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Pigs, Vegetarians, Riots…

by | 22 May 2010 | No Comment | Last modified: 21 Jul 6:39 am

I recently met Mindi Schneider, who’s doing research on the industrialization of pig farming in China. Turns out she’s a student of Philip McMichael and 师妹1 of Raj Patel.

Patel is now famous for his (excellent) book Stuffed and Starved, and his blog by the same name (now he has a more comprehensive blog at RajPatel.org). S&S was recently translated into Chinese as 《 粮食战争 》 (Grain Wars - not to be confused with a recent Chinese book by the same title, or with Food Wars by Walden Bello, which will probably also be translated as 粮食战争, if the book is ever translated; I’ve been told that the Chinese word for grain has a stronger “political significance” than the word for food in general, so “food sovereignty” is also being translated as “grain sovereignty”2).

The Chinese version of S&S is being posted in installments here. It’s a little confusing because the first eight sections (节) of the Chinese version (each divided into several subsections) compose the long introduction by economist Guo Shengxiang. I haven’t read Guo’s introduction - skimming his Baidu-pedia page lowers my expectations - but it may be of some value, since it relates Patel’s book to the situation in China. The online presentation of the book is particularly confusing because the serialization of the book there also uses the word “section” (节) but with no relation to the book’s “sections,” and no headings or indication that the first 9 sections are not the original book but Guo’s introduction. The translation of Patel’s book itself starts here. The table of contents and some Chinese readers’ reviews are here.

Philip McMichael is a sociology professor at Cornell and a prolific author - mainly of academic articles (CV here). He’s edited several books (Food and Agrarian Orders in the Global Economy, The Global Restructuring of Agro-Food Systems, Development and Social Change, Contesting Development3), and written one monograph: Settlers and the Agrarian Question: Capitalism in Colonial Australia.

Together McMichael and Patel wrote “A Political Economy of the Food Riot” (REVIEW, 32.1, 2009, pp. 9-35) - the best analysis I’ve seen of the 2007-8 global food riots and their background (contact me for a copy). This was based on a summary of reports on the riots by Mindi Schneider (“We are Hungry! A Summary Report of Food Riots, Government Responses, and States of Democracy in 2008″) which can be downloaded here.

Patel also recently posted Mindi’s reflections on vegetarianism in relation to her research in China and thinking about agrifood justice and sustainability. Below are a few passages that stood out to me:

In my more confrontational years in the 1990s, I would have agreed with the more radical calls for worldwide vegetarianism on ecological grounds.{…} I could link meat production and consumption to just about every ecological ailment going. But then I started studying agroecology, and then development sociology and political economy, and today I whole-heartedly disagree with this idea.  In the simplest terms, here’s why:  food systems need animals.  To think about agricultural sustainability without animals is nonsense.  In the most sustainable and agroecologically designed farming systems, animals convert scraps and weeds into nutrient-rich fertilizer, they till the soil, and they help manage weed and insect pests. In many places, livestock are centrally important to the most vulnerable populations of farmers, as they provide a necessary source of protein and/or dairy products, and act as living banks that can be sold when the kids need to pay school fees, etc.  Livestock are key farming system components that function ecologically, socially, nutritionally, and even politically.{…}

I’m writing about this today because I went shopping at a local market in Chengdu and feasted my eyes on stall after stall of animals and animal parts hanging from hooks.  Just like when I was 10, I still don’t want to order up a whole duck, or a pig’s tail, or chicken intestines to take home, but I’m so grateful to the people who do.  That this is how hundreds of millions of Chinese people (and people in other places as well) are accustomed to buying meat is a wonderful thing.  The meat is freshly slaughtered, comes from nearby farms, and isn’t served up on styrofoam trays encased in plastic wrap.  People know what they’re looking for and know how to make every part of the animal into (what I imagine is) a delicious dish.

I’ve been on a new, and I’m sure my friends would say, a somewhat obnoxious campaign lately, that if people are going to eat meat they should be ready to the whole animal.{…} Consider this, each year the US exports more than 100,000MT of pig offal (entrails, organs, feet, etc.) to China.  Agbiz see this as a rational marketing maneuver since Americans only want to eat “prime cuts” and Chinese people like to eat lungs and stomachs.  For the corporations, they get to profit at both ends of the dismembered pigs.  But for the rest of us, I’m not sure on what planet it makes rational sense to ship body parts half way around the world, especially in a time of peak oil and peak soil, and all kinds of peaks. {…}

Also see Mindi’s new research blog, “Pig Penning.” (Her first email to me was titled “capitalist pigs” :-) …) Not much there yet, but don’t miss the helpful bibliography.

Coming soon: Hairong Yan’s Chinese article on the November 2009 People’s Forum for Food Sovereignty and an English synopsis.


  1. I can’t think of a good translation for this. My dictionary says “junior sister apprentice.” It means that Mindi and Raj were both students of Philip McMichael.
  2. Eventually I plan to post Hairong Yan’s Chinese article on the November 2009 People’s Forum for Food Sovereignty and an English synopsis.
  3. McMichael’s book Contesting Development should not be confused with Matthew Hale’s dissertation project of the same title, on alternative development efforts in rural China. The latter deals with struggles about how “development” is defined and practiced, whereas the former deals with struggles against Development in the mainstream sense that has dominated global politics since the 1950s.
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