Food as Common and Community

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Essay by Mariarosa Dalla Costa. For The Commoner.




"Food is a fundamental human right because it is the basis of the most important of all rights, the right to life to which all other rights depend. The right to eat itself, however, has a long history of being denied, which has run in parallel with the history of the denial of the right to land. The most recent period of this history runs from the drastic structural adjustments of the eighties to the maturing of neoliberal globalisation which has been taking place from the nineties on.

It is thus not by chance that the emergence and grassroots organisation of the various collective subjects protagonists in the movements of the seventies and then in the hard struggles for food, land and water in the eighties has given rise to networks which, crossing land and sea, have focussed on the most fundamental question: how to get food. It is as if all the issues regarding development were thrown upside down and the debate about them landed with its feet firmly planted on the ground: there is no sense in talking about anything else unless one first talks about how people can feed themselves, unless a solution to the problem of staying alive is found first. The other questions are subordinated to it. This was also the story of my research. I had a deep sense of rejection, and felt a deep lack of interest in the discourses which were going on around me. I found them profoundly boring if the question of how to get food, still outstanding for ever larger shares of humanity, was still being sidestepped."

Food as a Common

"Food is only regained as a fundamental right in its fullest sense when it is regained as a common. It is regained as a common if, along the way, all its conditions are also regained as commons. This is what is already apparent from the ways in which networks of farmers, fisherpeople, and citizens who are not only consumers organize themselves.

First of all, the networks themselves are communities insofar as they tend to guarantee food to the human community as a common good, as a primary human right, and every link within a network forms a community which is organised in various ways to guarantee such a common good to the population of which it is an expression in the context in which it lives. To reach such a common good, however, the various links in the network need to be connected with the community’s defence of other common goods. Otherwise we would only be in the spiral of food as a commodity which is imported, exported, contaminated and for many people difficult or impossible to get hold of. Let’s take a look at some of these commons which have to be defended to guarantee full access to food." (

The related common goods

(only parts of the first paragraphs of the text are reproduced)

I Safeguard of the ecosystem

"This is even more important than access to the land. Significant examples of this are the campaigns against the so-called ‘blue revolution’, that is the industrial-scale shrimp farms which have become notorious in many countries of the South for their destructiveness to traditional integrated systems of farming, fishing and the raising of fish, campaigns which many people have died in.

II Access to the Land

The second common good is that of access to the land and, of course, to the sea for communities that live near it. Access to the land is a much-debated theme. The Via Campesina network of networks, in which farmers’ associations from the North and the South from the Karnataka Farmers’ Union to Confederation Paysanne to the National Family Farm Coalition has developed this theme in relation to a variety of situations: communal or private systems of land tenure asserting women’s right to land ownership where this is denied them, and the possibility of working the land organically to get all the varieties that that land can offer from it. These demands are brought together under the network’s banner of “Food Sovereignty”. So this is about people’s right to produce their own food, the right to a variety of foods rather than having standardized, highly-processed foods imposed on them, the product of the industrial concept of food production and of the specialisation by geographical areas in the neo-liberal globalization of the markets. In this way freedom of enjoying a variety food is the other side of food democracy, which is itself an unavoidable base of a different type of development."

III Healthiness, Freshness, and Quality

"The third common good is made up of three elements: healthiness, freshness and quality. This means a refusal of an agriculture that is the product of chemistry and more recently of genetic modification. The deceits of the green revolution and its products to make agriculture more productive have meant that many farmers and other citizens have become ill and are continuing to get ill.


The movement for an alternative agriculture has undertaken various initiatives against foods which increasingly bring death and disease rather than life and health. It has rejected the industrial view of nature which sees the land, plants and animals as things to be treated like machines and therefore it has rejected productivism, that is the false productivity forced out of nature by means of chemicals or genetic modification and which intentionally fails to calculate other economic costs, let alone social and environmental costs."

IV Actual Transparency and Traceability

"The fourth common good is the actual transparency and traceability of the production process. The short cycle is already a good start in terms of verification of the process, including verification by the consumer. The movement has, however, already generated unusual actions to do with this and a series of innovative proposals."

V The New Ethics

The fifth common good is the new ethics. In the alternative agriculture movement in its broadest sense there is an explosion in the call for alternative relations both from the producer’s and the consumer’s side (among others) precisely because of the new relationship which they are hoping to establish for food production and distribution. As a consequence, new networks have also been established in the field of distribution.

In Italy mutual buying groups (Gas, Gruppi di acquisto solidale) have taken hold.

The two million people involved have given themselves five basic rules:

  • respect for human beings, that is the products that are bought must not be the products of social injustice but must rather contribute to a socially sustainable society;
  • respect for the environment, that is the choice of products obtained with a respect for nature which have also been transported as little as possible;
  • respect for the health that stems from the choice of organic products;
  • solidarity, that is choosing to buy from small producers who would otherwise be crushed by bigger ones;
  • respect for taste, since organic food is well known for having a better flavour as well as a higher nutritional value, in the context of getting closer to the natural rhythms of life by eating only foods that are in season.

What is significant is the emerging of new ethics which affects economic, social and environmental factors. Here too, there is a will to reject the procedures of a development that is becoming more and more unsustainable, a will to establish other relationships. In this sense initiatives which, like the “farm gate price” or the denominations of origin made by the local councils guarantee transparency and traceability, increase the value of local production, the value of the area where the goods are actually produced and with it the value of the new relations that spring from it, not only between producers and consumers, but between citizens. As a result, these initiatives make that area a common good which is available not only to local people but to everybody."


More information

More essays, via The Commoner [1] :

"There are three interrelated short contributions by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, linking the making and remaking of the planetary value hierarchy through enclosures (which systematically reproduce its lower layers), with the political problematic of the production of food as common, and of new relations to land and agriculture. In “Renaturalising the world” she begins reflecting on the continuing expulsion of populations from the land accompanying development projects and the new enclosures. This is the eradication of a population that derived from the land the possibility for nutrition and settlement, and that instead adds to urban slums or takes the 6Introduction route of migration. The outcome, similar to those following patterns of enclosures which occurred five centuries ago at the injection of capitalism, is the “expropriation from, and the accumulation of, land on the one hand, and the accumulation of immiserated individuals who could no longer reproduce themselves because they had been deprived of the fundamental means of production and reproduction, above all the land itself, on the other.” But crucially, this continuous replenishing the ranks of the eradicated and expropriated, “functional to a further expansion of capitalist relations and to the re-stratification of labour on a global level.” This ongoing re-stratification of the “conditions of labour and of life of men and women across the world, regardless of where they live,” is based upon the expulsion from the land. It is here that “the condition for class is re-founded and labour within the global economy is re-stratified.” And there are really no solutions within the traditional remedies. On one hand, “it is unthinkable that jobs will multiply” in accordance with the number of those expelled. On the other hand, “nor is possible to fool oneself into hoping for a global guaranteed income of such vast proportions. Yet even if it arrived one day, replacing the bombs perhaps, could we really delimit the matter to one of money, money sufficient for the purchase of a farming product which, in its industrial and neoliberal formulation, increasingly pollutes our bodies, destroys small economies and their jobs, and devastates the environment? And, beyond this, how much freedom would we have when all of the earth’s inhabitants depended only and exclusively on money for they survival?” This is the context in which Dalla Costa builds her analysis of the struggles around land, farming and nutrition by self-organising networks of the global movement of farmers that developed in the nineties. This analysis is furthered in her second piece, “Two Baskets”, in which she moves from the need of what she calls the “great reawakening”: “one that is being enacted by farmers and citizens (who are challenging their role as merely “producers” or “consumers”) against the great machine of industrial agriculture and the politics that bolster its delivery of noxious foods, environmental devastation.” Here she discusses the coordinates of a political project that aims at “relocalise development” and “re-ruralize the world”. An argument that fully open to the last paper on food as common, in which she argues that “food is only regained as a fundamental right in its fullest sense when it is regained as a common. It is regained as a common if, along the way, all its conditions are also regained as commons. This is what is already apparent from the ways in which networks of farmers, fisherpeople, and citizens who are not only consumers organize themselves.”