Home > The Great Unraveling? > Fragility in Food Systems

Food systems around the world are dependent on supply chains that connect the fate of consumers in one region to producers in another. Major problems are already buffeting these systems, from the chronic failure to provide adequate nutrition to growing environmental shocks. In this episode of the “Great Unraveling?” series, Raj Patel joins Laurie Laybourn-Langton to consider food systems — the problems facing these systems and the fragilities inherent to them and ask what these mean in an uncertain future.

Raj Patel is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and academic with voluminous experience and expertise in understanding and seeking change in food systems. He’s Research Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. His latest book, co-written with Jason W. Moore is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things.


Laurie Laybourn-Langton 

Food systems around the world are dependent on supply chains that connects the fate of consumers in one region to producers in another. A range of major problems are already buffeting these systems, from a chronic failure to provide adequate nutrition to growing environmental shocks. This episode considers food systems, the problems facing these systems and the fragilities inherent to them, and ask what these mean in an uncertain future. And to do so I’m joined by Raj Patel, an award-winning author, filmmaker, an academic with voluminous experience and expertise in understanding and seeking change in food systems.

Among other positions, he’s currently a Research Professor at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. His latest book, co-written with academic Jason W. Moore, is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. Raj, welcome. Can we start with an overview of what people mean when they talk about the food system or food systems?

Raj Patel 
Well, I’m glad that you already sort of hinted at it, Laurie, that the food system is different from supply chains. Normally, when you think of food systems, you’re thinking or farm-to-fork, and the food system might, in some imagination, be the journey from the land to your plate. The supply chain is an outcome of a more sophisticated and much longer term series of operations of power. And the food system is essentially that history. It’s the history of a world political ecology that has come together to normalize certain kinds of relationships of power, that allow food to journey from specific farms to specific forks. 

We could take any number of examples, but you know, why is it for example, that people in the Global North are used to bananas or coffee or tropical products? Well, it’s a long history of colonization, and then a long history of subsequent decolonization, and trade agreements, and indebtedness that really allow countries in the Global South limited options in terms of decolonizing that land and moving away to something else. And instead, we in the Global North, think it’s normal and natural, and unthinkable that we could live without coffee… that we might have a life without chocolate whenever we want it. And that is essentially the food system at work. It’s a series of, as I say, operations of power that allow certain routes and exchanges to appear normal, when in fact, they are the product of usually a fairly bloody and exploitative history.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
And, at least from a Global North perspective, when you ask people, “What are the problems within the systems?,” often people will point to a chronic lack of nutrition, to hunger around the world, and increasingly food waste. Now I’m assuming those are issues that you have at the top of your agenda when you look at fragilities in food systems. Could you talk a bit more about those as well as the other major problems or fragilities that we see in food systems across the world? 

Raj Patel 
So if you understand the food system in the way that we’ve just laid out, then it’s not surprising that the outcomes of this food system are synonymous with exploitation, and with the maximization of profit. And when the food system is set up to maximize profit, it’s set up to pay workers as little as possible. And it’s set up to generate the kinds of outcomes and other kinds of products that are most profitable. And so that’s why we end up, on the consumer end, with food products that are high in salt and fat and sugar, that are engineered to be craved and to be bought again and again, that are marketed aggressively to the young, to bake in certain kinds of habits. And that lead, ultimately, to the kind of situation where now we have 2 billion people who are overweight.

And at the same time, we have a food system that, as I say, is geared towards paying as little as possible for labor. So here in the United States, for instance, seven of the 10 worst paying jobs in America are in the food system. And they’re not just about farm work. The farm work, and farm labor, and immigration complex around that in the United States is part of the story, but also low-paid, minimum-wage tip work in the restaurant industry. You know, line cooks and dishwashers. These are all positions that are paid incredibly little. And our paid so by design.

I mean, this is—in the United States, after all—the outcome of a huge agricultural economy that was built on slavery, and built on the dispossession of land from Native Americans, and the genocide that comes from.  So you know, if we’re thinking about outcomes, then systemic racism and systemic inequities in income are part of the story—certainly in the United States, but also writ globally—of a food system that requires cheap inputs of land and labor, and that spits out the kinds of products that are obesogenic.

But at the same time, these vulnerabilities lead to the situation where we have 2 billion people who are overweight, but oddly 2 billion people who are food insecure. And this was before COVID.  Right before COVID, there were 2 billion people who were food insecure, which is to say that they were, at some point during a month, uncertain about where their meal was coming from.

And there were 820-odd million people who were malnourished and didn’t have enough calories to be able to lead a healthy and productive life over the course of a year. They were malnourished, they were denied these calories. And that’s a very high bar of understanding what it is to be hungry. And yet 800-odd million people cleared it. Again, this was before COVID. The numbers who are food insecure, and the numbers who are malnourished, are going to be going up as there was already a trend line going up. And now it’s been made worse. 

So the fragility is in the inability of people to be able to afford food, which is itself a systemic outcome of the food system, because the food system pays so little. And this is part of the reason that the food system is dangerous, because its construction is to concentrate power. 

One of the visuals I use is if you imagine a sort of hourglass—it’s wide at the top, narrow in the middle, and wide at the bottom. At the top, there are the hundreds of millions of people who grow food. At the bottom, the billions who eat. And in the middle, there’s just a few corporations that control the global economy. And you can think of that as a fragility, because the global economy—and by the global economy, what I mean is that, within any given agricultural market internationally, the number of players that control more than 50% of the market is five or six, and in some cases, it’s much less. And that systematic concentration of power is something that is a vulnerability, because when you don’t have distributed, you don’t have capacity and robustness in the supply chains, then you end up as we see under COVID with a fragility—where one small trip up in a in the supply chain can lead to cascading dysfunction all the way down. 

So whether that is of milk producers having to sort of pour away that excess product, or whether it’s about the COVID outbreaks in meat processing plants, all of these are outcomes of a very concentrated supply system with tight supply chains that’s spread across the globe. And where one little error, one little mistake, one little dysfunction, causes a cascading problem. And this matters for communities that are interested in climate change, because you can have woven together a range of fragilities that come on top of one another.

So, for example, because supply chains are so tight around the world, when you have a massive forest fire, for example, in Russia, and then Russia imposes grain export bans, then you have the price of wheat going up around the world. And then you have bread riots, and then you have in other parts of the world violence and uprisings as a result of a cascade of a once-in-500 year drought in Russia. Those kinds of interactions are a sign, again, of the fragility that comes from this sort of global, and yet redundancy-free, food system.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
As we look to the future, how do you think those fragilities are going to play out? And in particular, what kind of changes are you seeing now where people have recognized these fragilities and they’re beginning to work on them, even people who have explicitly recognized the kind of cascading effects that you’ve described, and starting to talk about those potential problems, and a warning about them, and then trying to drive change with that in mind?

Raj Patel 
Well, I’m sure that there are other people who have observed this. I mean, the best of times and the worst of times. I mean, at one level, you’re seeing a resurgence of the short supply chain, local farmers growing food products—not commodity products, not corn and beans, sorry, corn and soy, and cotton and wheat—but instead, growing fresh fruits and vegetables and some staples for a local market.

Those small sustainable farmers who operate things like Community Supported Agriculture initiatives, they’re doing tremendously well. My friends who are farmers who are in that game can’t hire enough people to work. And they’re doing very well. And the people who can afford to subscribe to these kinds of Community Supported Agriculture initiatives, where you get your vegetable box once a week. Everyone’s happy who was able to do that.

But the problem, of course, is that not everyone’s able to do that. We’re living in the middle of grinding poverty and increasing unemployment across the planet. And if you’re not lucky enough to be able to afford your, you know, high-end vegetable box, then things are looking much grimmer. And this is being compounded by the kinds of legislation that we see, say, the Trump Administration doing. Right?

You’re deciding that, yes, there are some workers who are essential, but we’re not going to pay them anymore. And we’re just merely going to say that they’re essential. And that means extendable, sacrificial. And if you look, for example, at the Trump Administration’s decision to say that meatpacking plants are essential services, what that means is that you’ve got workers being brought into the slaughterhouse floor, and the slaughterhouses are now the zones of COVID infection. You’re seeing just the imposition of certain kinds of norms within the food system. And those workers have very little choice about it. 

So the response to these kinds of fragilities goes both ways. You can see community supported initiatives on the one hand doing well, you can see that groups who have long supported the idea of sort of self-sufficiency and food sovereignty within their communities, they’re, they’re able to weather the storm a little better. But at the same time, you’re seeing the food system feeding itself very handsomely from the trough of the handouts that government has given. And you can see them using their power to get the government to enact certain kinds of legislation that continues to sacrifice workers and, in fact, sacrifices them at an increased rate in order that profits be maintained. So you know, we are facing this fork in the road. And you’re seeing movements rise up to sort of fight the good fight, but you’re also seeing the food industry doing very well out of this out of this moment.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
Raj Patel, thank you for talking with us today.