Author Raj Patel’s food revolution: From chips to salad

Raj Patel (left) is fêted by Bill Schechner at the recent Berkeley Public Library Foundation's Annual Authors Dinner. Photo: Richard Friedman

Raj Patel is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an honorary research fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, in Oakland.

Such affiliations allow the academic activist to hang out with his brethren in both camps. At the same time it affords the Oxford, Cornell, and London School of Economics educated writer the time and freedom to turn out newspaper think pieces and serious tomes on weighty topics served with a healthy dollop of his trademark wit. (Perhaps a legacy of his British upbringing, Patel has a fondness for Monty Python).

His first book, the well-received Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, documents the toll on human health of industrial agriculture’s global food production.

His second, The New York Times bestseller, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, chronicles the failures of the free-market economy, the hidden costs of consumption (see him discuss $200 hamburgers on the Colbert Report) and the social movements seeking to fix the system around the world.

Bizarrely, while plugging his second book, Patel, 38, developed a cult following of fans who claimed he was, um, The Messiah. This title came courtesy of an obscure religious group that refers to God by the name Maitreya. Devotees flocked to Patel’s readings and flooded his email. He debunked his exalted status in the press, joked about it on his blog (Monty Python fans can guess how), and now prefers not to comment on the strange matter.

A recent U.S. citizen, he was honored — with a slew of other authors — at the Berkeley Public Library Foundation’s Annual Authors Dinner in February. We met in San Francisco where Patel lives with his wife and young son.

What was you relationship to food like growing up?

My parents — my mother was born in Kenya, my father in Fiji — ran a corner shop in London, so I grew up on a diet of salty and sweet crap. I was literally the kid in the candy store. Britain’s contribution to cuisine then seemed to solely be its incredible selection of crisps [aka, chips]. I was fond of cheese and onion crisps. There were even hedgehog-flavored crisps. I was a fussy eater; I’d only eat roti smothered in ketchup.

When did that start to change?

When I was working on Stuffed and Starved. Prior to that I seemed to survive by chugging Red Bull. I met people in Brazil, India, Italy, Senegal and elsewhere for whom food wasn’t just about survival; they took eating seriously. It was about growing, sharing, and cooking together. That blew me away, it was like I was eating for the first time.

Sooner or later everything seems to come back to food with you. True?

Yes, because food ties everything together that we should care about and that is currently in crisis  — the environment, climate, wages, labor, poverty, health and so on. It’s about what we need to survive on this planet, the way we interact with the earth, and the way we replenish or don’t replenish the earth. It’s something primal that unites us all.

Your books detail a lot of wrongs around the world. But you also see reasons to be hopeful, particularly in the food arena. Why?

The food movement is one of the most vibrant areas of social change in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world right now. The concept of food sovereignty is a democratic way to seriously address some of the big issues of the day. The farmers and landless people known as La Via Campesina, are an inspiring global example. Close to home, the Oakland Food Policy Council — local doesn’t have to mean parochial — are doing good work. It’s an exciting time to be organizing around food.

Are there academics at UC Berkeley you admire?

Many. The professor of soil science, Ignacio Chapela, because he flagged the extent to which the university was willing to sell off some academic freedoms in exchange for a large donation by the corporation Novartis.

In the Department of Geography people like Gillian Hart, for her work on South Africa.

Michael Pollan in the journalism faculty because his food writing largely paved the way for people like myself. I’m grateful for his work.

What’s next?

I’m researching a project about the future. It’s early days yet. Food will probably be in there somewhere.

What do you like to cook?

I make a mean salad.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

Related:
It’s in The New Yorker: God spotted in Berkeley [11.30.10]
Tickets in Berkeley scarce for Joyce Carol Oates’ talks [2.10.11]
Michael Pollan talks food rules at Ferry Building [1.23.10]

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  • Brad

    I’m glad he now prefers not to comment on the Messiah matter. Absolutely foolish for anybody to think Mr Patel as the return of the Christ, Buddha, Krishna etc