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“The Ants & The Grasshopper”: Meet environmentalist filmmaker Raj Patel

Discussing climate change, activism, and the creation of his recent film.

Food security has long been one of the most pertinent issues arising from the climate crisis. With the global environment changing immensely and countries facing ever more extreme weather conditions, the situation continues to worsen and individuals are feeling the impact more pertinently day to day. The impact has not been even across the world, however, and the realities of the climate crisis and food insecurity are felt most direly in the developing world.  

I sat down with Raj Patel, climate change and food security activist and co-director of a recent film, The Ants & The Grasshopper. Currently a Research Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, he attended Oxford in the early 2000s and has gone on to dedicate his academic career and activism to issues surrounding food systems and the climate crisis. The Ants & The Grasshopper looks at the work of Malawian climate change activist, Anita Chitaya, as she seeks to incite change both in the farms of her home in Malawi, and all the way in California and DC. The fruit of Generation Foods, a decade-long food security and justice project, the film sees Anita meet despairing farmers, climate change skeptics, and individuals from across America’s racial, class and gender divides in an attempt, as the film’s tagline suggests, to change their minds about ‘the most important thing in the world.’ 

We first discuss how Raj first became interested in the issue of food security. Aged five, he travelled to India with his parents for the first time, members of the Indian diaspora in the UK. On a stop they made whilst travelling around Bombay, he recalls seeing a young girl around his age begging at a traffic light. He couldn’t understand why she was outside, hungry, and his family were able to simply drive away. Upon returning to London, he began to fundraise, lending out toys at his kindergarten, and earned a Blue Peter badge for his work. At a young age, he was confronted directly with the inequalities integral to food insecurity. 

After this, Raj spent a long time wondering what reasons there were for hunger. “The conclusion I’ve reached”, he says, “is that there aren’t any good reasons for why there’s hunger, it’s always a political choice…governments are enabling and cementing the power of large export agricultural operations and an unsustainable farming system.” Such a system, he says, leads to individuals such as Marcus Rashford, responsible for the government’s U-turn on providing free school meals, having to intervene. Likewise, he says, it leads to an acceptance in countries like the United Kingdom of the existence of food banks, where once it was a ‘mark of national shame’ that they had to exist.

At the university where Raj teaches, one in three students is food insecure. Normalised as a part of the ‘student grind’, skipping meals or not having the money for food is regularly brushed over. The situation is not overly different in Oxford; Hertford JCR, among other colleges, opened its own food bank in October 2022 because of the strain of the cost of living crisis on students. It is clear that, particularly in student culture, food insecurity is directly felt. Across the global west as a whole, the circumstances are becoming ever more precarious. Whilst we continue to ignore the role of ‘middle class overconsumption’, the cost of living crisis deepens and individuals fall further into food insecurity. 

And yet, he also notes that slashing the aid budget represents a refusal to recognise the UK’s own role in causing food insecurity. “We’ve got Americans and Brits who are consuming disproportionately, the consequences of whose actions are being wrought, not necessarily at home, but certainly abroad”, he tells me. In tackling the intersections of colonialism, racism, patriarchy and food insecurity in The Ants and The Grasshopper, Raj and Anita demonstrate that a refusal to accept this role in the developed world has direct global consequences especially on countries like Malawi, where Anita lives. The existing environmental movement, he argues, has failed to rid itself of patriarchy and white supremacy, which leads to white saviourism in the climate change movement and, Raj argues, harmful stereotypes about Africa being perpetuated by groups such as Band Aid. In focusing on and allowing Anita to tell her own story, therefore, the film seeks to give power back to the individuals experiencing firsthand the most severe implications of food insecurity and the inaction of western governments. Turning the mirror on America and the rest of the global west, it provides a raw perspective on what society is doing wrong on climate change.

Raj remains critical of the American and British governments in their approaches to climate change, as well as their capitulation to corporate cabals and the so-called ‘free market’. “I certainly think that there’s been a long period in which the government has known about climate change and refused to do much about it”, he tells me. The root of this, he argues, links to Naomi Klein’s analysis of climate change. “If you really took climate change seriously,” he tells me, “you would understand that what it is an indictment of, what requires massive transformation is capitalism itself. And none of the elites here are particularly thrilled about that idea…I think capitalism doesn’t have within it, the the instruments to be able to sufficiently care and repair for the planet.” To tackle climate change adequately, therefore, he argues capitalism must be fundamentally reconsidered.

I ask Raj, in looking at the material impact of colonialism in causing food insecurity whether he sees a role in this for reparations to be paid. “I think there’s a necessity for reparations” he affirms. Rather than paying the high sums that have been suggested, though, he argues that ​​”what needs to happen is for Britain to acknowledge that, in fact, there is a bill to be paid”, that Britain can only gain humility and begin to rewrite its history once it recognises the role it has played, historically, in food insecurity and climate change.

The Ants and The Grasshopper sought to show the real, material impact of colonialism, patriarchy and more on climate change and on food insecurity. Yet, Raj shows in his work that there is a proactive approach that the West can begin to take. To begin to fight climate change, we need to fundamentally reconsider capitalism, and acknowledge the bill we must pay to save our planet and end hunger. 

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