Food as a public good: the last frontier in the civic claim of the commons

Photo by Flickr user Auntie P used under the Creative Commons license.

Photo by Flickr user Auntie P used under the Creative Commons license.

SUMMARY: The socially-constructed nature of food as a purely private good shall be re-conceived as a common good, a necessary narrative for the transition from the dominating agro-industrial food system towards a more sustainable food system fairer to food producers and consumers. Food as a commons can be better produced and distributed by hybrid tri-centric governance systems implemented at local level and compounded by market rules, public regulations and collective actions. This consideration would bring enormous ethical, legal, economic and nutritional implications for the global food system.   

This article is an abridged version of a working paper that can be downloaded at


The multidimensional food versus the uni-dimensional commodity

Food is a natural resource found under different wild forms in nature and cultivated forms in human-made environments. Food is a limited but renewable resource essential for human existence that 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 and standardized regulations put in practice by the industrialized food model, is the latest stage of the objectification of food, a social construct that deprives food from all the non-economic attributes. The multiple dimensions of food are therefore superseded by the tradable features. Those neglected dimensions can be summarized as follows: (a) food as basic human need that shall be available to all, (b) food as a fundamental human rights that shall be guaranteed to every citizen, (c) food as a pillar and major feature of our culture either as producers or consumers, (d) food as a natural resource, renewable in cyclical processes that can be controlled by humans, (e) food as a marketable product subject to fair trade and sustainable production and (f) food as a global common good that shall be enjoyed by humankind. Both customary and post-industrial 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.

In addition, the commodification process has not yet been able to enclose all food-related elements, as some of them struggle to survive as commons at present: a) Traditional agricultural knowledge accumulated after thousands of years of practices; b) Modern science-based agricultural knowledge produced by national institutions; c) Cuisine, recipes and national gastronomy; d) Edible plants and animals produced by nature (fish stocks and wild fruits); e) Genetic resources for food and agriculture; f) Food Safety considerations (i.e. Codex Alimentarius);  g) Public nutrition, including hunger and obesity imbalances; h) Extreme food price fluctuations in global and national markets.

The privatization of our most basic human need 

Cultivated food is fully privatized and 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. During the XX century, the objectification and decommonification of food took shape so as to mould the dominant industrial food system that feed a great share of human population and food became a commodity, an industry and a market of mass consumption, as eaters became just consumers. During this process, food was detached from its multiple dimensions just to retain its tradable features (durability, external beauty, standardisation). The nutrition-related properties of food were much undervalued in this process.

The socially-constructed consideration of food as a pure commodity opposes radically to the other non-economic dimensions of food and this reduction explains to many authors the very roots of the failure of the global food system. The conventional industrialised food system is operating mainly to accumulate underpriced food resources and maximize the profit of food enterprises instead of maximizing the nutrition and health benefits of food to all of us.

The market alone will not provide nutritious food for all

With the dominant no money-no food rationality, hunger still prevails in a world of abundance. Globally speaking, we eat badly and the mass industrial food model, which is becoming dominant, is increasingly failing to fulfil its basic goals: producing food in a sustainable manner, feeding people adequately and avoiding hunger. The ironic paradox of the globalised industrial food system is that half of those who grow 70% of the world’s food are hungry. It was amply believed that market-led food security would finally achieve a better nourished population. 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, produced by private inputs or privately harvested in the wild, and therefore the common understanding sees food access as the main problem.

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. 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. The solution to the unsustainable and unjust food system will not arrive in a market-driven silver-bullet panacea but will require experimentation at multiple levels (personal, local, national, international) and diverse approaches to governance (market-led, state-led and collective action-led). There is a need to bring unconventional and radical perspectives into the food transition debate and we need to develop a different narrative to undertake this re-commonification of food.

Food excludability and rivalry are social constructs that can be reconceived

The standard economic definition of public goods is anchored on non-rivalry and non-excludability features, both characteristics rather ontological. 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, cherries 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 cherries 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. The commodification of food is a human-induced process that deals more with the proprietary rights of natural resources than with the intrinsic nature of the good. Food is a de facto impure commons, governed by public institutions in many aspects, provided by collective actions in thousands of customary and post-industrial collective arrangements (cooking recipes, farmers’ seed exchanges, consumers-producers associations) but largely distributed by market rules.

A Common Food System: practical implications

A re-commonification of food is hence deemed an essential paradigm shift in light of the malfunctioning of the global food system. 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, ten tortillas or two injeras), 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.

Agricultural research and evidence-based locally-adapted technologies would highly benefit from this consideration as well, fostering crowdsourcing innovations and creative-commons licensing systems to improve the sustainability and fairness of the global food system. Millions of people innovating have far more capacity to find adaptive and appropriate solutions than a few thousand scientists in the laboratories. There is mounting evidence that the copyrighted agricultural sector is deterring the scaling up of food security innovations and the freedom to copy actually promotes creativity and innovation, as it can be seen in the fashion industry or the free-software domain.

Civic Collective Actions for Food as transition pillars

Civic collective actions for food are key units for the transition towards a more sustainable and fairer food system and they are built upon the socio-ecological practices of civic engagement, community and the celebration of local food. Based on Ostrom’s polycentric governance, food can be produced, consumed and distributed by tri-centric governance schemes compounded of those collective actions (or alternative food networks) initially implemented at local level; governments whose main goal is to maximize the well-being of their citizens and providing an enabling framework to enjoy the right to food for all; and the private sector that can prosper under state regulations and incentives. Nowadays, in different parts of the world, there are many initiatives that demonstrate that such a combination yields good results for food producers, consumers, the environment and society in general, and the challenge now is how to scale up those local initiatives. In any case, self-governing collective actions cannot do the transition by themselves, and thus there will be spaces for local governments, entrepreneurs and self-organized communities to coexist, taking the State a leading role at the initial stage of the transition period to guarantee food for all. We are just starting to reconsider the food narrative to guide that transition (the re-commonification of food), an attainable and desirable utopia that will certainly take several generations to be achieved. But Utopias are useful drivers to keep us walking, as Mario Benedetti rightly pointed out.