Handbook of Food as a Commons

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* Book: Routledge Handbook of Food as a Commons. 1st Edition. Edited by Jose Luis Vivero-Pol, Tomaso Ferrando, Olivier De Schutter, Ugo Mattei. Routledge, 2018

URL = https://www.routledge.com/Routledge-Handbook-of-Food-as-a-Commons/Vivero-Pol-Ferrando-Schutter-Mattei/p/book/9781138062627


"From the scientific and industrial revolution to the present day, food – an essential element of life – has been progressively transformed into a private, transnational, mono-dimensional commodity of mass consumption for a global market. But over the last decade there has been an increased recognition that this can be challenged and reconceptualized if food is regarded and enacted as a commons.

This Handbook provides the first comprehensive review and synthesis of knowledge and new thinking on how food and food systems can be thought, interpreted and practiced around the old/new paradigms of commons and commoning. The overall aim is to investigate the multiple constraints that occur within and sustain the dominant food and nutrition regime and to explore how it can change when different elements of the current food systems are explored and re-imagined from a commons perspective.

Chapters do not define the notion of commons but engage with different schools of thought:

  • the economic approach, based on rivalry and excludability;
  • the political approach, recognizing the plurality of social constructions and incorporating epistemologies from the South;
  • the legal approach that describes three types of proprietary regimes (private, public and collective) and different layers of entitlement (bundles of rights); and
  • the radical-activist approach that considers the commons as the most subversive, coherent and history-rooted alternative to the dominant neoliberal narrative.

These schools have different and rather diverging epistemologies, vocabularies, ideological stances and policy proposals to deal with the construction of food systems, their governance, the distributive implications and the socio-ecological impact on Nature and Society.

The book sparks the debate on food as a commons between and within disciplines, with particular attention to spaces of resistance (food sovereignty, de-growth, open knowledge, transition town, occupations, bottom-up social innovations) and organizational scales (local food, national policies, South–South collaborations, international governance and multi-national agreements). Overall, it shows the consequences of a shift to the alternative paradigm of food as a commons in terms of food, the planet and living beings." (https://www.routledge.com/Routledge-Handbook-of-Food-as-a-Commons/Vivero-Pol-Ferrando-Schutter-Mattei/p/book/9781138062627)


Jose Luis Vivero Pol:

6a. Rebranding food and alternative narratives of transition

The first part of the book sets the stage. Its five chapters directly challenge the commodity-based nature of the mainstream narrative around food and food systems and invite the readers to imagine alternative scenarios. Here, the authors explore different theoretical approaches to normative views of food, as a commons or as a public good, that reject the absolute commodification of food, understood as the hegemonic cultural narrative that impinges the mainstream food system and the productivist paradigm. Those approaches are based on the multiple-dimensions of food, the non-Christian cosmologies, the de-commodification of food by de-commodifying also the components that produce that food, the open-source, peer-to-peer ethos and the sharing economy, and the emergent political construction of global public goods.

In the opening piece, José Luis Vivero-Pol departs from the multiple understandings of food to underline the reductionism resulting from the consideration of food as a commodity: such a framing, he argues, obscures other non-economic dimensions of food quite relevant to humans.

For him, it is not enough to say that food is not a commodity, but it is essential to discuss its role as life enabler, natural resource, human right, cultural determinant, tradeable good and public good. All these dimensions must be taken into consideration if we are to radically shift the terms of the debate around food as a commons, but none of them is visible when we accept the mono-dimensional valuation of food as a commodity.

In the chapter two of the Routledge Handbook of Food as a Commons, Giacomo Pettenati, Alessia Toldo and Tomaso Ferrando dialogue with the idea of food as a commons presented in the introductory chapter, but offer an additional provocative twist. In their opinion, it is not enough to focus on food as the product of the food system. On the contrary, the de- commodifying power of the commons must redesign the entirety of the food system and as such redefine each single element that composes it. In their eyes, food cannot be dissociated from the deeper and broader socio-economic-ecological food system that generates it. Therefore, land, seeds, gender, energy, labor, landscape, the convivial act of eating, food waste and all other components of the food system must be re-thought, re-imagined and practiced according to the radical and ecological paradigm of commoning and the commons. Otherwise, no real transformation can be achieved.

On a similar line, Marina Chang’s chapter refines the idea of food system as a commons and enriches it with insights from critical feminism and non-Western traditions. In her chapter, she constructs a holistic, interconnected and intersectional idea of care as the core of growing a commons food regime in order to create synergistic outcomes in a world held together by an array of disciplines, organisations, institutions, movements, and forms of discursive power, and at a multitude of sites across the social domain. Growing a care-based commons food regime, she concludes, is like entering a new epoch of history: the pattern is not written, but we make history by living, experiencing, generating, reproducing and protecting the food commons towards ecological and just food systems.

In their chapter, Alex Pazaitis and Michel Bauwens converge to food through their thinking about prefigurative social order, technological innovation and commons-based peer production. In the context of a productive civil society of contributors with an ethical market economy and an enabling partner state, they claim, a set of policies that target the empowerment of social production may lead to an open-source agricultural revolution. Through the construction of an integrated ecosystem and the enactment of specific policies that favor the transition, the different dynamics of Commons-Based Peer Production and the emerging political economy could thus be brought together and facilitate the construction of a commons-based sustainable agricultural system. Contrarily to the mainstream food system where resource accumulation, heavy subsidies for unsustainable and unhealthy practices, and exploitation for profit without including the true account of food becomes the norm, a commons-based food system revolves around collective governance, rational utilization of natural resources (considering the livelihood of future generations) and a fair distribution of revenues and food products.

In the last contribution of the first section, Cristian Timmermann closes the circle of narratives oftransition by focusing on food security as one of the most debated and - often - abused concepts in the domain of food systems studies. For Timmermann, food security brings a number of benefits to humanity from which nobody can be excluded and which can be simultaneously enjoyed by all. As such, an innovative understanding of food as a commons must be accompanied by an innovative understanding of food security as a public good that can be deployed to assess policies and decisions that affect food production, distribution and access.

The author offers a five-fold theory of food security as a public good based on normative rationale and political implications, unfolding one of the multiple dimensions of food (as posited by Vivero-Pol in this volume). He also highlights the advantages of shifting paradigm not only with regards to food but also to the broader intellectual and policy framework.

6.b.- Exploring the multiple dimensions of food

The second part of the book explores the multiple dimensions of food and how they have been constructed through a continuous interaction and clashes between nature, authority, market, history and communities. Recasting food as a commons enables us to better value and protect the multi-dimensionality of food, and thereby to reverse the mono-dimensional approach to food as a commodity that still prevails. The various dimensions of food explored in these chapters in no way precludes or restrains other dimensions of food that could go beyond the ones presented here. Actually, Cristina Tirado (in this volume) already proposes a seventh dimension of food as a medicine to be added to the six dimensions mentioned by Jose Luis Vivero-Pol (in this volume).

In chapter 7, John O’Neill approaches these interactions through the lenses of the conflict between conceptions of food as a vital human need and food as a commodity. In response to the consolidation of the ‘new’ moral economy of the market and the paradigm of food as a commodity, egalitarian forms of mutual aid were developed and grounded in the acknowledgement of mutual dependence and common neediness. He explores how the first theorists of the market economy obscured the claims of need and replaced the mutual dependence by individual competition. Today, although often invisible, the practices of mutual aid in working class communities and the arguments for universal social protection remind us of the possibility of other readings of food that are rooted in the acknowledgment of the vulnerability that characterizes states of dependency as those that every human has with regard to food: we all need to eat food everyday.

In chapter 8, George Kent infuses his studies on community-based food systems with the notion of food as a commons and highlights the benefits that can derive if we organize communities in ways that facilitate positive social interaction, minimize exploitation and indifference, and encourage caring for the others, be that your relatives, neighbours or more distant humans. Bysetting up community-level food projects and treating food-as-a-commons, he claims, food systems can facilitate people’s working and playing together, and in that way, support their caring about one another’s well-being. In a world made up of strong local communities with strong local food systems, we can grow a global food system that works well both for living beings and the planet. His approach is certainly bottom-up, departing from local communities, and then networking with other similar caring niches. However, this can only occur once we realize that the food system is not a terrarium that can be objectified and studied, but a complex set of socio-ecological relations in permanent flux, that shapes communities and the space around them, at the same time that it is shaped in turn by these communities.

Departing from the recent initiatives of infant and young child feeding in emergencies (IYCF-E) and the SafelyFed scheme of communal support for breastfeeding mothers in situations of need, Penny Van Esterik offers in chapter 9 a reflection on food as a cultural core. In a society that tends to donate industrial infant formula, purchases breastmilk for profit and proposes individualistic solutions to infant food security, she claims, the creation of collective spaces for mothers and the satisfaction of their needs represents a paradigm change that has significant implications on both society and individuals. More importantly, the discourse of food as commodity makes culture in the global food system invisible and devalues nurturing practices such as postpartum care, home cooking, regional food preservation techniques, gardening, food sharing through feasting, and commensality. Whatever has a value but is not priced by the market gets obscured. On the contrary, food and food systems as a commons make culture and diversity visible, away from standardization and homogenization. Van Esterik makes a call for ethnographies of community-based food commons, which would make visible how the commons work in different cultural settings and the link between food and societies.

Finally, Noah Zerbe’s contribution in chapter 10 provides the reader with a genealogy of the idea of food as a commodity, another food dimension worth exploring because it became hegemonic in the global food system of the 21st century. In order to better understand the need for transition and where the possibilities lie, Zerbe traces the commodification of food in political and economic terms from the colonial food regime, through the rise of the United States, and then to the consolidation of the current neoliberal food regime. Through a combination of legal, political and economic elements, he shows how the strengthening and global expansion of neoliberal capitalism, with its associated narratives of enclosing the commons, absolute proprietary rights, individualism, and the moral supremacy of market rules over other allocation mechanisms, has fundamentally modified the global food regime, resulting in the transformation of food from a vital component of life into an instrument for speculative investment and profit maximization. In the industrial, neoliberal food system, food is produced to earn profit and not to feed people adequately. It is only by knowing the premises and processes that shaped the narrative behind the dominant food regime, he claims, that alternative imaginations and new forms of resistance can be organized.

6.c.- Food-related elements considered as commons

Policy makers and academics are moving from the stringent and binary division of the world into public and private goods to a looser but more practical definition of the circumstances that take into consideration utility rather than ownership, as highlighted by the example of the so-called Global Commons, which would remain undersupplied in the absence of robust cooperation mechanisms. This move is nothing but a reflection of the multiple experiences on the ground by grassroots organisations, civic collective actions and customary societies that value food in its multiple dimensions and not just based on its market price. Regarding food and its system of production, some material and non-material elements are already considered, although only to a certain extent and in certain contexts, to fall beyond the public/private division and are associated with the ideas of commons, while the status of others is contested (genetic resources, wild foods and water) or generally regarded as private goods (agro-chemical inputs, labour, etc.).

This section presents immaterial knowledge commons (traditional agricultural knowledge, public science and gastronomy) that are considered and practiced as a commons in current food systems. Moreover, two material food producing inputs, whose normative valuation is quite contested by the neoliberal hegemonic narrative, namely genetic resources and water, are also discussed in detail with cases studies in South Africa, Germany, and the International Treaty of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The aim of this part is to contribute to an expansive understanding of food as a commons that departs from the reductionist idea of food as an object and connects multiple layers and scales.

The first chapter in this part is authored by Victoria Reyes-García, Petra Benyei and Laura Calvet-Mir, three experts of traditional agricultural knowledge (TAK). Their contribution engages with the idea that TAK can be governed as a commons. They understand commons as resources used by a group of people who have self-designed a set of rules to manage the social dilemmas derived from their collective use. Knowledge commons in this case illustrate well the political construction of commons, regardless the nature of the resource, by people´s instituting power. To illustrate the governance of TAK under the commons framework, they present two case studies in which TAK is shared by communities of users who operate at different scales, local and global (through a web-based platform). Valuing TAK as a commons, they conclude, is not just an intellectual exercise but a political stand against the commodification of knowledge by close intellectual property rights (e.g. seed patents).

Chapter 12, by Molly Anderson, further explores the links between food, knowledge and commons. She challenges the ongoing privatization of food and agriculture scientific knowledge, highlighting the fact that the private sector has been assuming a greater proportion of research funding and, as a consequence, is taking advantage of the strengthening of intellectual property rights to recoup its investments. The paper explores those mechanisms as ways to commodify knowledge. These trends, she claims, are dangerous because they limit the quality and scope of scientific knowledge about food and agriculture, which not only rests upon millennia of uncompensated public participation but helps the public to adapt to changing environmental conditions, caused in large part by private sector activities and externalization of costs. However, she concludes, these trends are not inevitable and shifts in public policies and investment can build on existing models of knowledge commons to allow scientific knowledge of food and agriculture to be recognized and governed as a global public good.

A third food-related element discussed in this section is gastronomy as the way in which food is combined and presented as an object of aesthetic and culinary consumption. In light of the increased spectacularization of food, Christian Barrère posits in chapter 13 that modern Western societies present themselves as democratic and, along those lines, pretend to export worldwide their model of gastronomy, even in countries that have mainly been characterized by very different gastronomic trajectories. However, the combination between gastronomy and commodification makes contemporary highly-marketed gastronomy anything but democratic. On the contrary, it is based on an aristocratic framework that under-values popular gastronomies and celebrates sophistication of recipes, scarcity and high value of foodstuffs, richness of setting, etc.

It is thus time to imagine a new pathway for multiples gastronomies that break with joint market- elitist gastronomy and recognize the popular, open-knowledge and shared bases of gastronomy and cuisine. A possible solution, Barrère concludes, may reside in the mix of recipes and cultures that accompanies multiculturalism and cross-boundaries dialogues.

Circulation and coexistence of popular gastronomies, as much as the people who create them, become therefore the pillars on which to build a new model of gastronomy, more democratic, ecological and pluralist.

In chapter 14, Christine Frison and Brendan Coolsaet enrich the conversation with a discussion of the possibility to govern plant and animal genetic resources for food and agriculture as commons. With the help of two case studies, the Global Seed Commons established under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the reintroduction and ‘commonification’ of a traditional pig breed by a local community enterprise in Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, the authors conclude that innovative legal frameworks and governance arrangements inspired by the philosophy of the commons can facilitate access to and sharing of genetic resources for food and agriculture, hence helping to ensure the transition towards more ecological and just agri-food systems.

With their chapter on water, food and climate commoning in South Africa, Patrick Bond and Mary Galvin push the reader to think about food in close connection with water, climate change and bottom-up forms of organization, tensions and resistance. Using the case of South African most deprived urban areas as an example, the authors show that commoning is not simply a matter of technicist collective resource management, but a political ideology in which socio-ecological contradictions inevitably emerge. In particular, the illegal reconnection of water pipes by poor households and the support to those unable to pay for water that took place in South Africa during the period of the most intense drought, combined with pressure to commercialize water resources and its accompanying social contestation, leads them to reflect on the strong potential for commoning as a catalyst of self-regulated collective action, social contestation and the making of new rules from bottom up.

6.d.- Commoning from below: current examples of commons-based food systems

Although the almost complete commodification of food has pervaded most national food systems and the global dynamics, there are still numerous examples where the underlying narrative about food is not based in its commodity properties or the value-in-exchange only. Those examples range from customary indigenous food systems that are resisting the privatisation waves of the globalising neoliberal doctrine to the contemporary civic movements that are trying to regain control of decision-making in local, urban and regional food systems. In this book we have called those examples ‘Commoning from below’, i.e. contemporary examples of food systems that are based on a non-commodified understanding of food. These national examples prove the existence of other narratives of food transition, other than the productivist discourse of commodified food, and how these narratives are being constructed and revised by a dialectical process between governmental policies and civic collective actions. The examples from Cuba, Canada, Ireland and Hungary show this commoning from below is not exempted from power tensions, inequalities and flaws, like any other social process. Although limited and at times contradictory, the four experiences reveal that alternative considerations of food are possible and already practiced, although in some cases with less transformative implications than imagined.

Nevertheless, all of them share two important features: the valuation of the multiple meanings of food to people and the questioning of the balance of power in the food system, where the Market and the State are no longer seen as the two only actors. People organising themselves to produce, transform and consume food outside market-driven and state-driven structures emerge as the third pillar of a tricentric food system where healthy and fair food is guaranteed to every human being. Throughout the world, rural and urban communities are constructing and performing forms of social innovation where food is not only an object of consumption but is recognized in its multiple dimensions.

Peter M. Rosset and Valentín Val take the readers to Cuba in chapter 16. They present the way in which the ‘campesino a campesino’ agroecological movement may be strengthened by the adoption of the methodology and assumptions of food as a commons. They analyze the horizontal, peasant to peasant learning and sharing methodology through the lenses of its communal and collective visions of food. Their conclusion, which opens to dialogue and recognition of the common struggles of food sovereignty and “food-as-a-commons” movements, is that a commons-based vision of food and the food systems are more effective at achieving food sovereignty than conventional practices based on more individual and capitalist views of food.

In chapter 17, Hugo Martorell and Peter Andrée change geography and approach to present the case of the national food policy in Canada. In their account, we discover that networks and coalitions of civil society organizations are actively working towards integrating values of food as a commons and a public good, with a focus on strengthening their role in food governance, from local urban policy councils to national institutions.

They thus draw on some of the experiences of the commoning of food governance that have been instituted in different provinces and territories and reason on the opportunities and tensions that emerge when a polycentric and self-organized commons-based governance is combined with the role of public authorities as facilitators. In their conclusions, they propose that a Canadian food policy should build on provincial and territorial food security networks and existing governance arrangements in order to increase the population’s access to healthy food. However, scaling these diverse arrangements at a federal level would bring into play ideological and operational tensions and new challenges to be addressed.

Then we move to Ireland and a different topic in chapter 18. Tara Kenny and Colin Sage deal with a theme of extreme topicality and relevance for both public and private actors involved in the food system in Europe: the commodification of food surplus as charitable provision. Through the analysis of some initiatives undertaken in Ireland, the authors discuss the implications and hurdles that charitable food provisioning may interpose to the transition towards a commons-based food system. Without dismissing the importance of feeding people and addressing hunger at a time of austerity, the authors highlight the intrinsic inequality and unsustainability that characterize a system based on excesses and volatile solutions to hunger, using the left-overs of a industrialized food system. A radical transition, they conclude, would rather require moving beyond the current two-tiered food system and its schizophrenia. The paradigm of commons and its focus on multi-dimensional, multi-stakeholder, local and resilience-enhancing systems would thus represent an ally in this shift.

In chapter 19, the final chapter of this part, Bálint Balázs describes the thriving community-based food self-provisioning in Central and Eastern European countries as socially inclusive practices that involve all strata of society and are deeply rooted in customary traditions. Based primarily on bartering and gifting relations between families, relatives and neighbours, these emerging food systems build and strengthen communities, at the same time saving money and empowering households by playing not just the consumer´s role but also self-producing part of its food needs.

These practices are based on inherited traditions and have become an important non-market source of local food that reflects the principles of sustainability and preferred local gastronomies (two dimensions of food not always valued in monetary terms). The re-commonification of food systems in Central and Eastern European countries, Balázs concludes, has a solid foundation and promising future, as it is propelling high proportions of the population along a sustainable pathway towards new food regimes.

6.e.- Dialogue of alternative narratives of transition

The 2008 and 2011 food price peaks were two important events that positioned food at the very top of the political agendas at national and international level. The concerns about the food supply required to feed a growing population with diminishing natural resources under highly unpredictable climatic conditions has been triggering thousands of events, debates, innovative actions and policies aimed at securing more and better food for all.

Yet, hunger is still prevalent and obesity is rampant, both in the Global North and the Global South. How to transit from our unsustainable and unfair industrial food system towards a better one for the people and the planet is nowadays a major topic for politicians and citizens alike.

The fifth part of this volume engages with alternative scenarios and imaginations and explores the convergences, current and potential synergies and elements of tension and possible conflict between the food commons narrative and other relevant counter- and alter-hegemonic narratives that currently confront the industrial food system such as the food sovereignty movement, the urban food initiatives, the anti-land grabbing constituency, or the climate and health constituencies, since the multiple crises (i.e., food, climate, biodiversity, health, energy) seem to be strongly interconnected. Since the food system is the most important transformer of Earth, the way we regard food is linked to possible solutions to all other planetary crises. The aim here is to stress the links between competing narratives about food and existing struggles and attempts to imagine just and ecological food systems. The editors’ hope is that the vocabulary and imaginary of food as a commons help strengthening the actions of movements and individuals who are already deploying intellectual and practical tools to challenge the contradictions and socio- environmental injustices of the dominant food system. That is why this dialogue of alternatives of transition is deemed so relevant: only through a convergence of constituencies, recognizing the diversity of approaches but the unicity of goals, can the mainstream food system, which is both unsustainable and unfair, be changed into an alternative system that guarantees food for all within the planetary boundaries. Of all the possible interlocutors, we have chosen three.

However, we believe that this volume, as much as the rationale of commons and commoning, must be seen as a continuous and dynamic process that is constantly enriched, redefined and strengthened by dialogues with other collectivities and constituencies combating the inequalities of the current dominant industrial food system.

The first dialogue, contained in Chapter 20, is with food justice and food sovereignty. There, Eric Holt-Giménez and Ilja van Lammeren engage with the question whether food as a commons can advance food sovereignty. In their response, the authors recognize that the link between a global call for food commons and the struggle for food sovereignty may seem straightforward.

However, they conclude this is true only when they are superficially analyzed and that both concepts are highly complicated on the ground. In their conclusions, they suggest that a nuanced approach to understanding the commons as a contested terrain of struggle is needed to help determine whether and to what extent a food commons as a strategy for food sovereignty can not only serve as a utopic beacon, but as an effective form of transformative resistance. It is thus up to the advocates of food and food systems as a commons to think about the practical and political implications that the paradigmatic shift may produce. As editors, we welcome the invitation and look forward to building collectively a better understanding of the concrete opportunities and limits that lie behind the ideas proposed in this volume. And to further engage with food sovereignty activists and scholars on how to further develop the links between both narratives.

Then, in chapter 21, Chris Maughan and Tomaso Ferrando look at ongoing struggles for land as a commons in United Kingdom and Italy to make the case that the fight for food as a commons cannot be detached from the struggle for a de-commodification of all the elements that compose food systems. In this contribution, they explore concrete examples where the paradigm of the commons has been utilized to support the struggle for land and soil as key components in the creation of an ecological and democratic food systems. In their analysis, civil-society-led processes that aim to regain land for the collectivity may thus provide important connective tissue between the radical outliers of food commoning and broad-based support for food systems which nourish the collective, rather than enriching the few.

In the third conversation (chapter 22), Maria Fonte and Ivan Cucco use the aspirational paradigm of the commons to engage with the potential and limits of local food systems. On the one hand, localism can help transitioning towards a more equitable, ethical and sustainable agro-food system. However, the idea of localism can also support protectionism and neo-ruralist ideologies that reinforce bounded, defensive and spatial strategies. A true emancipation, they claim, can only take place when food ceases to be perceived as a commodity and is understood in its multidimensional value, namely natural and economic resource, right, culture and place-based identity. In their reading, food as a commons plays a crucial political role in the construction of a real utopian project to achieve an aspirational and inspirational fair and sustainable food system.

Rethought and re-imagined, food regains its multidimensional value and becomes the basis of heterogeneous eco-systems and communities of people and nature, in which social justice and democratic powers may prevail and where non-capitalist or post-capitalist economy is achievable.

In the final contribution of this part (chapter 23), Cristina Tirado firstly explores how climate change impacts the multiple dimensions of food, proposing a new conceptual health-related dimension to add to the theoretical approach to food dimensions presented in this volume: food can also be valued as a medicine. Moreover, departing from the consequences of climate change effects over human health, nutrition and food security, she highlights the relevant role the industrial food system has in global warming and the obesity pandemic that is ravaging all countries, either in the high-income Western nations or the impoverished Global South. The current way of producing and consuming food, including food waste and high meat consumption, is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, being also the biggest user of water resources, biodiversity destruction and soil pollution. As the main goal of the global food system shall be to nourish everybody adequately, respecting the limits of natural renewable resources and stewarding the food-producing resources, there is a need to shift the normative consideration of food from an only-for-profit good to a sustainable resource that delivers healthy diets for all without mortgaging the planet. At the end, Cristina proposes multiple leverages to transit from the current unsustainable and unhealthy food system towards a food commons system, establishing a dialogue between the most progressive policy and legal ideas from the academic mainstream with the most palatable proposals from the commoners side."