In the 2011 dystopian film In Time, Justin Timberlake works literally to earn his living, as the monthly currency is additional time for living. Billionaires can live for thousands of years, practically becoming immortals, while poor people struggle to survive every day, many of them failing in that endeavour. This science fiction film resembles painstakingly our real world, although instead of a time currency we have commoditised food. Today, the purchasing power of any given person determines how much and which type of food he can get access to – or physically produce it by own private means- as almost every single piece of food on Earth is already a private good. Or not?
Although cultivated food is a private food, several food-related elements are yet considered as commons, such as traditional agricultural knowledge accumulated after thousands of years of practices, agricultural knowledge produced by national research institutions, cooking recipes and national gastronomy, ocean fish stocks, wild fruits and animals, genetic resources for food and agriculture, food safety considerations and, more recently, maintaining food price stability and attaining global food security. Food and nutrition security should also be considered a Global Public Good (GPG), since it is neither rival nor excludable – unless we want starve somebody to death – but unfortunately food and nutrition security is yet an aspirational “situation”. But what about food itself?
Food, a limited but renewable resource essential for human existence, has evolved from a common local resource to a private transnational commodity. This commodification process, understood as the development of traits that fit better with the mechanized processes developed by the industrialized food model, is the latest stage of the objectification of food, a human-induced social construct that deprives food from its non-economic attributes just to retain its tradable features (durability, external beauty, standardisation). The nutrition-related properties of food were much undervalued in this process. The value of food is no longer based on its many dimensions (see below) that bring us security and health, including the fact that food is a basic human need that should be available to all, a fundamental human right that should be guaranteed to every citizen, a pillar of every national culture, certainly a marketable product that should be subject to fair trade and sustainable production and finally a GPG that should be enjoyed by all humans. Those multiple dimensions are superseded by the tradable features, being value and price thus mixed up. And everybody knows that only fools confuse price with value.
There are several implications of treating food as a mere commodity, and we just name a few of the most devastating. Food has many different uses other than direct human consumption as the best use of any commodity is where it can get the best price; a commoditised food is meant to be speculated with, no moral considerations seem to deter that. An out-of-control race for land- and water-grabbing for foodproduction is taking place in vast areas of Africa and Latin America. Transnational corporations are major drivers of obesity epidemics from increased consumption of ultra-processed food and drink. And hunger is definitely not abated by means of GMOs or patented seeds.
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). The enclosure mechanisms, through privatization, legislation, excessive pricing or patents, have played a role in limiting the access to food as a public good. The conventional industrialised food system is operating mainly to accumulate under-priced food resources and maximize the profit of food enterprises instead of maximizing the nutrition and health benefits of food to all of us.
The dominant industrial food system is increasingly failing to fulfil its basic goals: feeding people adequately and sustainably, and avoiding hunger. The ironic paradoxes of the globalised industrial food system are that half of those who grow 70% of the world’s food are hungry, food kills people (the hunger-related death toll is 3.1 million children per year, the single major cause of child mortality in 2011), food is increasingly not for humans (since more and more food is diverted towards biofuel production and livestock feeding) and food is wasted due to its low price and low considerations (1/3 of global food production ends up in the garbage every year, enough to feed 600 million hungry people). Hunger still prevails in a world of abundance and obesity is growing steadily, already becoming a pandemic. We humans eat badly.
It was amply believed that market-led food security would finally achieve a better nourished population. However, reality has proven otherwise as a food system anchored in the consideration of food as a commodity to be distributed according to the demand-supply market rules will never achieve food security for all. 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, weather videogames or staple food. None of the most relevant analyses produced in the last decades on the fault lines of the global food system has ever questioned this nature of food as a private good, produced by private inputs or privately harvested in the wild, and therefore the common understanding sees food access as the main problem. If food security is a good thing for every human and cannot be provided exclusively by one state, the two features of the political definition of a GPG, the food and agriculture private sector does not seem to be the best institution to provide that public good, as it cannot completely capture the utilities of its trade.
The standard economic definition of public goods is anchored on non-rivalry and non-excludability features. In political terms, however, excludability and rivalry are social constructions that can be modified by social arrangements. Goods often become private or public as a result of deliberate policy choices and many societies have considered, and still consider, food as a common good, as well as forests, fisheries, land and water. For instances, fishes are continuously produced by nature and by human beings, so it is no longer restricted in number as there is not a limited number of fishes on Earth. As long as the replenishment rate outpaces the consumption rate, the resource is always available and food is considered a renewable resource with a never-ending stock such as air. Therefore, the main features that traditionally have been assigned to food as a private good can be contested and reconceived in a different way.
Food is a de facto impure public good, governed by public institutions in many aspects (food safety regulations, nutrition, seed markets, fertilizer subsidies, the EU CAP or US Farm Bill), provided by collective actions in thousands of customary and post-industrial collective arrangements (cooking recipes, farmers’ seed exchanges, consumer-producers associations) but largely distributed by market rules. These collective actions for food share this multidimensional consideration of food that diverges from the mainstream industrial food system’s uni-dimensional approach of food as a commodity.
The re-commonification of food is hence deemed an essential paradigm shift for the transition from the dominating agro-industrial food system towards a more sustainable food system fairer to food producers and consumers. Along those lines, based on Elinor Ostrom’s polycentric governance, food as a GPG could be produced, consumed and distributed by hybrid institutional arrangements formed by state institutions, private producers and companies, and self-organized groups under self-negotiated rules. The transition will require experimentation at multiple levels (personal, local, national, international) and diverse approaches to governance (market-led, state-led and collective action-led). This commonification will take several generations and self-governing collective actions cannot do the transition by themselves, as food provision and food security shall involve greater levels of public sector involvement and market-driven distributions. Governments have a vital role to play in countering the tendency toward economic concentration, through genuine tax, credit, and land reforms to disperse buying power toward the poor, so as to maximize the well-being of their citizens and providing an enabling framework to enjoy the right to food for all. Two recent examples of governmental rules that may contribute to facilitate the transition are taxing meat to incentivise a reduction in consumption or overtaxing junk food with high contents of sugar, fat and salt as unhealthy products. Nevertheless, that leading role should gradually be shifted to the self-negotiated collection actions by groups of producers and consumers, as the State provision of food does not surpass the net benefit that consumers would receive through the self-organized and socially negotiated protection, production and use of their own resources.
Civic collective actions for food (or alternative food networks) are key units for this transition and they are built upon the socio-ecological practices of civic engagement, community and the celebration of local food. The commons are gaining ground as a third force of governance and resource management by the people as a supplement to the market and the state. Unlike the market, the commons are about cooperation, stewardship, equity, sustainability, and direct democracy from local to global, and they are mushrooming all over the world, mostly in urban areas and usually at local level.
Nowadays, in different parts of the world, there are many initiatives that demonstrate that a right combination of collective action, governmental rules and incentives, and private sector entrepreneurship yield good results for food producers, consumers, the environment and society in general, and the challenge now is how to scale up those local initiatives to national level. People’s capacity for collective action is an agency that can complement the regulatory mandate of the state and the demand-driven allocation by the private sector. Millions of people innovating have far more capacity to find adaptive and appropriate solutions than a few thousand scientists in the laboratories. It is interesting to note the collective actions for food share a consideration of food as a commons that radically diverges from the mainstream industrial food system that merely considers food as a commodity. Moreover, these collective actions for food also contribute to the reconstruction of the infrastructure of civic life that has been eroded by our individualistic growth-oriented behaviour, as Michael Sandel explains so well.
For those who love to find concrete recommendations out of theoretical narratives, some practical consequences of this paradigm shift would be to maintain food out of trade agreements dealing with pure private goods and thus there would be a need to establish a particular 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,cosmopolitan global policies and fraternal ethical and legal frameworks, universal Basic Food Entitlements or Food Security Floors guaranteed by the State (i.e. one leave of bread for every citizen everyday), levelling the minimum salary with the food basket, a ban on financial speculation of food, or limiting the non-consumption uses of food such as biofuels. In any case, all those political implications are geared towards establishing a Universal Food Coverage, a social scheme paralleling universal health and education, the very foundations of the social welfare state. If it was possible in the XVIII century to propose health and schools for all, why not such absolute need as food for all in the XXI century? Prof. Amartya Sen is already campaigning for that goal in India.
Finding the adequate equilibrium between this tri-centric institutional setup to govern food production, distribution and consumption will be one of the major challenges the humankind will have to address in the XXI century, as long as the population grows and Earth’s carrying capacity seems to be surpassed by human’s greed for resources, as Ghandi once mentioned. A fairer and more sustainable food system is possible, but we need to reconsider the food narrative to be applicable to transit towards that goal. I do not expect to see this change during my lifetime, but I hope my descendants may.