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Sustainability Videos & Lecture Series

The World That Food Made

November 14, 2018 | Raj Patel, an award-winning writer, activist and academic, connected our modern food system with history and sexism and called for integrated change to create a more sustainable food system.


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a generous investment by Julie Ann Wrigley. Wrigley Lecture Series-- world renowned thinkers and problem solvers engage the community in dialogues to address sustainability challenges.

Joan McGregor:

Welcome, everyone I'm so glad you're here. This is really a great event today. We're really, really lucky to have Raj Patel here. And so I have the honor of getting to introduce him. And there's so many things we could say, but I don't want to take too long.

But I do want to tell you a little bit about him. And so let me just say a little bit about his background and some of his work. I'm sure a lot of you know a lot about him already. Raj Patel is a British-born American writer, activist, and academic. He currently holds a research professorship at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin.

He also has a senior research associate at the unit of humanities at Rhodes University in South Africa. He holds academic degrees from Oxford in philosophy, I think it's political philosophy, an MA from the London School of Economics, and a PhD from Cornell. He's done lots of work all around the world. He's worked with the World Bank, the WTO, and he's protested them as well. He has the distinction of being tear gassed on four continents.

I don't think anyone else in the room can say they've had that distinction. He was just recognized in 2016 with the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. He has testified about causes of the global food crisis to the US house of Financial Services Committee and is a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. In addition to his many scholarly articles in economics, philosophy, politics, public health, he regularly writes for The Guardian, he has contributed to the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Times of India, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Observer. He's written three outstanding books.

I hope you have read them. If you haven't, go get them now, and you'll be enlightened about how we got to where we are. For those of us who've been thinking about food and trying to figure out how we got there, his books have really provided us with many insights around the food system. His first book, Stuffed and Starved-- The Hidden Battle of the World Food System really takes on the paradox around food, that we have many people that are malnourished. And we also have many people that are overweight and seem to be overfed.

And there's lots of talk about creating enough food for the world. And yet, there seems to be lots more food than we need. And yet, it's not in the hands of the people who need it. And so we've really prioritized the coalescing of profit instead of looking at justice for farmers and ensuring that everybody has equal access to food. His second book, The Value of Nothing expands on the themes there.

And his latest book, that I think he's going to be talking about today, The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, he really looks at how nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives are the seven things that have made our world and shape its future. So I think we're really going to learn a lot from him today. And certainly that book is a sweeping attempt to sort of pull it together, a lot of the things that have happened since the 14th century globally that brought us to the condition we are today. So it's a magnificent piece of work. And he's also working now on a documentary that maybe he'll get a chance to talk a little bit about, but sounds just fascinating.

So it's really my honor to welcome Raj Patel.

Raj Patel:

Hello. Thank you, Joan. Thank you, Halle. Thank you, Lauren. Thank you, the Wrigley Lecture Series. And most of all, thank y'all. I am Texan now, and I have a license to say y'all, and occasionally, all y'all, which I will be doing from time to time. But first of all, I want to talk to you about the food system, which you may know through some of its more egregious symptoms-- like, for example, the fact that now, and for the third year, we've entered a world where we are seeing in increasing levels of people going hungry.

And that reverses decades of progress. And not just more humans, but a greater proportion of humans are going hungry now. And this is being driven by a range of factors. And I'm going to be talking about those in a second. But this is the world that I was writing about in Stuffed and Starved, talking about how it is that there is increasing levels of hunger, as you can see here.

Since 2015, we've seen more people going hungry. But we're also seeing a rise in the level of obesity. And we have a target rate but it's by 2025 to drop it down to 11.7% of adults who are obese. And we're not on track to meet that at all.

And the reason is the food system. The trouble is that no one really knows what that means. And I'm going to prove to you that you don't know what that means by asking you to read this sentence for me, "When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women." "When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women." You raise your hand if you agree with that. There's a brave gentleman at the back.

Now, this is a sentence that forms part of something called the World Values Survey. And it was administered in a number of countries around the world around 2010. About 2% of Swedes agreed with that statement. About 5.7% of Americans, 52% of Indians, and 99.6% percent of Egyptians. So before you judge, let's ask why. Let's take one of the obvious things out of the equation.

Because if we live in a poor country, if everyone is dirt poor, and our family doesn't have enough money on the table, and men earn more than women do, as they do here and everywhere else, then we would be mad to want less money on the table than more money. And so we might agree with that statement. We might say, yeah, look, we're broke. We want a man job that pays much more than a woman job. Yeah, it's unfortunate that there's sexism.

But right now, what we want is that job. We want the more money job. So let's take the money out of the equation. Let's control for income. What might the other reasons be, why people agree with this sexist statement? What other reasons other than this income issue might there be to agree with sexism? Might it be, for example, the presence or absence of oil? Think about it, there are some countries that are cursed with resources, cursed with oil, for instance.

Think about those countries. And think, well, but maybe there's something about the resource curse itself that lets sexism happen. Maybe it's religion. Maybe there are some faiths more than others that are sexist. Maybe that's the main reason after controlling for income.

Or maybe it's something more nefarious. Maybe it's just representations of bodies, underwear advertisements, or just in general, the mainstream media. I don't know what else we put there, let us throw up another reason, how about plows. Maybe it's plows that explain why some countries are more sexist than others. And of course, the answer is plows.

No, I shit you not. In economics, one of the leading journals in economics is the Quarterly Journal of Economics. And in 2013, these authors found that if you look back 200 years across a range of countries and control for income, one of the things I most reliably predicts sexism is the presence or absence of a history of using the plow. The presence or absence of a history of plowing in a country is one of the greatest predictors about whether a society will be sexist. If you're baffled by that, that's me proving my point that you don't know what the food system is about.

So let me draw you a picture. In fact, let me not draw you a picture. Let me let someone else paint you a picture of what the food system is like and use that to explain how the plow sexism and the food system go together. And the picture is this. It's a picture of the modern food system.

It was painted in 1750 by the English artist, Thomas Gainsborough. If you go to London, you can see it in the Tate Gallery. It is a picture called Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, for it is they. And this is an odd picture, because it is actually their stuff. But it is their land in England, the estate is called the Auberies.

And you can still go there and see that oak tree today. But let's pull this apart. Let's do a little bit of art history here to see what's really going on in this picture. First of all, let's look at Mr. Andrews, shall we.

Look, there he is. And what do you notice about him? First of all, he's very, very, very relaxed. If you count the number of buttons that he has done up, the number is one. That's as casual as it is possible to get in 1750 at all. So he clearly doesn't give a crap about anything.

And he's got a gun, and a dog, and all of that stuff is his. This land, he managed to get partly because his dad was a banker, but partly because his wife was incredibly rich. And together, they bought this land. And they turned it into a modern farm. He is a modern farmer.

He had two reviewed journal articles in the agricultural journals of the day. One called, On the Smut in Wheat. Smut being not naughty, but just fungus. And the other journal article, On the Profit in the Modern Farm. And he knows how to make a profit, because look what he's got there.

He's got nice, neat rows of wheat, sheaves that have been brought to him by his workers. Of course, the workers are absent. But you can still see the technology that was used here. You can see the plow, at least you can see what the plow has left. It's left part of a monoculture, a single crop grown for maximal return.

And it could be that the wheat was put there and the seeds were planted using a seed drill. That's a technology invented in 1705 by Jethro Tull. And it's important that those of you of a certain age understand that Jethro Tull is not just good British prog rock. So what you have here is an example of monoculture and profit. And this is a sign of the modern food system.

Here's the plow at work. But the plow doesn't happen by itself. It requires workers. And it requires male workers in this case, men strong enough to pull the plow backwards and forwards. But it also requires private property. It requires that the land belong to the Andrews. And it means that other land has to be enclosed.

And if you look in the distance there, you can see an area that was once common land the common. Before capitalism, there was a system of social relations called feudalism. And under feudalism, there were areas that peasants managed together. Now, you may have heard of the tragedy of the commons. But the tragedy in this case was that people were kicked off it.

The tragedy is not that people exploited the land until it died. On the contrary, they needed to be evicted from the commons. And in particular, what needed to happen was that women who were using the commons to drive cattle, who were making money from dairying, had to be prevented from doing that. And when you see the enclosure of the commons in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, you start to see a divergence in women and men's wage rates. Feudalism wasn't great, but capitalism made gender inequality worse by stopping peasant women from being able to participate in the workforce.

They weren't allowed to dairy, they weren't allowed to engage in farm labor, they weren't allowed to be healers or teachers. In fact, if you want to know their fate, let's look at Mrs. Andrews. Mrs. Andrews is not as relaxed as her husband. She is wearing clothes that are not for the outdoors. He's wearing hunting gear, and she's wearing a ball gown. And if you look at the unfinished area of the canvas, here, this is an area where people hypothesized that there might have been a bird shot by her husband with his gun brought to him by his dog and placed in her lap.

Another hypothesis is that it would have been a baby, a little junior Andrews. But whatever would be painted into there, the interpretation of reading of this picture is that Mrs. Andrews is as bound, as enclosed, as the land around her. And her position is part of the portrait in which modern farming appears and so does the plow. This is a picture of a system, a system in which certain parts need to be held down, certain parts need to be rendered invisible in order that other parts be made. Profitable that's how the plow, sexism, and food go together.

Does that makes sense? There are enough nodding heads that I will move forward. But if you are baffled, we can come back to this in questions. But that's important. You might think well, all right, that's 1750. What has that got to do with us today? But in fact, this system is one we live right now.

And we live it in ways that not just we will experience, but if there's ever any civilization after us, they will know that we are here because of this system. In the fossil record right now, we are leaving traces that there were humans on the planet, with things like radiation from our atmospheric weapons tests and plastic. Because by 2050, there'll be more plastic in the sea than fish. By 2047, the last commercial fish catch will have been landed, 2050, more plastic in the sea than fish. But one of the other signs of humans on Earth will be chicken bones.

Because right now, chicken, this is the world's most popular bird. Not this particular one, but in general, chicken is the world's most popular bird. There are 12 billion chickens alive today, but not for long. Chickens tend to last about 90 days from egg to nugget. And we go through about 50 billion chickens a year.

And that means that there are trillions of chicken bones being laid into the fossil record. In other words, one of the signs that humans ever set foot on this planet-- if there's any civilization after us and they look in the fossil record, what they'll find is chicken bones. And that's a sign of what some people call the Anthropocene, the era of the sixth extinction. But it's the chicken bones that will be the mystery. How is it that one bird gets to have trillions of its bones scattered so widely? Well, the answer is capitalism.

And it's important to understand what it is that has made this the world's most popular bird. Right now, every human goes through about 30 pounds of it a year. And that number is going up and up as the human population is going up. So how is it that this bird gets to be so popular? First of all, it's the seven cheap things in the book. Let me just give you the free version right now. The idea here is that capitalism needs nature.

It needs to be able to have some domain in which you can take as much as you like, and throw away as much as you like back into it, and not pay a dime. And when it comes to chicken, that means we take this gorgeous bird, the red jungle fowl from the jungles of Asia. And then, we mutate it, because we can. And we mutate it into this thing, with breasts so large that it can't even walk. This is the modern broiler chicken.

And in the process of doing this, we've lost 50% of the genetic diversity of all chickens. And that's the case writ large. These are graphs showing earth system trends and social trends. And it's hard to see from the back. Let me just simplify it for you.

This is where we're heading. You may have seen a graph like this before. And you may have associated it with people like Thomas Malthus, the British population theorist who was basically terrified of the working class shagging, and reproducing, and shagging, and reproducing, and then eating up the planet. But that's not the case I'm making. I'm not making a population argument.

I'm making a capitalism argument. I'm saying that it's capitalism that's driven us to this moment, because there are plenty of civilizations alive right now that have not been responsible for the sixth extinction. It's only one civilization in particular, the one around capitalism, that has driven us to this extreme. Let's get back to this chicken nugget, because the chicken doesn't turn itself into a nugget by magic. It requires workers.

When you buy a chicken nugget at your preferred vendor, you spend $1 on it, about $0.02 will go to the worker. But in some cases, that's too much. And there's always a downward pressure on wages, as anyone who works for a living knows. And so prison labor is used in the United States.

Some prisoners get paid $0.25 an hour. Recently, in Oklahoma, some enterprising chicken executives had an amazing idea. They killed two birds with one stone, not including the chicken. What they did was recognize that there is an opioid crisis in America right now and that it's hard to find workers to work the night shift at a chicken production line, because the wages are shitty and it's dark.

And so what they did was invent something called Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery. And it's a recovery center where instead of being sent to jail for minor crimes related to substance addiction, you get sent to Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery. And then, you spend your day praying to the Almighty. And by night, as part of your rehabilitation, you work on the chicken line. You're not covered by standard worker safety regulations there, and you don't a thing.

It's free work as far as the chicken production facility is concerned. But it's part of your treatment, your rehabilitation, your redemption. It's an amazing system of dealing with the opioid crisis. And it's the oldest system of capitalist labor in this continent. Because what did the Spanish first do when they came to the United States and enslaved indigenous people, but put them to work in the name of Jesus Christ almighty? And by day, they would work.

And on Sunday, they would pray for the salvation of their souls. This is exactly the same thing, except with a night shift. This is the 21st century, and we have come not very far at all. But this cheap labor is running. Even in China, we're seeing a rise in the number of strikes.

Workers are becoming more and more militant. And cheap labor is harder and harder to find, which explains, in part, why you need these amazing kinds of schemes. But when workers' bodies are broken, as they are, what happens? They are sent out into the community to be cared for. And workers' bodies are broken. This is a short graphic that shows that the various parts of the body that are prone to injury in chicken production.

And it's usually the community's work to take care of workers who are broken this way, because occupational health and safety doesn't cover it. And by community, of course, we always mean women, because invariably, care work is always disproportionately gendered. And the world economy depends on it. Just to give you a very boring bar chart, in 1995, the world's total output was $33 trillion. And of that $16 trillion was unpaid work, of which $11 trillion was women's unpaid work.

But the cost of care globally is going up. And health care in particular is outstripping what people can afford. Care is becoming too expensive. The era of cheap care is over. And of course, then, one of the corollaries of paying people virtually nothing and assuming that their care will come for free is that you need cheap food.

You need food that only costs $1 for all of that or each of those. And cheap food is the corollary of low wages. That's why when some people say, well, we need to pay more for our food. If they don't insist also that people need to be paid more for their labor, then they're just bourgeois. Cheap food is what it is that makes the modern economy possible.

But the trouble is that because of climate change, all the staple crops, the commodity crops on which our cheap food system depends, well, they're running out. Or rather, they're slated to become much less productive because of climate change. And the era of cheap food is on the wane. You can substitute that, for the cheapest food to some extent by using energy. And of course, you need cheap energy to heat the hen houses, and oil the machinery of nugget production, and then to make the systems of logistics run.

But again, in terms of the price of oil, it's becoming more expensive to pull oil out of the ground. And climate change demands that we stop and that we have to keep oil in the ground. And so the era the cheap energy on which we've come to depend is over. And again, our food system also depends on cheap loans. Mean every KFC that's a franchise is eligible for loans from the Small Business Administration.

That means low interest loans. And although interest rates have gone up recently, everyone from the economists to the Fed imagines a time in the not too distant future where we get back to 0% interest rates. And the era of cheap money is on the way out, too, which is why we find ourselves in the era of the seventh cheap thing, cheap lives. If you look on the production line, it's women and people of color who are disproportionately represented. And if you look globally, the ultimate signifier of cheap lives is slavery.

And today, we have 40 million modern day slaves, 25 million in forced labor, 15 in forced marriage. And 11% of the forced labor is in agriculture. So what are we going to do about this? I've given you the depressing part of the talk. And now, we can look to uplift, surely.

Because all we need is the right kind of business environment. If only we find our partners in the private sector, we can turn this around. Who is going to undo it-- obviously, we can't just transform the system by getting rid of plows. We cannot end sexism tomorrow by turning our plows into swords or anything else. We need some transformative action. And maybe the private sector with organic, and shade-grown, and fair trade, maybe they can help us out. Trouble is that I was sent to this report by KPMG.

You're familiar with the anarchists at KPMG. KPMG is a management consultant firm, so not anarchists. And I was pushed to this report by one of the Vise Presidents of Sustainability at Nestle. And he said, yes, you should read this, because it sort of matches what we found. And so KPMG, in their catchily-titled report, "Expect the Unexpected-- Building Business Value in a Changing World," they analyzed the revenue that every major industry had in 2010.

And then, they said, well, all right, look, every industry dodges a little bit. There are some unsustainable things that they do. Maybe they pollute the groundwater. Maybe there's some nitrogen pollution, or sulfur dioxide, or particulate emission. And they had some very conservative estimates. And they said, all right, let's just put a dollar value to that using some low-ball numbers so that we can't be accused of exaggerating.

And let's see what we can find. And what do they find? They find that-- look at the oil and gas industry, there. $670 billion of revenue, just of revenue, of cash in the industry-- and 23% of that revenue is environmental costs. So you can imagine a scenario where Exxon Mobil gives away a quarter of its revenue to cover its environmental damage, and everything's going to be OK. The exception, of course, is the food industry.

The food industry is the one where, even under the most conservative assumptions, assumptions that lets the oil and gas industry get away just fine, the footprint of the food industry is 224% of revenue. Just to give you a sense, that's to say that includes the cost of labor, the cost of all the inputs, all of that is the revenue number. It's not the profits that this industry makes, it's all of the money in that industry in that year. And 224% of that is the environmental footprint. And the Head of Sustainability at Unilever said, yeah, that's what we found when we did our in-house calculation.

That should give you pause. Because if you think that some representative of big food can come up here and honestly tell you that they are going to be part of the solution, you know that they are lying. Because whether it's looking at climate change, for example-- there's nothing structural about the way that these industries work. From a recent report, from Grain shows that the top five dairy and meat producers have anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission equivalents the same as some of the large oil companies. And of course, this is not even to start talking about the human cost.

Last year, Global Witness showed some of the land in which indigenous people had been killed defending their land against different kinds of industry. And for the first year, the industry that killed more people than any other was agribusiness-- agribusiness more than mining, which is the traditional bad guy in the war against indigenous people. But agribusiness now is the industry that pushes and kills indigenous people, because agribusiness requires palm oil plantations and soybean plantations so that we can have our cheap meat and our emulsifiers in our snacks. And that means that there is a death toll associated with this cheap food, which the food industry knows all too well. And that's to say that there's no such thing as a sustainable food industry, not under the rules that we have at the moment.

And that's awkward. Because if the private sector won't do it, maybe the government will. Maybe there's a way in which we can rely on our states to help us. I'm a little pessimistic about that, because think of the institution of the modern state. It's the sort of thing that develops through colonialism.

The modern state that we have now happens because it was promulgated through European colonialism. The modern state as we know it has its archetype in European forms that accompany this kind of global domination. And with that global domination comes certain ideas about whose voice counts and whose doesn't, certain ideas about who counts as a person, who counts as human, and who is less than human, and whose voice matters, and whose feelings, and whose personhood counts, and whose doesn't. The history of scientific racism and the rise of the modern state can't be separated. And you may say, well, that's harsh, and the modern states have been tremendously bad in terms of their abuse, not just of humans, but of animals.

And in fact, the human-animal nexus is something we should talk about later on. This, incidentally, is a pig that was being modified in Germany to be able to eat food from the homeland. This is a national pig. It comes from an excellent book that I recommend it to anyone who's interested at all in history. The book is called Fascist Pigs.

But it's really about fascist pigs. And it's about the kinds of operation that, alongside the final solution, were being offered in terms of the food system in order that fascism might triumph. And you could say again, Raj, that's harsh. I mean, surely there are countries that are good to animals and that are good to other beings. Think of this country, India.

This is India, just let me give you that. So in India, everyone knows that this sort of Nexus between treating people and animals badly has been broken, because everyone in India loves cows. India is not the place you go for a hamburger. India, it is the cow-loving country. It's filled with Hindus who would rather cuddle a cow than kill it.

Of course, that's true to an extent. India is still the world's largest exporter of Buffalo and cow products, even though in many states it's now illegal to kill them intentionally. And of course, India is still the sort of place where the tropes of nationhood loom large. India is the country where there's a guy in charge who's a bit of a bully. He runs the country by sort of fiat and he is Islamophobic.

He sees radical Islamic terrorism around every corner. And he uses his social media account, biggest in the world, to try to goad the population into fear of Islam. And he gives away concessions to polluting industries, and thumbs his nose at climate change. And people die as a result. If that sounds familiar, it should.

But Narendra Modi is, in every way, a fascist. And under the Hindu supremacy that he's fostered, you do see the idea of Islamophobia resulting in people being killed, Muslims being killed on suspicion of having beef in their fridge, as Mohammed Akhlaq was. But he's not the only one. There have been a spate of these killings. The nation has mobilized to be able to protect the idea of itself, the idea of the nation as this pure place of certain kinds of people.

And other people are below contempt. It's not just a white thing, it comes associated with the idea of the modern nation state. But it is the sort of thing that we live with here. And if you don't think that, you should--

What's more American than a cheeseburger? This cheeseburger-- loaded with a dog and potato chips, in the hands of All-American model, Samantha Hoopes in a hot tub in a pickup truck driven by an American bull rider on an aircraft carrier under the gaze of Lady Liberty, as she admires the Most American Thickburger, with a split hot dog and kettle-cooked potato chips on a fresh-baked bun, new at Carl's Junior.

When I show that in Europe, people think I made that up. But that's an entire sociology course in 30 seconds. It's the intersection of race, and class, and gender, and militarism, and the idea of the nation, and the government that is there to protect us, but is there to protect only a few, and defends a certain kind of gastronomy as pure, whereas the infidels don't like to eat pork, in this particular case. And so there's too much to unpack there if we're to get to the good news, so I'm going to skip over this orange menace. Sorry, I was talking about the chicken, obviously. And I want to talk about the opposite of this picture.

If the modern food system is about a certain kind of specialization, a certain kind of dominion over nature, and a dominion that is also patriarchal, a dominion that is about class prejudice and about race, what's the opposite of this? This might qualify. This is an interesting picture. It's an 1857 picture by Jean-Francois Millet. It's called Des Glaneuses, The Gleaners. And when it was first exhibited in Paris, it caused a riot.

Why would this picture cause a riot? You look at it, and it seems fairly inoffensive. You can't even see anyone's face. You can't even see anyone's face. And that is part of what was important about this picture. It represents three women who are working, and whose work is dignified, and who are-- there is a man.

There he is, the lord of the manor. He's over there trying to command people to harvest. But it's not him that matters, it's them. It's their work. And they're not harvesting, their gleaning.

They're using the arts of the commons. They're not engaged in industrial monoculture. They're engaged in resuscitating, recuperating, and redignifying, and remembering the commoning that has been taken away from them. It's a fairly revolutionary painting. And it's important to remember that commoning and its arts are not dead, however much we may wish them and however much we are taught that the tragedy of the commons is that no one owned the commons, and that's what was bad about it.

No, commoning is alive and well, whether in indigenous communities or indeed in communities elsewhere. I wanted to just end with a story, and show you some of this documentary I've been working on, where there's some fairly positive results. In northern Malawi in the year 2000, the HIV/AIDS epidemic had reduced life expectancy to 43 years. More than half of the children were malnourished. People were living on less than $0.50 a day.

And in that context, there was a move by local health care workers, and a colleague of mine from Cornell, Rachel Bezner Kerr went down there as part of her graduate work. And she worked with local farmers and local activists to reimagine what agriculture could be like. And since the US had bankrupt, and the European Union had, through loans, made sure that the government really couldn't afford an agricultural extension service, it was up to farmers themselves to experiment. And so with help from a colleague from Michigan State, and with finding, and hustling, and getting some seeds, farmers themselves became scientists and experimenters. And they started experimenting with intercropping and figuring out what kinds of combinations of crops would work well.

And they ended up rediscovering the milpa system of corn, and beans, and squash, where the corn is the calories that everyone wants. It's the staple crop. Then, the beans are protein, and they help fertilize the soil, because they're a legume. And then, the squash has these big, fat leaves that shade out the weeds. And then, they're nutritious. And then, you also get the squash. And you attract the beneficial insects.

You have this amazing, rich agroecological system. And it's worth recognizing that through this system, protein was increased by 50% and yields for everything else stayed high compared to industrial agriculture. So this works better than industrial agriculture. It's much more affordable. And it's possible that to be way more food than using conventional agricultural systems. But the farmers were worried.

They were nervous about the effect that this could have on children. They were worried that there could be more food and infant malnutrition would increase. How can there be more food and infant malnutrition increases? How can there be more food and infant malnutrition goes up? Take a guess. Put yourself in the shoes of these farmers who were researchers and experts in their lives and in their food ways.

How is it that you can have more food and infant malnutrition goes up? Exports. In some cases, it might be possible if these were going straight to market, that what would happen is that they would be exported out of the country. But not in this case. These were for domestic consumption. So it's not exporting. How else can infant malnutrition go up? Yeah?


There you go. That's right. The answer is that harvesting and engaging in this kind of agriculture is much more labor intensive. But harvesting, in particular, is women's work. But so is cooking, and cleaning, and fetching firewood, and breastfeeding. So if there's more harvesting to do and there's more food to harvest, then it's possible that food intake, the quality of meals, and the amount of breastfeeding can go down. Do you see that? More food and breastfeeding goes down.

So how do you fix that? What do you do? Shout it out. Share the labor. In this case, the harvesting, women fought to have the harvest be under their control. Because if you harvest, then you're in charge of the sale of the crop. And if you're in charge of the sale of the crop, you're in charge of the income. And that's important if there are unscrupulous vendors and the odd husband who might sell for a lower price in exchange rate for a couple of bottles of beer, which has been known to happen.

So in order to control and make sure the household income was high, women insisted on controlling the income. So then what do you do? If the harvesting absolutely has to be done by women, then what else might happen? Baby formula, which would be a suboptimal approach. We know that breast is best. But there are other things-- and also, no one can afford baby formula, because everyone is living on $0.50 a day. So what else if not baby formula or sharing the labor?

Get the men to harvest.

No, the men can't harvest. But get the men to cook. Get the men to cook. Because if you remove that household labor element, and you get men to clean and fetch firewood, then you're golden. So how do you do that? Anyone? But equal wages won't work because no one's getting paid.

This is all subsistence labor. How do you get men to cook? Does anyone have any idea? Give them a grill. No? So this is the invention that they came up with. They were scientists, initially they started-- they had cookery classes, where the man of the house would be pulled out by a local farmer research team. And there was the man of the house.

You may have seen your wife hunched over this, it's a pot. And the man would be like, I've always wondered what that was and how that worked. And so then, there's a cooking class. And it's lovely. And the food is delicious.

And then, the team walks off into the night, and nothing changes. Because that's just like the Food Network. You don't watch the Food Network to end patriarchy. That's not what the Food Network is for. And so in the end, they invented something called recipe days. And it's trial and error, and good scientific practice, they just tried a bunch of things.

And they reviewed, and then they iterated. And recipe days are an event where women, men, and children get together and the event gameifies cooking. It turns it into a competition. It becomes a space where women get to teach men, and men get to teach other men, and women get to call men out on our patriarchy. And it becomes a space of equality just for a little while. And then, it's followed up by some hard feminist organizing.

And I want to show you what that looks like. This is a clip from the documentary that we've been working on. I've been working on this with the director Steve James. He did Hoop Dreams, which is probably the greatest documentary in the US in the past 30 years. It's probably good that you see this for yourselves. Here we are.

This is what recipe days look like. This is what commoning might look like. This is what transformative deep social change looks like.


So you may not have heard genesis used in that way before. But the results sort of speak for themselves. Throughout Malawi, rates of child stunting really haven't declined very much. And there's still an obscene number of children who suffer the privations of malnutrition to the extent that their bodies will be permanently broken. But in this area where this intervention is happening, they've had to close the neonatal rehabilitation unit, because they haven't had enough cases to justify it being open. And in general, the kind of outcome that we're seeing around these efforts to undo the plow, these are intersectional efforts that are about understanding that agroecology has to come with social change, with gender equality, and with ways of managing the local ecology and managing the local economy.

And that's something that we need to learn here, that if we're interested in undoing the plow, then our efforts need to be intersectional. If we're interested in a different food system, then we need to recognize that you can't undo cheap work and cheap food independently, that struggles for one are struggles for the other. Or thinking about cheap energy and cheap nature, there are ways to reintegrate, and re-transform, and re-imagine what an energy economy might look like without treating nature as an infinite resource and trash can. And it's important to recognize also that there are ways of approaching ideas of the lives that are spat out by the modern food system and the money on which it depends in ways there that pushback. And that means demanding reparations, for example, for things like colonialism, for the genocide that made this country possible, and for the ecological debt that all of us cause to be suffered by the countries in the global south.

And again, one can list all of these. But I want to just end with a story that is about re-imagining what this food system might look like by drawing from first nation ideas. In this case, in the Pacific boundary of what is currently called the United States and Canada. And this is a coastal Salish totem. And in coastal Salish communities, there are ways of engaging with food and nature that are very different from the way that we understand it, where, for example, rather than treating food as a resource, there's this thing called a salmon festival that celebrates the treaty between the coastal Salish people and the salmon people.

And so when the first salmon swims up the stream, it is caught and celebrated for 10 days. And for 10 days, the entire village recognizes the treaty. And it's only after 10 days that the fish can be pulled from the river. And that means that for 10 days, they can make it up and spawn, and make sure that there is another generation of fish. And when they are taken, they are taken not as commodities, not a resources, but as lives that have been taken as part of the treaty and are taken with reverence.

And that's a very different way for us to engage with the web of life around us than to understand one another as resources or to understand our food as a commodity. And that points a sort of seismic shift in the way that we understand ourselves, and the world around us, and the web of life. But I think that's the kind of seismic shift we need as capitalism moves towards a final crisis. As we move towards catastrophic climate change and epidemic disease, which ended the system before capitalism and will end this one, we have some choices to make about what it is we imagine afterwards. And there are models to follow and ideas for us to dream together.

But that's the whole point, isn't it? None of us can do it alone. We have to do it together. And I've made this whole presentation that was all possible by all of these people. And I want to acknowledge them. But most of all, I want to thank you. And let's get to discussing and imagining what the world might be like. Thanks very much.


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability for educational and noncommercial use only.