Using Media to Understand and Change the Global Food System

Sept. 16, 2015

Raj Patel, academic, writer, activist and award-winning writer, said that raising public awareness and promoting the demand for policy development in attempt to transform the global food system is crucial and that media is a strong vehicle for creating public policy in a room full of twenty Ph.D. students Thursday at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

As food prices skyrocket, climate change is rapidly affecting our planet and our life expectancy rates are quickly decreasing directly because of our food choices, it is becoming increasingly evident that changing the food system is essential. Enter: “Generation Food”, a revolutionary media, documentary and book project spearheaded by Patel and award-winning director, Steve James, regarding important strides in the global food system. “Generation Food” looks specifically at communities across the globe as key test sites of research and food production in terms of the child malnutrition rates and attempts at experimentation with a range of different kinds of food that cut back on environmental effects while still maintaining an output of food that sustains our planet.

Patel said that “Food, Inc.”, an investigative documentary released in 2008 by filmmaker Robert Kenner focused on the corporate farming industry in the United States painted the global food crisis in an unfair and untrue light. “Food, Inc.” makes the claim that it is consumer demand that has the power to change the entire food industry. Yet according to Patel, the idea that if we make healthier choices, production in the industrialized food system will change, the “chomp our way out of it” approach suggested by the film, leaves the food industry laughing. Data from Nestlé’s global sustainability report supports Patel’s claim, as statistics from 2014 reveal that consumer habits only have about a 4 percent effect on influencing production output, classifying it’s value as “moderate”, while agriculture is classified as “major” in terms of directly and indirectly promoting economic activity and improving livelihoods of agricultural workers in order to promote sustainable agricultural communities.

“The idea that you vote with every bite you take is a convenient myth that Americans buy into,” Patel said.

Patel said that much of the global food crisis has to do with the fact that we are living in the “era of cheap food,” where cheap workers need cheap care, which requires cheap food and cheap fuel and contributes to an overall “cheap nature”. In order to produce a dollar burger, everything must be cheaper, from the ingredients to the labor, affecting not only the quality of the final product, but the quality of life for workers. Fresh fruit and vegetable costs are rising and growing more unattainable while processed food and meat costs are not.

“Generation Food” looks specifically at Malawi, a country in southeast Africa, as a key test site of research and food production in terms of the child malnutrition rates and attempts at experimentation with a range of different kinds of food that cut back on environmental effects while still maintaining a sustainable output of food. Patel said that the idea that in order to feed more kids, we need to grow more food is mistaken and it’s important to tell people the truth.

The issue isn’t the amount of food in the Malawian fields; the Soils, Foods and Healthy Communities Project, a group of research teams formed to assess soil fertility, food securities, and child malnutrition, shows that while there is enough food in the fields, child malnutrition rates continue to rise. The bigger issue at hand is one of gender equality: it is the woman’s role to harvest and cook, but while they’re tending the fields, breastfeeding rates plummet leaving children famished.

Patel said that in a time where academic journals are largely ignored, “Generation Food” uses media to explore how attempts at greater gender equality can play a larger role. “ Generation Food” promotes women to roles as community leaders, where they are given the responsibility of overseeing the changes in their own area and taken to do the same in surrounding communities, empowering one another to make change. At the time of production, 17,000 farmers in Malawian villages were involved and malnutrition was being combated on a new level. But “Generation Food” doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, as some of the men are reluctant to change the existing gender structure where women carry the largest burden of work.

“You can end it with guitar music, but there isn’t a happy ending that is easy here. Simplifying it isn’t fair. It’s hard and it represents the struggle well,” Patel said about the film’s ending.

Patel’s focus is not only on the results in Malawi and other key test sites across the world, but on media to promote change. While a film may have shock value and get people talking, Patel’s real question is whether or not film can make a statement that makes global change.

Eli Pouplso, a Ph.D. student studying elections at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, was impressed by Patel’s presentation but skeptical of the reliability of using media to promote change.

“The idea that activism itself can bring change is nice but at some point, activism needs to be related to political action to bring change,” Eli Pouplso said. “My assumption is that if you really wanted to get involved and make change, you would use politics.”

While Patel agrees that political action is certainly important, he argues that film can be a strong candidate as a method for organizing people behind a cause.

Peter Ward, professor and organizer of the Ph.D. colloquium agrees with Patel that media can certainly generate change.

“Major media pieces like “Generation Food” are crucial in raising public awareness and promoting the demand for serious policy development and evaluation,” Ward said. “As several participants noted, it seems unlikely to have a dramatic effect, but that does not belie the effort and importance of doing the work that Dr. Patel is undertaking.”

“We don’t quite know what we’re doing,” Patel said. “But with food, you get joy three times a day if you organize around it and this film is most definitely a method for organizing.”