To let commodity markets shape our diets and the stewardship of the land is a bad idea. This can clearly be seen both in nature, societies and human bodies. Most of the emerging food movements are based on other perspectives. The food system as commons emerge as a competing narrative to food as commodity.
The market paradigm clearly dominates how food and agriculture is discussed. For many people it goes without discussion or reflection that food is a commodity – a product with the main purpose to be sold by the producer and through various middle-men be bought by the end user, the consumer. It is evident because that is how we discuss food in the public sphere. It is evident for the consumers because of how food is presented in shops: “buy this” “2 for the price of 1”. It is evident for the farmers who are told to produce what is demanded by the market and who suffer when world market prices plummet, totally out of her their control.
But if you think about food once more, it is easy to discern many situations where we don’t look upon food as a commodity. The first food most humans eat is willingly given for free by a mother offering her breast. When we cook food for friends or family we do it outside of the market framework even if we have bought the food. The same apply when we grow food ourselves and share our bounty with a neighbour. Growing and cooking are hobbies and relaxing leisure for many, a duty without pay for others. Many foods also have cultural (or religious) meanings which transcend any market perspective.
Ulitmately, access to food is also an inalienable right. This was already agreed by world leaders in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has been re-asserted ever since, for example at the 2009 World Summit on Food Security in Rome. The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for the United Nations, Olivier De Schutter, writes in the report to the General Assembly in August 2013: ‘The right to food has come to the fore as Governments realize that their efforts to combat food insecurity and hunger have been failing and realize the urgent need to strengthen national legal, institutional and policy frameworks’.[i]
The market is a mechanism for distribution of food. But it doesn’t work very well. To begin with, there are almost a billion people hungry – clearly the market fails to supply them with food. Further, there are huge external costs involved in food production, costs which are not reflected in the price of food. Through competition, farmers are forced, or encouraged, to externalise as much as possible of these costs. Commodification thereby promotes a perverse system.
Food processors and traders make most money from making people buy food made from cheap raw materials (corn, soy, wheat, sugar, palm oil etc.) which at the same time have a big appeal to consumers. Fat, salt and sweet are keywords. The marketing is so efficient that people buy far too much, leading to both obesity and waste.
In addition, farming has more functions than the production of food. More than half of the biological production in the terrestrial systems of the Earth is taking place in the agriculture landscapes and the management of those agricultural landscapes is our most important tool for managing nature, a nature that we are totally dependent on even in these modern times.
But the signals, the guidance, from commodity markets don’t promote good stewardship of the land. They promote specialization, larger scale, monoculture, externalization of costs and short term profit over longer term sustainability. The reality is thus a lot more complex than the narrative of food as a commodity makes us believe. To let commodity markets shape our diets and the stewardship of the land is simply a bad idea.
Even if it sounds far-fetched, perhaps even frightening for some, there is a growing energy into a food system based on other perspectives than the one of the commodity. This can be seen “in the field” with many initiatives for new food systems relationships, such as community gardens, community supported agriculture, relationship food* etc.
The food system as commons, a shared interest and shared responsibility, emerge as a competing narrative to food as commodity. This doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribution, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies and their distribution. It also rejects the view that market forces and private ownership are the best ways for allocating food producing resources, such as land, water, knowledge and seeds.
Rethinking food as a right, farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons also necessitates the building of new institutions fit for these purposes. That includes both new relationships between producers and consumers and public institutions and policies. But I leave that discussion to another time.
There is also an emerging academic interest in new perspectives on food. Jose Luis Vivero Pol, a food governance researcher, has made an interesting analysis of academic papers in The value-based narrative of food as a commons. A content analysis of academic papers with historical insights. His analysis of English academic texts reveals that “food commons” or “food public good” topics are very marginal subjects in the academic milieu with only 179 results since 1900, but with sharp increase in the eight years that followed the 2008 food crisis. On the contrary, “food commodity” presents almost 50,000 references since 1900.
Vivero Pol, Tomaso Ferrando, Olivier de Schutter and Ugo Mattei, are now editing the Routledge Handbook of Food as Commons. It will present a different normative view of food as a commons instead of a commodity and “how the food system would change if food was regarded and enacted as a commons.“ The title will be published in 2018 and I am looking forward to reading it.
I have written myself on this theme, in my book Global Eating Disorder and more specifically in the article Food: From Commodity to Commons. In that article I write:
”The market is not a good master for a sustainable food system. Instead we need to find new ways of managing the food system based on food as a right and farming as a management system of the planet Earth. The solutions should be based on relocalization of food production and de-commodification of food and our symbionts, the plants and animals we eat.”
There are interesting times ahead.
* Relationsmat, “relationship food” is a term used in Swedish to emphasise the need to form new relationhips between the actors in the food chain, systems of co-production of cooperation.
[i] United Nations General Assembly 2013 The Right to Food, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 7 August 2013, A/68/288