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Seeing Food as a Commons Opens Up Creative New Possibilities

What would the world look like if we began to re-conceptualize food as a commons?  Jose Luis Vivero Pol of the Centre for Philosophy of Law at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium has done just that in a recent essay, “Food as a Commons:  Reframing the Narrative of the Food System.”  

The piece is impressive for daring to imagine how the world’s estimated 668 million hungry people might eat, and how all of us would become healthier, if we treated more elements of the food production and distribution system as commons.  Instead of managing food as a private good that can only be produced and allocated through markets, re-conceptualizing food as a commons helps us imagine “a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centered food system,” writes Vivero Pol. 

One reason that the commons reframing is so useful is that it helps us see the ubiquity of enclosures in the food system.  We can begin to see the galloping privatization of farmland, water, energy and seeds.  We can see the concentration of various food sectors and the higher prices and loss of consumer sovereignty that comes from oligopoly control. 

Enclosure is snatching shared resources from us and preventing us from managing them to maximize access and good nutrition.  This is often known these days as “resource grabbing,” as companies and national governments race to seize as many abundant, cheap natural resources as they can on an international scale.  This is one reason for the many pernicious enclosures of land commons in Africa and Latin America in recent years. There is a huge exodus from traditional and indigenous lands as China, Saudi Arabia, Korea, hedge funds and others buy up natural resources.  These enclosures are moving us “from diversity to uniformity, from complexity to homoegeneity, and from richness to impoverishment,” writes Vivero Pol.  

Strangely, “no one has really questioned the nature of food as a private good, produced by private inputs or privately harvested in enclosed areas of the world."  Yet asking such a question helps us to see why massive hunger can persist with food abundance.  The ethic of “no money, no food” means that only those with sufficient "consumer demand" are entitled to food.  And even then, good health is no guarantee because the industrialized food model actively promotes expensive processed foods that are either non-nutritious or actively harmful to our health, but more lucrative to companies.

It helps to remember that many aspects of food are already considered commons, notes Vivero Pol.  For example, fish stocks, unpatented genetic resources, wild fruits, recipes, agricultural knowledge and food safety regulations cannot be owned and can be harvested and used by anyone or by bounded commons. 

Most cultivated food, however, is generally a private good, which means that food is vulnerable to being traded, hoarded and sold for competing uses (e.g., biofuels, animal feed) if it can fetch more money.  In the classic economists’ formulation, food that is privatized and commoditized can be made “excludable” and “rival,” and this in practice tends to override any moral entitlements or human rights claims over food. 

This means that private control has enormous public consequences.  If people go hungry because they can’t afford food, they suffer diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.  Their psychological health suffers.  They may die of malnutrition.  This of course has diverse economic, political and social effects that an economist would consider an unfortunate but inexorable “externality” for which buyers and sellers have no responsibility.  But it is quite obvious that such are the predictable outcomes of the commoditization of food.

So how might we convert privately owned food production into more of a public good?  (Vivero Pol uses “public good” and “commons” interchangeably, while acknowledging that the former term is used in economic contexts and the latter in sociological contexts.  But I would suggest that the two terms should be emphatically separated to make clear that the commons has generative capacities and social grounding that a "public good" does not.)

First, we should apply the commons template to our food production system and enumerate the harms caused by enclosures.  As Vivero Pol writes, these harms include:  “excessive commodification of food, with high pricing, laws and private enclosure as main barriers to fully enjoying those vital resources”; irregular private land titling, land grabbing and land evictions…”; “excessive patents of life, biopiracy and patented GMOs”; “the concentration in agri-food chains in a few transnationals”; and enclosure schemes such as “the Carbon Sequestration Initiative,” the REDD+ and the Payment for Environmental Services.”

Once we regard food as a commons, we can begin to see that everybody ought to have a human right to food.  “Another implication would be that food should be kept out of trade agreements dealing with pure private goods,” writes Vivero Pol.  We would also need to develop an international legal framework to regulate food as a global level, and guarantee everyone a minimum amount of food as a “universal Basic Food Entitlement.” 

The commons perspective would also help us push back on the many proprietary rights and privileges that food companies have claimed for themselves – the patent privileges for seeds, the exemption from environmental responsibility (for pesticides, large-scale pig farms and cattle feedlots, etc.), the huge public subsidies for agribusiness, the corporate capture of university research agendas, and more.

Obviously, the food system is not going to become wholly a commons in the near term, if ever.  Vivero Pol sensibly calls for a “tri-centric governance of local food systems,” with authority split between markets, government and civil collective actions (commons) for food.  As he puts it, “There is an urgent need to rearrange the food system governance, devolving control power from the state to the commons, and rebranding privately owned food stuff and food-producing resources.” 

He proposes or revives such ideas as “social charters” and “food trusts” adopted by local communities or associations.  Such “decentralized, self-governing systems of food production” would provide fairer access, higher efficiency and greater concern for externalities in food production, than the market would provide.  The “re-commonification of food shall take several generations,” predicts Vivero Pol, so he offers a number of transition strategies for the commons, government and market sectors.

It’s refreshing to read such imaginative yet rigorous scholarship about food as a commons and how the concept might be practically advanced.  Policymakers, politicians and commoners would all benefit from exploring the concepts that Vivero Pol proposes.   

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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