Intensive farming, abuse of fertilisers and chemicals, deforestation and the food industry provoke irreparable damage to our planet and to our bodies. To get out of it, as Raj Patel puts it, extractive capitalism must be stopped, and the agroecology model should be applied.
The Earth is ill and weakened and so are we. We all suffer from what British activist and economist of Indian descent Raj Patel defines as a “systemic inflammation.” Such diagnosis is expressed in an original book co-written with Rupa Marya, professor of Medicine at the University of California (Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, 2021): a medical treaty pastiche, socio-economic essay and manifesto for political action where the relation between food, agricultural and food policies and social justice (Patel’s favourite topic) takes centre stage.
Professor Patel, what are the symptoms of such inflammation and why is it chronic?
“We used the word in its literal meaning: in the book, we talk about how our bodies are inflamed and about how they carry its symptoms. There are quite a lot of them: from irritable bowel syndrome to Alzheimer’s; when it comes to Covid, the difference between a serious and a fatal case is inflammation. The latter is the evolutionary system our body has developed to heal. But the reason why we currently define the inflammation as chronic is that all social, biological and chemical stress we have to endure generate such a pressure that the very self-healing process damages our bodies.”
In what way is inflammation of individual bodies connected to that of the Earth?
“What causes negative effects on us is the damage we inflict on our planet. The most obvious symptoms are the catastrophic consequences of climate change, such as the terrible heat wave that hit India in the spring (or that which hit Europe in the summer, editor’s note). Then there is the war against indigenous people or damage to the soil through chemical farming. The inflammation we are talking about, therefore, is happening both in and out of our bodies and is caused by social pressures originating in colonial capitalism.”
Does that apply to Covid-19 too?
“By all means. We turned a blind eye to the fact the world around us has been built in such a way as to generate pandemic diseases: in the meat industry, animal farming and deforestation. Until such industries operate with current methods, the threat of a pandemic is looming ahead.”
In order to change the status quo, you and Marya propose an approach based on “deep medicine”. What is it about?
“Deep medicine not only deals with the structural reasons causing the kinds of behaviour that make us sick, but it also entails a radical transformation of social systems so that people may have more chances to choose, more freedom and more health. Many recognise social determinants of diseases, but very few seem to understand that capitalism is the root cause of inflammation: the treatment to cure it is to abolish it and replace it with something better, by imagining ways to co-operate other than corporative extractive models, thus rebuilding a proper relationship with the natural environment.”
In your written works you often tackled the issue of the unsustainability of processed food. In what way does low-cost food affect people’s health while contributing to systemic inflammation?
“Chemicals used in industrial farming are themselves inflammatory agents. Agents such as glyphosate do not even need to be ingested to develop illnesses: studies show how glyphosate in the air causes adverse reactions in the lungs. Chemical compounds released into the soil cause soil oxidation that is actually burning due to intensive farming. All this leads to inflammation in our bodies while also reducing the number of organisms inhabiting our gut’s microbiome. In particular, inhabitants of the Northern hemisphere, through hygiene and bad practices of industrial farming, exterminated such creatures: our bodies have much less diversified microbiomes, but research shows microbiomes with a high level of biodiversity are associated with lower levels of inflammation and diseases.”
How should the current agricultural production system be modified to make it compatible with climate crisis mitigation?
“We should transform virtually everything: from the size of farms to production processes, that should no longer involve industrial chemistry, but use the best scientific methods concerning crop diversity and synergies amongst several plant varieties able to absorb carbon dioxide into the soil instead of causing its release. All this is possible thanks to what is called agroecology, but other changes are also required.”
“A worldwide agrarian reform allowing the presence of less impactful farms, of the right size to produce healthy and nutritious food in ways compatible with the climate crisis. It is then necessary to transform production and distribution relations in order to reach gender equality: not just so that women are not exploited in production, as is often the case, but also because their greater role has positive consequences on a large scale. Industrial farming was born out of a patriarchal production system and if we want to change it to obtain better results for everyone, tackling this pivotal issue is crucial.”
In your opinion, what will the consequences of the Ukraine invasion be, given the country’s food export importance?
“FAO has already claimed that due to the Ukraine export ban we all risk having 830 million malnourished people worldwide, with a daily availability of fewer than 2,100 calories a day for a year, and that other millions of people will suffer from food insecurity. Such forecast was carried out before India’s fires started, which will cause a 25% drop in local wheat production in a year in which they would have needed more to replace that bought from Ukraine. We are going through a pretty dramatic situation with regard to food prices increase and I think we will witness revolts against governments that were unable to protect their people, because they have to take part in the international trade system, ensuring food prices are kept high.”
In a world where strong inequalities in food access do persist, how can healthier and more sustainable food for everyone be guaranteed?
In general, the reason why people starve is not due to an immediate lack of food. In the United States, there is no shortage of wheat, but they are witnessing a spread of poverty which makes it difficult if not impossible to obtain food. There are 40 million people with food security problems and the figures will soar this year due to food price inflation. So, the easiest thing to do is to increase minimum wages here as well as all over the world.”
What could Europe’s role be?
“It could focus on a couple of things. First and foremost, compensating for the damage it is causing to the South of the world, putting a stop to the indebtedness caused by aggressive exports of the farming industry to those countries. Europe could then take on a leading role worldwide by investing in the transformation of its own farming systems towards agroecology. Unfortunately, the large agro-industrial and chemical magnates are opposed to this in every possible way. Also, a plan such as “Farm to Fork” – which is not revolutionary but better than nothing nonetheless – risks being postponed if not shelved. Just as it intends to get rid of Russian fossil fuels, Europe must stop using chemical fertilisers, which means transforming the way in which soils are farmed.”
Image: Karsten Winegeart (Unsplash)