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The Guardian/UK

Fat Chance

Modern capitalism's powerful spell means we cannot accept research into world food policy without turning it into an attack on the overweight

Raj Patel

Not a lot of people know it, but in early versions of the Atkins diet, Robert Atkins performed some magic.

In the book that launched his eponymous diet, Atkins observed, correctly, that "sugar is the American food industry's friend" and that modern diets were shaped by contemporary capitalism. We are forced to consume sugar not because it's good for us, said Atkins, but because it's good for the food manufacturers. As Steven Shapin notes, there are moments where Atkins' original critique looks rather like that of other systemic critics of the way we eat today, like slow food.

And then, with a flick of his wrist and a twinkle in his eye, Atkins flips all this on his head. Rather than seeking a collective and systemic solution to a collective and systemic problem, the answer to our being poisoned by sugar is an almost penitent abstemiousness, an exercise of control of the will and, well, the Atkins diet. It's all very Foucauldian.

This is powerful sorcery, but we muggle on oblivious. Our culture is geared, as I've noted before, to understanding social problems much more easily when they're presented as individual vices. Today, I saw that magical moment of mutation happen before my eyes.

This week's Lancet contains a letter from two researchers at the London School of Hygiene. They present some very sensible arguments about food policy. They observe that "petrol tanks and stomachs were competing well before biofuels were proposed to tackle climate change," since transportation and industrial agriculture are both premised on cheap fossil fuel. One way to tackle the competition for a scarce resource is to change transport policy - a shift towards walking and cycling would reduce both the demand for fossil fuel, and secondarily mean that there were fewer overweight people, thus driving down the need for food. All well and good.

They estimate that a population of a billion people at a healthy body mass index would use a total of 10.5 MJ through the daily business of eating and living.

And then they throw in this grenade. It's worth quoting at length to see the damage that gets done subsequently.

"An obese population of 1 billion people with a stable mean BMI of 29.0 kg/m2 would require an average 7 MJ of food energy per person per day to maintain basal metabolic rate, and 5.4 MJ per person per day for activities of daily living (calculations available from the authors). Compared with the normal weight population, the obese population consumes 18% more food energy."

It's a straightforward comparison between a billion not-quite-overweight people and a billion obese people. Not that there are one billion obese people. The World Health Organisation puts the figure at 300 million. But it's a figure that illustrates the argument around food and fuel use, and its subsequent systemic effects.

So what's the headline of the most emailed article at the BBC yesterday? Obese Blamed for the World's Ills.

Paf. Just like that. A social problem about addiction of both our food production system transport policy to fossil fuel is transformed into a bun-throw at fatties. Obese people are the problem.

If they are, perhaps we can find some science to update Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal (subtitled For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public). After all, how many megajoules could we get from eating a billion obese people? Loads, I'll bet. And what a substantially smaller burden on the public it'd be if we ate all that troublesome blubber.

But when a diet of backfat is easier to contemplate than a change in transport policy or our fossil fuel addiction, that shows the power of the spell that modern capitalism has cast over our collective imagination.

Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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