The radical idea of food as a commons: a worthy nutritional utopia

Taking photos of tomatoes Francesco Baoicchi

Life is priceless but life-sustaining resources are not. They used to be all along history but not anymore in our price-tag society that wants to privatize every single tangible and intangible resource for profit making (as Michael Sandel, David Bollier or Karl Polanyi have mentioned).

In the 2011 dystopian film In Time (1), 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, whereas poor people struggle to survive in everyday life, many of them failing in that endeavour. This science fiction film resembles painstakingly our real world, although instead of a time currency we have privatised food. Today, the purchasing power of any given person determines how much and which type of food he can get access to as every piece of food on Earth is already a private good. Following that rationale, we can ask ourselves how much money do we need to pay, as an average planetary inhabitant, to staying alive every day?

So far, air is free and easily accessible to anyone, being considered as a global public good and yet in China a smart entrepreneur is already selling canned air at $0.80 per can. Carbon sequestration schemes are incipient forms of privatisation of everybody’s resources, just for the sake of making money. Water used to be a commons and public resource, but now most of the countries have water fees to supply those households that can afford it with running water. In many countries, such as Spain, the water itself is still considered a public good and the local and national authorities just charge you for the distribution and treatment process, not for the content. I already made a calculation for UK (2), being between $90-100 per person per year.

Finally, regarding food there is an ample range of food expenditure amongst countries, ranging between $4482 in Norway and $217 in Uzbekistan (3), with an average British citizen spending annually $2026 in food. So, every British needs to get $2130 to get access to enough (although perhaps not healthy) food and water to keep his/her body alive and do other human activities. Why if you don’t get that money? In high-income democracies, and increasingly in middle-income emerging economies, the state-based social welfare system will provide you with those two essentials. However, in those countries not capable or not willing to provide free food and water to everybody, people simple starve to death. The hunger-related death toll is 3.1 million children per year, the single major cause of child mortality (45% of all child deaths in 2011), in a world that produces enough food for everybody, even after wasting one third of the total food produced. With the current levels of food production, and no waste, we could feed the world’s expected population by 2050, with the same cropland and no yield increases.

But, if food is such a vital resource that everyone needs it every day and we produce enough to feed us all, how is it possible that it is not granted to everyone as a basic and universal right or entitlement? Why Universal Food Coverage is not discussed in the post-2015 international talks on the same ground that Universal Health Coverage or Basic Education for All? Well, it is simply because our current society has so decided. Considering food as a commodity is a not at all a natural law but a social construct, a conceptual paradigm moulded and sustained by the liberal and neo-liberal policies and narratives that have gradually enclosed the food producing commons to ultimately render food as a commodity subject to speculation, industrial uses other than human nutrition, genetic manipulation and ultra-processing.

Changing that way of thinking should be our aspirational goal, the feasible utopian narrative that should guide our food system transition. It seems that we have lost our capacity to imagine the food system we would like to achieve, a system that produces most of its food sustainably (considering the environment) and fairly (considering food producers and consumers) and that guarantees that everyone can eat everyday enough and healthy food. The immense challenges that we face to feed the expected 9 billion people by 2050 and the mounting constraints (climate change, depleting natural resources, growing meat demand, unabated hunger and rising obesity) oblige us to think and propose social and technical ideas that have not yet been explored, to trespass the boundaries of the politically correct or doable to present real utopias and the institutional and political changes that we need to undertake to achieve those desirable scenarios. Considering food as a commons to be produced, distribute and consume by means of a poly-centric system conformed by the state, social enterprises and self-regulated collective actions is definitely one of those possible nutritional utopias.

Food as a commons blows up the unique way of thinking of food as a private good (excludable and rival and therefore a suitable good subject to demand/supply market rules). Since Locke, Ricardo and Hume, food as a private good has been so far a mental “lock in” narrative that impedes the development of other non-monetized food dimensions such as the right to food or free food schemes. In the year that celebrates the 500th anniversary of the first edition of Thomas More’s Utopia, published in Louvain in 1516, we shall unleash our imagination to design a more sustainable and fairer food system for all, based on the idea of the food commons and giving primacy to the non-monetary dimensions of food over its price in the market. As Antonio Machado used to say : “Solo los necios confunden valor y precio”.

(1) In Time (film). Wikipedia entry.

(2) Vivero, J.L. (2013). Staying alive shouldn’t depend on your purchasing power. The Conversation Blog. 13 December 2013.

(3) How big per capita food expenditures in your country?