The value of nothing: how co-ops can help address the issue of cheap food

When prices do not reflect the real value of products the whole economy suffers, says Raj Patel, research professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs...

When prices do not reflect the real value of products the whole economy suffers, says Raj Patel, research professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

An award-winning writer, Prof Patel has been referred to as “the rock star of social justice writing”. This week he was speaking at the International Co-operative Alliance’s Global Conference in Antalya, where he looked at the role of co-ops in achieving a fairer, more sustainable economy and society.

In his books, the British-born American writer touches upon issues such as the causes of hunger, starvation and famine or inequality. His latest work, The Value of Nothing encourages people to rethink the notions of value by placing a stronger emphasis on resources needed to survive, as opposed to inflating the cost of things one can live without.

“I’m touched by the co-operative movement. I buy from co-op stores, travel with co-op cabs, a co-op owns my house and I drink co-op beer,” said Raj Patel.

“The G20 is pushing a model of sustainable development that doesn’t look very sustainable. How to look forward? We should look at the past”. He explained how the Rochdale Pioneers founded the modern day co-operative movement because they could not gain access to cheap food.

One of the most common products sold by the pioneers was tea. The sugar needed for tea was obtained as a result of colonialism, exploitation and slavery. The commerce in tea was also paid for with Indian opium that was sold to China, pointed out Raj Patel.

“This is the ecology in which the co-op movement was born, formed to help workers survive and to think big. Food was at the heart of the original co-op.”

A KPMG graph on the food sector shows how every industry produces some kind of environmental cost associated with doing business, which the industry itself does not have to pay for. In the case of the food sector, profits reach USD $89bn and environmental costs 224% of profit. So how can a cheeseburger cost only USD $1?, asked Prof Patel.

Raj Patel talks with Alliance Director-General Charles Gould
Raj Patel talks with Alliance Director-General Charles Gould

He thinks cheap food needs six ingredients: cheap fuel, cheap nature, cheap care, cheap lives, cheap workers and cheap debt.

In countries like Mexico, China, Brazil, the UK and the USA processed food is much cheaper than fresh food and vegetables.

“It’s come at a great cost, that cost is about nature. We need cheap fuel to have cheap food, 10 calories of fossil fuel produces one calorie of food. Our planet has depended for too long on cheap fossil fuel. Other countries outsource their emissions in China, blaming poor countries for having a bad environment, but the North is profiting from it. The USA, Europe and Japan are responsible for driving fuel consumption to China. We are implicated in this global cheapening of nature”, said Raj Patel.

Another contributing factor is cheap care. “The work of cleaning, fetching fuel, carrying water, all is unpaid by the current economic system, that work has a huge value,” explained the professor.

Cheap debt is also contributing to the price of food. “The countries that are able to create debt, they are also the most powerful”, he said. “Cheap debt has a crippling effect on economic activity.”

In 1781 the captain of a slave ship threw dozens of slaves overboard because it was cheaper to get the insurance for them than to sell them on market. “But cheap lives is not just about treating individual slaves as disposable commodities but treating cultures as disposable. Crops are the result of thousands of years of development by indigenous people and cultures, and these are destroyed. You can’t have a world of McDonalds burgers unless you think it’s good to eat. Colonial imperialism means other cultures don’t matter,” he added.

Cheap labour is influencing the price of food as well. “The original co-ops helped workers survive”, said Raj Patel. Providing a decent wage for fast food or care workers would recognise the dignity of work, he added.

“What do we do with these six cheap things? You have the blueprint for a co-op decade where we can move forward. What co-ops offer is a space to dream bigger, to discover things about ourselves. Encourage people to discover that they can be the boss. You can be the boss – responsible, powerful. Co-ops are a space for learning how to govern one another.”

Talking about the 7th co-operative principle, concern for community, Prof Patel encouraged co-operators to train people across the world to change the world. “We need to be producing many more militants; there are so many groups that are producing militants,” he said. “Pushing back against cheap lives, let’s look at indigenous movements stopping fuel extraction and mining.”

Co-ops can also help secure a transition to renewables. “It’s possible for us to move away from fossil fuel, not just moving from BP and Shell selling fossil fuels to selling solar panels. A much more decentralised model is needed, and who does it better than co-ops?”

While he admits that little is to be expected from this month’s Paris climate talks, Raj Patel thinks real system change can happen outside these talks. “We can’t carry on with the economic model and the ecology of that model.”

He added: “When it comes to work, this is where co-ops have the vision, we need to hire ourselves, recognise and reward labour. We need to recognise that care work happens, reward that work and reduce it. That seems like a challenge for co-ops, how do we reward work and work less to do the care work for our communities to thrive?”

He gave the example of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, which between 1966 and 1982 instituted a variety of community social programs, most extensively the Free Breakfast for Children Programs, and community health clinics.

“They had free healthcare, free shoes, free walks home for elderly, these were called survival programmes, recognising that in this moment working people need help to survive. The US government stepped up its own food distribution system to stop this.” The group was seen as a security threat by the FBI and was dissolved in 1982 after it had lost membership.

“The Black Panthers were about surviving pending revolution. If we don’t have that vision then co-ops become a bubble in which everything is fine for us but not outside of the bubble.

“I look forward to your leadership in transforming the world so that we don’t live with the seven cheap things,” concluded Prof Patel.

In this article

Join the Conversation