a huge part of malnutrition.

I started filming the work in northern Malawi with Steve James — the director of “Hoop Dreams,” a film that took seven years to make and is one of the most important documentaries ever made. We’ve been working on our film for about seven years too, and for similar reasons. If you want to document social change happening, then you can’t just ask talking heads to testify to it — you’ve got to watch it unfold in all its complexity.

We’ve watched this change happen over the years where some of the activists from the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities project have been working with a particular couple to be able to tackle gender inequality in their household. Undoing patriarchy isn’t an easy journey, especially for the man in the couple. But they get there in the end.

Woman in Malawi tending to crops

Well, they’ve ended gender inequality in the household, and they’ve made huge strides in fighting against hunger the village and in their catchment area. But the big challenge that they now face is climate change.

The activists in the village where we worked asked us whether they could come to America to talk to Americans about how climate change is affecting them in Malawi. So in 2017, we stuck it on our credit cards to bring two activists over. And we traveled from Washington, D.C., to Washington state, down to California and through the Midwest to talk to climate change skeptics and farmers who had very different views.

We’re finishing up production on that film right now. We’re looking not only to release the film, but also to make it matter for social change in America. We’ve been given a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to make the stuff that we’ve seen in Malawi really matter for communities in Detroit, Michigan. So we’re working on that and, hopefully, this time next year we’ll have quite a lot to show for it.

Q: You talk a lot about the power of collective grassroots action. Why do you believe this is such an effective way to bring about change?

RP: The Malawi example is a useful one. The community realized how important it was to address gender inequality as a direct outcome of their becoming agroecological scientists and investigators. When you become powerful enough to experiment and change your farming system, when you are exposed to the techniques of peer review and rigorous demands of scientific enquiry, you develop a taste for being a serious participant in your own destiny. That’s important, because if all the solutions are just given to you by the man from the government, or big agriculture, or whatever your favorite label is, then that’s invariably a disempowering process.

What was important in the story is that it’s only through successive experiments — sometimes failed experiments — that communities can learn to make enduring change. One example I like to use comes from Malawi. As part of the effort to promote gender equality, the community realized that they needed to get men to cook. The first thought from was to try an expert-driven approach, in which a nutritionist and some sort of chef went door-to-door to explain to men how to prepare good food. And although this resulted in one fairly successful meal every time, it didn’t really move the needle in terms of getting men to address our patriarchy.

A better approach was only possible because of the failure of the previous effort. The community developed a more joyful social occasion, where rather than just being an individual lecturer, it ended up being sort of gamified — a party in which men could teach men to cook. But then it was followed up by hard community- and feminist-organizing from community members. By the end of the process what you had was a series of experiments that the community had empowered itself to do, some of which failed, but all of which led to the successful outcome — which was men starting to take responsibility for ourselves and the patriarchy that we must recognize before we dismantle it.

That, I think, illustrates that if you want deep and abiding change, you can’t just drop it into a community, no matter how well-intentioned that change might be. It has to be something that’s seized and owned by the community itself.

Editor’s note: In his Wrigley Lecture, Patel shows a clip from his documentary about this process of men in Malawi learning to cook.

Q: One of the themes you bring up often is the need for reckoning with the past and paying reparations for people that have been enslaved, oppressed or colonized — but how does one do this within already existing and colonized institutions that have built their wealth on inequalities? How do we decolonize ourselves and work toward an equitable and just food system?

RP: That’s a great question with no easy answer. The question of reparations is different from a community-driven discussion because in part it involves deconstructing what we understand to be natural communities.

One way of understanding this is to think about the idea of help. Some of my most well-meaning students are keen on the idea of “helping these people,” whoever “these people” are. And those three words are a sign that things have already gone fairly wrong. The phrase “these people” is usually some way of delimiting and demarcating a social group that isn’t you and from which you feel fairly alienated.

I often challenge my students to catch themselves whenever they say “these people” or “those people” because whenever that phrase gets used, it’s an “other” that’s very different from themselves. And it’s an “other” that’s usually across some fault line of race, or class, or the historical divides that characterize American history. And so the question is: What should the relationship be, particularly if one is interested in recognizing history and, in the process, decolonizing America?

You can’t decolonize yourself in your living room while watching Netflix. It’s not the sort of thing you do by yourself, and it’s not the sort of thing that you can do without an active engagement with communities who have been the victims of slavery and of colonization. If you’re interested in that kind of transformation and liberation, the first step is to be able to organize around the necessity for it. That organizing has to be about crossing boundaries of race, and class, and history that have characterized this country in order then to live a more honest and less historically tainted life. And that’s very difficult in the United States.

The ways that we see the beginnings of that kind of discussion are, for example, around the renaming or the removal of Confederate signs and monuments. There’s a historical reckoning that’s already afoot.

Now it’s one thing just to change the name of the Robert E. Lee School for White Supremacy to the Martin Luther King School for the Common Good. But it’s another thing to have the deep understanding particularly of how the United States was founded in terms of the genocide and the almost complete, but nonetheless not complete, destruction of First Nation peoples. That history is much harder to navigate. But it does need to be navigated.

One of the projects that I'm working on with a colleague, Rupa Marya, is precisely trying to understand how to decolonize food, and diet, and medicine. And that's something I’ll have better answers to in a couple of years’ time. But there are groups and movements that are very interested in these kinds of things — I know Slow Food at an international level is already very interested in First Nations and indigenous foodways and food systems.

I’d love to see that kind of curiosity flourish within the United States in a way that’s not just about, “Ooh, look at that First Nation grain,” but much more about taking an abiding responsibility for the transformations of agriculture and foodways that have happened under colonialism. That’ll mean doing things like studying and looking for inspiration from folks like Winona LaDuke, who is an incredible First Nation leader and a visionary when it comes to thinking about First Nation foodways. She is never scared of throwing down the gauntlet for the need for decolonization, and I learn a great deal from her whenever I hear her speak.

Q: How do you believe universities can or should play a role in bringing about a sustainable food system, and how do you see your role within that as a professor?

RP: In part, universities have been the enemy of sustainability because they exist to codify and enshrine a certain vision of civilization. Historically, the university has been very good at identifying new frontiers of resources, and other civilizations, and then being party to their extermination and extraction.

And even today, the universities that are interested in conventional agriculture are in one way or another finding their research agendas shaped by the needs of the food industry. Now, is that destiny? No, I don’t think so. I think that there are ways that we can reimagine U.S. universities in ways that embrace sustainability far more deeply.

That’s going to piss off the academics who get large sums of money from pesticide companies. It’s also going to mean redefining the curriculum, teaching to ask questions about the consequences of biocide, rather than simply its efficacy. There’s absolutely a need to invest in agroecological research and science. Because while it’s true, for example, in Malawi that research can and is conducted through trials and peer reviews at a local level, there was, even in that case, support from research universities to be able to make certain things happen.

There’s definitely a role for universities in transforming the food systems. But whatever that role is, it has to involve decentering the university. And my relationship with the university I find myself at now is very much one in which I both am grateful that I’m a research professor at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and also that it’s a position in which I can use the authorized knowledge that comes from outside the university.

Let me give you an example of one of the ways that my colleague, Professor Erin Lentz, and I were able to change some of the conversation around food insecurity in cities.

We did a research project where we found that 25 percent of households in Austin were food insecure. And in some areas, it’s much, much higher than that. But what we did that was much more important was to sit down with communities that were homeless or undocumented and ask them what their visions were for a better food system.

Their visions were not the sort of things you get from policy wonks. We learned things like: to fight food deserts, we need lower rents and we need better public transport. We need living wages and we need not to be racially discriminated against by the supermarkets who we know are selling their low-quality meat in areas with low income or people of color, whereas the good stuff always goes to the rich white people.

Those kinds of observations and theories are ones that if someone homeless on the street had just uttered them, they would disappear and forever be ignored. But one of the privileges of being a professor within the university, positioned as we were, is that that we could take that knowledge and insert it into discussions where that knowledge wouldn’t otherwise have been admitted.

Again, to get back to the documentary, I’m very keen for the documentary to center on the ways that a range of people — not just university professors — are able to theorize and make change in the world. The university is just a way of enforcing certain kinds of views and providing money for them, but university knowledge far from the only knowledge — and it’s not the only knowledge that matters.

In fact, increasingly, as we move forward into the Capitalocene and through the sixth extinction, the kind of knowledge that is going to be vital to transforming our relationship with the web of life is going to come from outside the academy. And the academy will have to find its own moral compass — at first in acknowledging its relationship to causing the sixth extinction, but then also how it can make reparations for that.

Q: What do you wish the media reported about more often in regards to our food system?

RP: There are dozens of things that I wish the media were reporting about other than Donald Trump. But even absent the media’s obsessive coverage of the president, there’s still a lot about working America that remains unreported.

But the most important for me is labor. How much labor reporting do you see? Around the food system, questions of work and of working poverty are right at the heart of the really destructive end of the food system, whether it’s about labor exploitation here in the United States or about labor exploitation in terms of care work — particularly women's labor exploitation around the care economy — that makes the food economy possible. You rarely read anything or hear anything about that.

And we’re in a period of increased, for example, strike activity. And there’s a burgeoning labor consciousness not just in the U.S. but also around the world. China is seeing record levels of workers’ strikes, but you rarely hear about that. And that matters to the food system because with the worst paying jobs being in the food system and with worker militancy actually being a vital part of any kind of sustained social change, reading more about how the work that goes into our food or the care work that makes that labor possible is going to be absolutely important in building the movement going forward.

Q: What’s a restaurant you love and why?

RP: There’s a restaurant called L'Oca d'Oro in Austin, Texas. I love it because there’s no tipping. The workers are paid very well. It’s not the place that I can afford to go very often, because in order for food to be prepared with love, and care, and attention, and for the workers to be paid as well as they are, the prices are high.

But do I love going there every time I go there? Of course I do. And the recognition that everyone’s getting paid well, and this is part of a vision for change in which work is respected no matter where you work in the food ecosystem — that’s an act that in other countries is sort of taken for granted. Obviously, you don’t have to tip because obviously everyone is paid well. But in the United States, it’s an act of defiance.

And I’m so pleased that the chef there, Fiore Tedesco, does that. And I’m so grateful that he does because it’s a bold leadership move on his part that makes possible a range of other things. I mean, the fact that he’s still there makes it possible to dream that such a way of doing business can continue to flourish — even in Texas.

Photos courtesy of Raj Patel