The radical idea of food as a commons: a worthy nutritional utopia
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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Time
(2) Vivero, J.L. (2013). Staying alive shouldn’t depend on your purchasing power. The Conversation Blog. 13 December 2013. https://theconversation.com/staying-alive-shouldnt-depend-on-your-purchasing-power-20807
(3) How big per capita food expenditures in your country? http://knoema.fr/scemlie/how-big-per-capita-food-expenditures-in-your-country
Such an important conversation to have– as a beginning.
I have to say that my immediate reaction to this idea was “Cool idea”! And, there is a part of me that still says that. But, I fear, when I think about it, that it is doomed to fail, for a few reasons:
1. – It is the nature of all organisms to produce as many offspring as possible,many more than have a reasonable chance of survival. It is only in the modern western society that this tendency of humankind, in particular, has been subdued. But in most of the rest of the world this is not the case, I fear. It would seem that, in those places where food and water shortages are the most severe, families are the largest, and the population is growing the fastest.
2. – In those places in the world where it is possible to over-produce massive amounts of food, there are few people. The problem is then one of transportation of the food from the underpopulated places where it is grown to the over-populated places where it is needed. Planting, tending, harvesting, storage, transportation and distribution are all energy-burning activities that need to be paid for. Are they not?
3. – Then, we have the phenomenon of the “tragedy of the commons”. When no single person or organization has the responsibility to manage the commons (and obtain some special benefit from the effort) it degrades until nobody gets much benefit of any kind. This is a kind of paradox. If you give some preferred status to a few, with conditions that the benefits be shared, then all benefit.
So, when I put those three thoughts together, I think that a global food system must be managed by people who derive some benefits themselves, and also pass on life-supporting benefits to others. Which is, sort of, what we have now.
The issue, then, seems to be that whether food is managed as a commons or not, problems 1 & 2 are the big problems.
So, in the end, while I do think that “food as a commons” is a nice “feel-good” idea, I don’t think it has any hope of success, and even if it could be implemented on a local or global level, if it doesn’t resolve problems 1 & 2 it will be pointless.
Just a thought.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You have rised three common sense points that conform the narrative to defend the idea of commoditised food. So I’ll try to provide elements for each one:
1.- The world is not over populated, with regard to food, as we produce right now enough food to feed the expected population by 2050: 9.3 billion. Remember that rise in food productivity (total food produced) per year has exceed population growth since the last 50 years, although that yield growth seems to have flattened (reaching a threshold). And, very important, we waste one third of total food produced and one third of the rest is used to feed cars (non-feeding uses). So, it is not a question of producing more, it is a question of producing better, more sustainably and consuming differently.
2.- You are right regarding costs incurred in food production and transportation, and the idea of food as a commons (or a public good) is not that all food should be public, statised or communal. Food could be considered as health and education, a public good whose production and distribution is not exclusively left to market rules (price, demand-supply, private actors). Why in Europe do we enjoy universal (and public in many countries) health coverage and we do not have the same right to food and water? Both are eqaully essential to life as health. My point here is that if we look at food as a real life-supporting resource, there should be aminimum guaranteed to every human, regardless his/her purchasing power. A daily minimum supported by the state, there should be laws banning food speculation (because this specualtion is not good either for the producers or the consumers). Likewise, at a certain point in history, slave trade was ban by law, not because it was not profitable or economically senseless, but because it was not morally acceptable. How can it be morally acceptable that while producing enough food for all, 800 million starve to death whereas supermarkets distroy the expired food from their shelves?
3.- Finally, Elinor Ostrom’s extensive work demonstrated some years ago that thriving communities that are allowed to manage their own communaly-held resources do not experience the tragedy of the commons (basically a flawed theory based on communities where customary propietary regimes, rules and enforcement regulations have been erased by centralised state-driven regulations). She was awarded a Nobel Prize just for that. So, the theory of the commons is a theoretical narrative already proven wrong. And yet, it is still firmly embedded in our neoliberal paradigm as it serves well the principles of absolute property and commodification of every natural resource.
If you have further interest on the issue, you can get additional theoretical underpinnings and elements of my rationale in the following two papers: