March 2, 2015

De-commodifying Food: the last frontier in the civic claim of the commons

Jose Luis Vivero Pol, Université catholique de Louvain

The socially constructed nature of food as a private good is being necessarily re-conceived as a commons, a crucial narrative for the transition from the dominating industrial food system towards a more sustainable system that is fairer to food producers and consumers.

Food is a natural resource that is essential for human existence and has evolved from a “commons” local resource to a private, transnational commodity. This commodification process, understood as the development of traits that fit better with the mechanized processes and standardized regulations of the industrialized food system, is the latest stage of the objectification of food, a social construct that deprives food of all its non-economic attributes.

The multidimensional resource versus the uni-dimensional commodity

Currently, the multiple dimensions of food are superseded by the tradable features (durability, external beauty, standardization). Those neglected dimensions are: (a) a basic human need, (b) a fundamental human right, (c) a pillar of our culture, (d) a natural resource, renewable in cyclical processes that can be controlled by humans, (e) a marketable product and (f) a global commons to be enjoyed by humankind.

Sailing in soup from above

Adrift on a commodified foodscape. Photo illustration by Francesco Baiocchi.

Thousands of customary and post-industrial collective actions for food share this multidimensional consideration that diverges from the mainstream industrial food system’s uni-dimensional approach to food as just a commodity. The industrialized food system is operating mainly to maximize the profit of food enterprises instead of maximizing the nutrition and health benefits of food to all of us. It is a “low-cost food system” that is killing us by excess (obesity) and default (hunger). As cultivated food is fully privatized, human beings can only eat food as long as they have money to buy it or means to produce it.

The market alone will not provide nutritious food for all

It was believed that market-led food security would finally achieve a more nourished population. However, reality has proven otherwise, as unregulated markets cannot provide a socially efficient quantity of food even if enough income was distributed to low-income groups. But it is evident that the private sector is not interested in people who do not have the money to pay for their services or goods, whether video-games or staple foods.

The solution to the unsustainable and unjust food system will not arrive in a market-driven, silver-bullet remedy, but will require experimentation at multiple levels (personal, local, national, international) and diverse approaches to governance (market-led, state-led and collective action-led). However, none of the most relevant analyses produced in the last decades on the fault lines of the global food system and the very existence of hunger has ever questioned this nature of food as a private good, and therefore, the common understanding sees food access as the main problem. There is a need to bring unconventional and radical perspectives into the global food security debate and we need to develop a different narrative to undertake this re-commonification of food. With the dominant no-money, no-food rationality, hunger still prevails in a world of abundance and obesity is rising. The ironic paradox of the globalized industrial food system is that half of those who grow 70% of the world’s food are hungry.

Unconventional paradigm shift: food as a commons and practical implications at local and global levels

This narrative shift is already taking place, spurring and sustaining civic collective actions for food that are mushrooming all over the world. Those collective actions are built upon the socio-ecological practices of civic engagement, community and the celebration of local food. Based on Ostrom’s polycentric governance, food shall be produced and distributed by tri-centric governance schemes compounded of (a) collective actions implemented at local level; (b) local and national governments, whose main goal shall be maximizing the citizen’s well-being; and (c) private entrepreneurs and co-operatives that can prosper under state regulations and incentives.

Taking photos of tomatoes Francesco Baoicchi

It’s time to see food through a different lens. Photo illustration by Francesco Baoicchi.

Additional governance at the international level would include maintaining food commons out of trade agreements dealing with pure private goods (i.e. WTO) being replaced by an UN-led governance system for production, distribution and access to food at global level. That system would entail, among others, binding legal frameworks to fight hunger and guarantee the right to food to all, universal Basic Food Entitlements or Food Security Floors guaranteed by the state, leveling the minimum salary with the food basket, a ban on financial speculation on food, or limiting the non-consumption uses of food such as biofuels.

Moreover, there is mounting evidence that the copyrighted agricultural sector is discouraging the scaling up of food security innovations and the freedom to copy actually promotes creativity and innovation, as can be seen in the fashion industry or the free-software domain. Therefore, open peer-to-peer agricultural research and locally adapted technologies would highly benefit from this consideration of food as a commons, fostering crowd-sourcing social innovations and creative-commons licensing systems to improve the sustainability and fairness of the global food system.

Nowadays, in different parts of the world, there are many ongoing initiatives that treat and value food as a commons and the challenge now is how to scale them up to subvert the dominant paradigm of food as a commodity. This transition of the food system is an attainable utopia that will certainly take several generations to achieve. But, as the Uruguayan journalist and poet Mario Benedetti said, utopias are useful drivers to keep us walking.


Transition Towards a Food Commons Regime: Re-Commoning Food to Crowd-Feed the World

Jose Luis Vivero Pol is an anti-hunger and social rights activist. He is a PhD candidate on food governance at the Université catholique de Louvain

No comments

  • Julian Cribb
    March 3, 2015 at 3:30am

    There is an important message in here, somewhere – but why can none of these people write it in plain English – instead of academic gobbledegook?
    If you want to alienate your audience and ensure your message is ignored, write pompous prose for other academics.
    If you want to write for the human race, then use their language.

    • Jose Luis Vivero Pol
      March 6, 2015 at 4:54am

      Dear Mr Cribb,
      You are right in your point and I’ll take your comments as a sort of compliment. As a non-native english speaking person, being termed as having a pompous prose makes me a kind of proud.
      But going back to your point in serious terms, I agree with you that we (researchers) need to translate the boring and dodgy academic jargon and style into a more vivid, alluring and catchy language if we want to mobilise people and distribute our findings/proposals. Actually, there are many ongoing initiatives that are already doing so, and I am also trying to put my thoughts into short pieces to disseminate them more widely to trigger debate and to stimulate others to write and research about it. See below a short list of short outreach pieces.

      I know that you are a well-known “science translator” (or a “knowledge broker” in academic obscure terms), and perhaps you could be interested in putting some words together on this issue of food as a commons in order to distribute the ideas to a wider audience. As a science communicator, you have the skills to do it. I just do my best in both fields of academy and communication.
      Best regards
      Jose Luis

      a.- Staying alive shouldn’t depend on your purchasing power. THE CONVERSATION.

      b.- Why Food Should be a Commons Not a Commodity. UNU BLOG

      C.- Why isn’t food a public good? CARNEGIE COUNCIL POLICY INNOVATIONS

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