Food as a Commons: reframing the narrative of the food system


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Our body compulsory demands food, water and air to keep its vital functions and yet their economic nature is rather diverse with food mostly considered a private good, water suffering an accelerated privatization process and air so far considered a global common good. Food has evolved from a common good and local resource to a national asset and then to a transnational commodity. The commodification process is rather completed nowadays. Cultivated food is fully privatized and this consideration means that human beings can eat food as long as they have money to buy it or means to produce it. Some of those means are also considered as private goods (land, agro-chemicals) although not all (seeds, rainfall, agricultural knowledge). With the dominant no money-no food rationality, hunger still prevails in a world of abundance. In order to provide a sound foundation for the transition towards sustainable food systems, the very nature of food as a purely private good is contested and subsequently reversed in this paper, proposing a re-conceptualisation of food as a common good, a necessary narrative for the redesign of the dominating agro-industrial food system that merely sees food as a tradable commodity. This aspirational transition shall lead us to a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centred food system. The idea of the commons is applied to food, deconstructing food as a pure private good and reconstructing it as an impure commons that can be better produced and distributed by a hybrid tri-centric governance system compounded by market rules, public regulations and collective actions. Several food-related elements are already considered as common goods (i.e. fish stocks, wild fruits, cuisine recipes, agricultural knowledge, food safety regulations and unpatented genetic resources) as well as food’s implications (hunger eradication) and benefits (public health and good nutrition). Should food and be consider as a commons, the implications for the governance of the global food system would be enormous, with examples ranging from placing food outside the framework agreements dealing with pure private goods, banning financial speculation on food commodities or preparing international binding agreements to govern the production, distribution and access of food to every human being.

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Food as a Commons: reframing the narrative of the food system

  1. 1. 1 Food as a Commons Reframing the narrative of the food system JOSE LUIS VIVERO POL PhD Research Fellow in Food Governance
  2. 2. 2 Food is essential for human life Access to food cannot be exclusively determined by the purchasing power
  3. 3. 3 The commodification of food is a social construct that can and shall be reconceived WHY? Foto: Finabocci Blue Flickr Creative Commons
  4. 4. 4 AIR WATERFOOD Food is fully privatized Water is in the process Air is a global public good but… for how long? Private or public goods?
  5. 5. Commodity Commons Culture Food dimensions Human Need Human Right Natural resource
  6. 6. 6 The dominant narrative of the INDUSTRIAL FOOD SYSTEM Foto: Patty´s Flickr Creative Commons
  7. 7. 7 Only the economic dimension Objectification & commodification of food, depriving & neglecting the other dimensions Every food has a price Maximizing profit not nutrition (exchange value) Food is rival & excludable Economic concept VS political concept Food access is the main problem Ample consensus in science & policy makers: access is limited by price, law & property Many food-related aspects are commons genetic resources, recipes, food safety, public research, fish stocks, wild fruits, price stability
  8. 8. 8 Food System Paradoxes FOOD PRODUCERS STAY HUNGRY 868 million hungry people, or more (SPI 2013) 70% are food producers FOOD KILLS PEOPLE Food-related diseases are a primary cause of death (6.8 M deaths per year). FOOD IS (INCREASINGLY) NOT FOR HUMANS 47.4% of food for human consumption, FOOD IS WASTED 1.3 billion tons end up in the garbage every year (1/3 of global food production) enough to feed 600 million hungry people. Foto: Fringe Hoj Flickr Creative Commons
  9. 9. 9 The actual way of producing, distributing and eating food is unsustainable and it cannot be maintained as a such for the next 50 years IAASTD (2008) UNEP (2009) UNCTAD (2013)UK Foresight (2011)
  10. 10. 10 Planetary Boundaries Climate Change Population growth Changing diets
  11. 11. 11 The TRANSITION towards a fairer & more sustainable food system needs a different narrative Recognizing & valuing the multiple dimensions of food = FOOD AS A COMMONS
  12. 12. 12 Industrial Food System Food Commons System Mono-dimensional Food as a commodity (value in exchange) Multi-dimensional Food as a commons (value in use)
  13. 13. Growing web of alternative food collective actions
  14. 14. Market Enterprises Supply-demand Food as private good Public Private Collective actions Communities Reciprocity Food as common good State Redistribution Citizens welfare Food as public good Tri-centric Governance of Food Systems - Promoting collective actions by incentives, subsidies, - Enabling legal frameworks -Limiting privatization of commons - Farmers as civil servants - Minimum free food for all citizens - Banning food speculation
  15. 15. Fuente FAO: La Agricultura en un contexto global NEXT STEPS 1. Clearinghouses for co-generation of “food commons” knowledge 2. Knitting the Food web: reflexive/adaptive governance 3. Mapping initiatives (Collective Actions for Food) 4. Spaces for dialogue: to open up niches and avoiding parochialism NO Blueprints
  16. 16. 16 The Re-Commonification of Food will take generations
  17. 17. 17 Considering FOOD as a COMMONS may be utopical… But is the right thing to do and the best goal to aspire Eduardo Galeano Uruguayan writer and activist “Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.”
  18. 18. 18 I am eager to exchange on hunger eradication & food as a commons Many uncertainties & gaps remain to be develop in a common way @joselviveropol joseluisviveropol Jose Luis Vivero Pol