Food Commons Vision

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Stephen Leitheiser and Lummina Horlings:

"On the other hand is what we can call the food-commons vision. This vision imagines a transition to diverse and place-specific food production, rooted in civic governance and shaped from the bottom up by the local conditions of culture, climate and ecology (Vivero-Pol et al., 2019). This distinction is relevant, as both visions make substantive claims to sustainability, but identify different development pathways and unfold different notions of space and place. This raises questions such as, who will control and benefit from developments? What is the significance for policy makers? And what are the possibilities for a place-based approach to food production that supports community resilience?" (

Food-commons sustainability

Stephen Leitheiser and Lummina Horlings:

"Long before it was ever a commodity bought and sold on global markets, food was a common resource. Modern economics tells us that a resource can only be ‘common’ if it is not rivalrous (i.e. if I eat a carrot, you cannot eat it) or excludable (i.e. if you don’t pay, I can easily prevent you from accessing the resource). Following this framework, many would assume that food economies should be privatised and enrolled into a market, or regulated by a command-and-control state. In other words, the power to make decisions about the production, distribution and consumption of food must be transferred from common people into a market system or a state bureaucracy. The common people, left to their own whims, would quite simply screw things up. While this narrative is powerful in modern culture, it is not historically accurate. The work of institutional economist Elinor Ostrom (1990), among others, has carefully documented thousands of instances in which communities have managed and governed their own common resources (for millennia) in ways that resemble neither states nor markets (cf. Brinkley, 2020). The various systems of resource management that Ostrom documented did not use the modern economist’s logic of rivalry and excludability. Rather, they decided to manage resources in common quite simply because people in the community agreed to jointly cooperate in their care and management. In this way, the community itself is constituted by joint cooperation and participation. A look around shows that these types of commons have even been created all over within modern societies in which free trade and command-and-control governance are apparently ubiquitous.

Examples of the food commons include local community-supported agriculture (CSA), various value-based supply chains and new and nested production–consumption networks. What makes these systems of governance commons is that they go against, or beyond, the norms and rules set by established market systems and bureaucratic nation states. The vision of a food commons seeks to embed economic relations into society and the natural world, through utilising the various forms of ecologically available resources in sustainable ways. Communities are not subject to rules made elsewhere; they actively contribute in some way to decisions of economic governance. Quite often, these decisions are based on shared values like democracy, ecology, health, sustainability or supporting the local economy (Rosol, 2020). Crucially, as the food commons are rooted in a diversity of local conditions, and the sovereignty of the communities involved in the provision and distribution of the resource, they are much more resilient than their techno-utopian counterparts. Reports show that as the global food system has faltered, various food commons have flourished during the crisis.1

Shi Yan is a farmer and founder of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in China. There are now over 1000 CSAs in China. We certainly do not have space here to detail all of the examples of the food commons flourishing around the world in the wake of the crisis. However, by acknowledging just a few groups that we are engaged with, we aim to call attention to the food commons as the basis for creating alternative food systems in the post-COVID world.

In Groningen, the Netherlands, where the authors reside, De Streekboer – an online marketplace with a mission to connect people to regional farmers who produce affordable and healthy food with respect for nature – has seen its customer base double and revenues quadruple since the beginning of the crisis. The peri-urban farm De Stadsakker, which sells biodynamic produce direct to consumers, has also had a significant increase in CSA customers since the beginning of the crisis. In order to help meet community needs in the event of supply-chain interruptions, De Stadsakker has also planned to double its produce yield. The urban garden Toentje produces fresh food for the food bank with the help of volunteers, providing access to affordable food for the urban poor (Ulug and Horlings, 2019). These organisations have thrived as people have gained a new appreciation for supporting local businesses, and many volunteers have stepped up to help make these expansions possible.

Over in England, where the authors are engaged with civic food organisations, many groups associated with the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), a union of small farmers united around the desire to create a food system rooted in social and environmental justice, have stepped up to help those in need during the pandemic. For example, the Granville Community Kitchen in London has helped some 150 people per day access healthy and nutritious food, including delivering cooked meals. Tamar Grow Local in Plymouth is one more example of a community cooperative enterprise that has not only been able to adapt to record-breaking demand during the crisis, but has continued to support needy families and soup kitchens with access to fresh and healthy foods.

While these various organisations have thrived during the crisis, they have not done so because of the support of established market and state institutions. They have done so despite them, and mostly because of the painstaking efforts (and often volunteer labour) of civic organisations and small businesses. Going forward, policy makers can work to facilitate and enable community-led food policies. Such policies should be place-based, and rooted in local knowledge, resources and capacities. Policy should focus on assisting the creation of closer links between cities and food-producing regions, for example by enabling access to land and finance for new entrant small farmers, and facilitating access to markets in cities. Urban access can come in the form of public procurement of local food (in canteens, schools, universities and hospitals), or the funding of community-led restaurants and logistical infrastructure (e.g. urban food hubs, pick-up points, delivery networks). Crucially, the approach to policy making should be decentralised and not defined in advance. Planting and tending to ‘seeds’ of the food commons can help to ensure a more resilient response to future crises." (

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