How did people value food prior to the COVID-19? the importance of narratives

Food dimensions

Six food dimensions that enrich the valuation of food as a commons

almadraba

Food Commons in Barbate, Cadiz, Spain: fishing tuna with customary collective techniques

Food is a life enabler with multiple meanings. From the industrial revolution to date, those meanings have been superseded by its commodity dimension. In this research, the commodification of food is presented as a social construction, informed by academic theory, which shapes specific food policies and blocks other policies grounded in different valuations.

This thesis seeks to trace the genealogy of the meaning making and policy implications of two narratives: food as a commodity and food as a commons. It focuses on “Agents in Transition”, using discourse analysis and transition theory, plus three methodological approaches (systematic, heuristic, governance), including combination of quantitative and qualitative tools.

The first part includes a systematic approach to schools of thought plus a research on academic literature on commons and food narratives. Notwithstanding the different interpretations, the economists’ framing as private good and commodity has prevailed to date. This framing was rather ontological (“food is a commodity”) thus preventing other phenomenological meanings to unfold and become politically relevant. The second part adopts a heuristic approach with two case studies on how the narratives influence individual and relational agency in food systems in transition (food-related professionals and food buying groups). Part three navigates the policy arena with a case study on how the absolute dominance of the tradeable dimension of food in the US and EU political stance obscures other non-economic dimensions such food as a human need or human right. This part also contains a prospective chapter where different governing arrangements are proposed, with specific policy measures suggested.

The normative theory of food as a commons rests upon its essentialness to humans, the multiple dimensions of food, and the diversity of governing arrangements that have been set up across the world, now and before, to produce and consume food outside market mechanisms. Based on the “instituting power of commoning”, once the narrative is shifted, the governing mechanisms and legal frameworks will gradually be moulded to implement that vision. A regime based on food as a commons would construct an essentially democratic food system based on agro-ecology and emancipatory politics.