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Why Isn't Food a Public Good?

By Jose Luis Vivero Pol | September 11, 2014

CREDIT: ChefSteps (CC)

What would the world look like if we were to treat food as a public good or commons and not merely as a commodity? So far, each and every solution proposed by international conferences, donors, UN institutions, and most knowledgeable scholars is based on food, an essential resource for human beings, as a fully privatized good. I propose a different idea: considering food as a commons, since it is essential for every human on this planet. Purchasing power should not be the only means to get access to natural and man-made food resources. We should move towards a different system that values food based on its multiple and essential dimensions to humans and not just as a priced commodity. This transition should be steered by a governance of food as a commons, composed of three branches: state-driven initiatives, policies, and regulations; market-driven allocations based on supply and demand; and self-regulated collective actions for food producers and consumers with different forms of food-sharing finding a place in a more sustainable and fairer food system.

Air, water, and food are the three essential natural resources we human beings need to survive. Air is basically regarded as a public good. Water used to be considered a global public good up to the mid-20th century, but its very nature is highly disputed nowadays. However, usually we only pay for the purification and transportation of water. And then we have food, the third essential natural resource. The way we consider food has evolved since the 18th century, when the commons (land common to all) in Europe were gradually enclosed and transformed into privatized goods, either owned by private individuals or by the state or church. Communal property, that is customarily and legally considered as inalienable, indivisible, irreversible, not available for sale, and which cannot be encumbered or mortgaged, was transformed into private or public property. Since then, an increasing number of food production systems, such as wild fruits, coastal seafood areas, or oceanic fish stocks, have been privatized. This means that unless you have entitlements, such as proprietary rights or legal authorization, it's almost impossible to get food freely from anywhere.

The industrial food system is based on a consideration of food as a pure commodity. Food is only valued by its price in the market. Basically, the lower the price of food the better. That explains why the industrial food system is always desperate to minimize the costs of food production — by mechanizing cultivation and lowering food prices at the farm gate. By only considering the price in the market, we really neglect and undervalue other factors that are extremely important to human beings. Globally speaking, the industrial food system is increasingly failing to fulfil its basic goals of producing food in a sustainable manner, feeding people adequately, and preventing hunger. Hunger still prevails in a world of abundance because of the dominance of the mainstream "no money no food" mentality.

The industrial food system only considers one dimension of food: its tradable dimension. The main goal of agri-business corporations is not to sustainably produce healthy food for everyone but to earn more money. We are fed by a "low cost" food system where price is the main driver of food production, processing, and consumption, rather than aiming at delivering nutritious food for all. If we want to achieve a food-secure world we need to have more space for self-regulated collective actions for food and to reclaim more space for state-led initiatives, whose primary goal is their citizens' wellbeing. This is because, after all, food security is within the mandate of every state, but surely not within the mandate of every food and agriculture company.

Concrete Food-Related Proposals for the Public Good

A Universal Food Coverage could be engineered to guarantee a minimum amount of food to everybody, everywhere, every day, similar to universal health coverage and universal primary education, both available in many countries around the world. Why is what we see as acceptable for health and education so unthinkable for food? Is education more important to human development than eating? For instance, the state could guarantee tortillas, bread, maize, or rice to everybody, every day.

Patenting living organisms should be banned. We can patent computers, iPods, cars, and other human-made technologies but we cannot patent living organisms such as seeds, bacteria or genetic codes. That should be an ethical minimum standard and a fundamental part of our new moral economy of sustainability.

Food speculation should be banned, because it does not contribute to improving the food system, neither food production, nor consumption, and it has many damaging collateral effects. Food can be traded, insured, and exchanged, but not speculated on.

Another proposal is to take the international food trade outside the World Trade Organization, as food cannot be considered like other commodities, due to its multiple dimensions for human beings. Along those lines, a different international food treaty should be crafted, whereby countries abide by and respect some minimum standards in food production and trade. It should be a binding treaty.

Public-private partnerships (PPP) in the food sector are decision-making spaces for the private sector to influence policymakers in order to arrange a legal space which is conducive to profit-seeking. Since they are not meant to maximize the health and food security of the citizens but mainly to maximize profit-seeking, these PPPs should be restricted to operational arrangements but never to dealing with policy making or legal frameworks.

As previously mentioned, a governance system for food production, distribution, and access could be developed, based on three branches: the state, whose main goal is maximizing citizen's well-being; the market, whose main goal is maximizing profit; and citizens in collective arrangements to maximize the common good. By that I mean self-regulated local institutions where people decide to get together in an organized way to produce, exchange, and consume food outside of the market system. Today we see many of these short and local chains of consumers and producers who organize themselves to produce and consume better food.

For thousands of years, human beings have been organizing traditional collective activity to produce food. Nowadays, collective action for food is already ongoing in developed and developing countries. I just hope that food activists may think about the very nature of food and reclaim their place in the global food system and its governance: food is much more than a commodity. It is every man's right, a profound cultural issue and, of course, a common good of humanity.

Further reading:

Vivero Pol, J.L. (2013). Food as a commons: reframing the narrative of the food system. SSRN working paper. April 2013.
Vivero Pol, J.L. (2013).The Food Commons transition. Collective actions for food security. OP-ED Article in The Broker Magazine (22 January 2014).
Vivero, J.L. (2014). The commons-based international Food Treaty: A legal architecture to sustain a fair and sustainable food transition. In: Collart-Dutilleul, F. & T. Breger, eds. Penser une démocratie alimentaire. Thinking a food democracy. Vol. II. Lascaux European Research Programme. Nantes. Pp. 177-206.

Read More: Food, Globalization, Environment, Economy, Trade

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