Early trade was about ecological adaptation, transporting essential food or other essential goods to a places where they were lacking. Very little in present international trade is based on that. Instead, trade in itself creates shortages. Today, Sweden only produces half the beef it consumes. This is not because there is no land or resources available in Sweden. On the contrary, the country has let a million hectares of meadows revert to forest and a lot of arable land is idle – or grazed by horses that people keep for a hobby. International trade can be a safety valve for food shocks by moving food from one part of the world to the other. Yet it has dramatically reduced each region’s self-sufficiency and made all of us dependent on global supply chains for our daily food. Some of the trade is really difficult to understand or justify. More or less identical products are exported and imported by the same countries. As the ecological economist Herman Daly points out: “Americans import Danish sugar cookies and Danes imports American sugar cookies. Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient”.[1]

It is a mistake to conclude that there is a linear process driving farmers into increased levels of commercialization. In times of collapsing markets, natural disasters, unrest or war, self-sufficiency and non-market exchange is bound to play a bigger role. The Roman peri-urban sprawl with agricultural estates, villas, engaged in intensive commercial production went the same way as the Empire. At the fall of Rome the area fell into neglect and finally reverted to extensive pastoralism.[2] The pastoral beauty of this Roman Campagna inspired the painters who flocked into Rome in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was the most painted landscape in Europe.[3]

We can also see the same patterns today. In banana-producing Jamaica food prices soared in the mid 1970s as a result of the first oil price shock. But banana prices were not keeping pace with the cost of food. This resulted in many smallholders reverting to subsistence farming, growing for themselves, or growing food crops for the local market. Interestingly, this coincided with improvements in their children’s nutritional status.[4] When the Soviet Union collapsed, farming in many parts of the fallen empire reverted to self-sufficiency. During Soviet times Armenian producers had supplied the Union with brandy, grapes and fruits, but when the Union crumbled and war broke with Azerbaijan, people ripped out the vines to grow wheat.[5] Commercialization in reverse can also be observed recently in Argen­tina during the economic crisis in 2001 and presently in Euro debt ridden Greece, Spain or Portugal or in Detroit where urban farms are being established on the ruins of the automotive industrial culture.

The commercialization of agriculture and food has had profound implications for how we view food and what we eat. As historian B.W. Higman notes in How Food made History: “Only in recent time have consumers in some countries come to think of food as a packaged good, to be obtained almost exclusively by purchase, and come to regard anything taken directly from the well as potentially danger­ous”.


We cannot deal with food mainly as a marketable commodity – very few societies ever have. If things get rough, governments, civil society and groups of people will step in and regulate, distribute and produce outside of the market system. The market system also has very few levers that guide it to supply food that is nutritious.

The market in food is totally dysfunctional for shaping the farming system in the best way for its role of planetary stewardship, a role that is increasingly important as agriculture occupies more and more of the surface of the planet and natural resources are under immense pres­sure. There are almost no market mechanisms in place for undertaking this important task, and there is a limited potential for them to emerge. Even if they did they will never reach the extent required, considering that the value of agricultural ecosystem services might well be as high as the total value of agricultural production. At present the market is still driving farmers the other way; into more and more specialization and monocultures and less stewardship of nature resources. Already today massive government interventions are directed to compensating for market failure. We need to look in other directions if we wish to sustainably manage the agriculture landscape.

‘Agriculture and food systems, with their associated nature and landscapes, are a common heritage and thus, also a form of common property’ according to Professor Jules Pretty[i] at the University of Essex. Stepping away from market imperatives frees our minds and thinking about food and farm production. This of course has implica­tions for land and other resources needed for farming and food production. The more food is viewed as a public good, the less appropri­ate it is that the productive factors needed to produce foods, seeds, land, water etc, are provided by the market. When food is a right, and the production and distribution of food takes place in the commons instead of in the market, new ways of addressing the unfair distribution of food can emerge.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 already defines food as a human right: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” (Article 25). The right to food has been re-asserted ever since, for example at the 2009 World Summit on Food Security in Rome. There, world leaders agreed on ‘the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food’.[ii] The new constitution of Kenya, approved by a popular referendum in 2010, states the right of every person “to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality” and imposes a duty on the State to respect, protect, promote and fulfill that right. A study in 2011 identified twenty-four countries in which the right to food was explic­itly recognized, many of them in Latin America.

Of course, it is one thing to proclaim a right and another one to enact it. Rights need a guarantor, duties and obligations, and an enforcer of some kind. Increasingly courts are using the constitutions or international treaties as a basis to safeguard people’s right to food.[iii] The Special Rappor­teur on the Right to Food for the United Nations, Olivier De Schutter, writes in the report to the General Assembly in August 2013: ‘The right to food has come to the fore as Governments realize that their efforts to combat food insecurity and hunger have been failing and realize the urgent need to strengthen national legal, institutional and policy frameworks’.[iv]

Brazil has been successful in the fight against hunger and in pro­moting the right to food. The Fome Zero (zero hunger) program was initiated during Lula’s presidency. Its most important component is Bolsa Família, whereby poor families get a basic income tied to condi­tions such that the children go to school and are vaccinated. The cost of the whole program is just 0.5% of Brazilian GDP but it reaches 44 million people, more than a fifth of the population. Malnutrition in Brazil decreased from 13% to below 2% between 1994 and 2006. The program also includes the purchasing of local food, often organic, to schools and other support measures to small farmers.[v]

Rethinking food as a right, farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons necessitates the building of new institutions fit for these purposes; Jose Luis Vivero Pol, a food governance researcher describes these as “a third force of governance and resource management by the people as a compliment to the market and the state”.[vi] This will require experimentation at the personal, local, national and international levels. This doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribu­tion, but it does reject market hegemony over our food supplies, and rejects the view that market forces are the best way of allocating food producing resources, such as land, water, knowledge and seeds.

The texts above are extracts from Global Eating Disorder 

[1]           Daly, H. 1993 ‘The Perils of Free Trade’ Scientific American Magazine November 1993.

[2]           Morley, N. 1996 Metropolis and Hinterland Cambridge University Press.

[3]           Wikipedia 2014 ‘Roman Campagna’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Campagna.

[4]           Pelto, G. H. and P.J. Pelto 1983 ‘Diet and delocalization: Dietary changes since 1750’. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol 14 No 2, pp. 507-528.

[5]           Rundgren, G. 2011 Organic Agriculture, A step towards the green economy in the Eastern Europe. Caucasus and Central Asia region. United Nations Environment Programme.


[i]            Pretty, J. 2002 Agri-culture: Reconnecting people, land and nature Earthscan.

[ii]           United Nations General Assembly 2013 The Right to Food, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 7 August 2013, A/68/288

[iii]           Ibid.

[iv]          Ibid.

[v]           Sanchez-Montero, M. and N. S. Ubach 2010 ‘Undernutrition, What Works?’ ACF International Network.

[vi]          Vivero Pol, J.L. 2013 Food as a Commons: Reframing the narrative of the food system 23 April 2013 Centre for Philosophy of Law, Université Catholique de Louvain.