Global food-policy specialist and activist Raj Patel discussed what he calls an “international food crisis” with an audience of nearly 200 at the University of Central Florida on Thursday.

Patel is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, a fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy. In his first book, “Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System,” he asserts that powerful distributors control the health of the entire world. His most recent book, “The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy,” focusing on the “financial madness” of the global food system, is a New York Times bestseller.

During the presentation, which was organized by the UCF Global Perspectives Office, Patel stated that we live in a world in which a billion people are overweight, while another billion starve. He declared that the United States, despite its superpower status, is not free from this problem. Patel noted that in 2009 alone, 49.2 million people went hungry in the United States. He further claimed that one in five Americans goes hungry today.

Pulling out a candy bar, Patel jokingly claimed to have the key to the global food system. He commented on how people purchase and eat such items without knowing what is in them or even where they originate. Patel declared that inconvenient food becomes convenient because of the rhythm of our lives. People then routinely take up rather abnormal eating habits, such as eating a candy bar with peculiar-sounding ingredients. 

Patel encouraged the audience to imagine an hourglass shape which represents the global food system, with the thousands of farmers at the top, a handful of companies in the middle and the mass of consumers at the bottom. He further indicated that consumers are led to believe they come out ahead when corporations compete. However, he said, this is not necessarily so. “There is no free market,” Patel said.

Patel then contended that the poor suffer the most in the global food system. On one hand, independent farmers are unable to stand against the strength of the corporations in the market, and on the other hand, the poor – as consumers – are victims.

He further argued that there is more than enough food to feed the world “one and a half times over,” but not under the current capitalist, market-based structure of the global food system, where large corporations receive huge tax incentives and are able to shape the rules to their advantage. To help resolve the problem, Patel encouraged students to get involved and stand for change, either on campus or through global organizations such as La Via Campesina and Slow Food. He maintained that only when all of the concerned parties are at the table can real progress be made toward a more democratic food system.

He said it’s important for people to consume more locally grown food in order to support a projected world population of 9 billion by 2050. He said he views local food systems as stepping stones towards a democracy within the broader food system.

In addition to the Global Perspectives Office, sponsors of this event included The India Program at UCF, the Anil and Chitra Deshpande India Program Endowed Fund, the UCF Political Science Department, the UCF International Services Center, Lawrence J. Chastang and the Chastang Foundation, UCF LIFE and the Global Connections Foundation.