Stuffed and starved

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Raj Patel, Portobello Books, £16.99

This book analyses the paradox contained in its title. Huge numbers of people in one part of the world suffer from starvation, while in other areas there is an obesity epidemic. Starvation is not new in human history, but what is relatively new is that people are starving even though enough food is produced to feed everyone. Having one billion people on the planet overweight, the majority of them poor, is also a historical first.

Raj Patel argues that there is a common root to both problems - a global food production system guided by the profit motive, dominated and organised by a tiny number of transnational corporations.

Discussions of the food we eat and the size and power of supermarkets are now commonplace, with books such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation in the bestseller lists. This book is a welcome addition to this canon. However, Stuffed and Starved goes further, locating the problems in a historical framework.

It also goes beyond debates on individual consumer choice, "choice lite", as Patel calls it. This is particularly crucial at a time when the arguments over food are so often reduced to how to source an organic chicken - the "honey trap" of ethical consumerism as described by Patel and brought to you by your local transnational supermarket.

He identifies free market capitalism, from its earliest colonial forms to contemporary neoliberalism, as a system in which food has been regarded as both a marketable commodity and, cynically, as a tool to pacify rebellious populations.

He quotes the colonialist and businessman Cecil Rhodes, who, having left a meeting of unemployed east London workers demanding bread in 1895, wrote, "The Empire as I have always said is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists."

Patel regards Rhodes's words as the honest articulation of ruling class attitudes. This perspective runs through British colonialism, hungry Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, the domination of the Third World during the Cold War and contemporary capitalism.

When the US, Canada and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), the price of tortillas - many Mexicans' staple diet - rose dramatically. At the same time tens of thousands of Mexican farmers lost their livelihoods as subsidised US corn flooded the market. The greatest obscenity was the increase in the number of obese and diabetic Mexicans, who spent their diminishing incomes in Wal-Mex, the Mexican wing of Wal-Mart, now given free reign courtesy of Nafta.

The book concludes with a look at the movements and ideas that can challenge the horrors of the market. The programme for change that Patel outlines in conclusion is to be welcomed, but sometimes feels modest in comparison to the systemic nature of the problem that he so clearly identifies.

Nevertheless, this book is an important and radical contribution to the literature on the food we eat and the world in which we live.