From edition

Raj Patel, On rights, sovereignty, and suicide

Interviewed by Scott Stoneman

Raj Patel is an activist, organizer and visiting scholar in the Centre for African Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Research Associate at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He has written extensively on food sovereignty as an ethical injunction and political horizon, and his recent Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System, a compendious and cogent study of the genealogies of our current global food system, has made him a major voice in discourses of food today. In this interview, he considers the ideological implications of “food security,” the limits of rights discourses and technocratic solutions in talking about food politics, the obfuscations of statistical knowledge and the possibility of mass participatory democracy today.

Scott Stoneman (SS) for Politics and Culture: How has the notion of “food security” contributed to the system of trade which currently determines who is stuffed and who is starved – or who is made to live and who is left to die? And how does the framework of “food sovereignty” offer a way of rethinking food, beyond the logic of commodity, in terms of a radical politics of public health?

Raj Patel (RP): To understand ‘food sovereignty’, it’s important to see how it pushes away from ‘food security’. So here’s a 2001 definition, from the Food And Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: “Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” [1] While no one disputes the importance of sufficient, safe and nutritious food to lead a healthy life, the key word here is ‘access’. Under food security, the question of power in the food system never comes up – as long as access is guaranteed under some system or other, there’s no problem. The trouble, however, is this: you can be food secure under a dictatorship. You can be food secure in prison. You can be food secure, in other words, and never have any say about what it is that you’re provided, nor the manner in which it comes to you. Food sovereignty takes these questions of power seriously. While the full definition is long and changeable, the common thread is that food sovereignty is about ‘peoples’ right to define their food system’. In other words, it’s a call to have rights about their food politics, not just their food qua commodity. As part of the deliberations around food sovereignty, concerns about public health will play a part, but so will concerns about other public goods, such as environment, education and culture. A sovereign food system is one in which a range of competing concerns around public space are balanced at appropriate levels, and in which food is treated not as a commodity, but as a right.

SS: In what way does the issue of local vs. state or corporate sovereignty and the urgency of feeding future populations transform dominant conceptions of “post-industrial” labour? Forced to square off against the managerial logic of the “network society” instantiated by companies like Wal-Mart and a seemingly universal obsession with technocratic solutions to the global food crisis, how are movements for participatory democracy such as the MST in Brazil and indigenous movements around the world making autonomies of food cultivation and consumption seem not only possible, but in your words, “beautiful” and “banal”?

RP: The debates around post-industrial labour, as far as I understand them, seem to be a little myopic. While it’s true that the major Northern cities in which these theories are spawned have seen a decline in industrial manufacturing, such manufacturing hasn’t gone away. If someone said that the world is now less polluted because Londoners’ cars need to pass a smog test, we’d think them mad. Similarly, just because food production is out of sight, it oughtn’t to be out of mind. And while Monsanto is keen, for instance, to pimp its products out as the magic bullet to end our concerns about the need for agricultural labour, it’s increasingly clear that their technocratic solutions aren’t working, nor are they likely to. A recent study by 400 scientists, the International Agricultural Assessment on Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, online at suggests that the solutions to questions about how we will feed the world in 2050, when there are 9 billion of us, will not be those provided by industrial agriculture. Instead, the answers will be ones that involve a great deal more regional and municipal autonomy, ones that rely on context-specific scientific solutions, rather than mass-produced technical quick fixes. For context-specific science to work well, it relies on local articulations of social and physical ecology. And the only way in which such ecologies can be effectively articulated is through a much more engaged and participatory democracy, of the kind being pioneered by movements such as the MST.

SS: What are the limitations of theorizing consumer choice, or consumer responsibility, in relation to the global politics of food? In the place of politicizing the choices that consumers, as the objects of market strategies, make about the food they buy and even the pleasure they derive from the food they buy, what kinds of problems and questions ought to instead be considered in the interest of instating what Eric Cazdyn calls a “new candor” regarding the economics and cultural politics of crisis (655)? [2]

RP: For me, the problem here is one of ressentiment. Consumers are meant to be ‘free’ to choose, but the entire notion of consumer choice is premised on domination by corporate power. The interesting questions for me lie in the politics of pleasure and sensuousness, questions that try to reclaim corporeal freedom from the realm of specious consumer choice.

SS: In Stuffed and Starved, your thoroughgoing study of the effects of free market fundamentalism on bodies and the world food system, you discuss the vanishing of India’s rural poor, and in particular poor farmers, as a kind of “statistical sleight of hand.” What is the political function of statistical knowledge in the Global South? What form of power drives the erasure of dispossession and the informational suppression of the specific burden placed on women? And why is belying the growing instance of farmer suicides an especially necessary occlusion for the state?

The question of how statistics function as a means of domination is akin to the use of maps as colonial tools – statistics and maps operate in similar ways as epistemic weapons of surveillance, centralization of power, and dispossession. The question of women being rendered invisible is not, of course, unique to the Global South, nor to agriculture. But sexism is particularly germane to agriculture because the majority of food eaten in developing countries is grown by women and because the majority of hunger is borne by women (60% of those food insecure on Earth are women or girls). Yet the confrontation of the full force of this fact, just as with the ongoing human and ecological disasters in agriculture more broadly, is something that states aren’t prepared for. Or, better, that the consequences of genuinely confronting this would lead to policy changes that profoundly upended capitalism. So farmers are forgotten, and women’s reproductive labour exploited. The state doesn’t always forget farmer suicide, though. India, for instance, has an election-year stunt at the moment designed to keep farming communities sweet for four more years. The idea is to prevent farmer suicides by having a generalized debt amnesty – but it only works for those with formal sector loans who own their own land. In other words, it’s only for a fraction of the entire sector. And, of course, the stunt fails to address the underlying causes of debt, and fails to address the fact that the greatest burden continues to fall on women.

SS: Are there ways in which determining the rights of citizens to self-govern still excludes groups for whom citizenship is less certain? In other words, how might food and food crisis necessitate a different form of cosmopolitanism, or world citizenship, as a means of providing an ethical orientation to competing notions of sovereignty (i.e., state sovereignty, sovereignty as the right to local autonomy, corporate power/capitalist sovereignty)?

RP: The problem word here is ‘citizen’. It summons a Westphalian notion of nation-state membership that delimits the possibilities of ‘rights’. The kind of rights that are part of food sovereignty are, in an important way, human rights. Hannah Arendt’s work on refugees, and her observation that they are a population denied the right to have rights, is particularly appropriate in understanding what peasant and landless movements are fighting for. Take this quote, for instance, from The Origins of Totalitarianism, which might have been written directly about peasant struggle:

“…people deprived of human rights… are deprived, not of the right freedom, but of the right to action, not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion… We become aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerge who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation.” (Arendt 1967: 177)[3]

To boot the domain of rights to a planetary level is not, however, to suggest that the appropriate body for enforcing those rights is a world government. It seems to me that what we need is not one authority, but several competing ones, with jurisdictions that match the appropriate decision-making scale. So, for instance, municipal participatory budgeting is good for making decisions around how the right to the city is cashed out. But it’s not the best level for making decisions about regional watersheds, or planetary CO2 levels. This looks like I’m making a case for a sort of Kantian cosmopolitan federalism, but I think, following Andrej Grubacic’s thinking on this, I’m calling instead for a sort of Balkanisation, understood as a series of overlapping and conflicting jurisdictions and domains of government, resolved through consensus-based politics.



[2] Cazdyn, Eric. “Disaster, Crisis, Revolution.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:4, Fall 2007.

[3]  Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Allen & U, 1967.

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