Is food a commons or a commodity?


To echo Peter’s thoughts about water as a human right, I would like to raise a similar issue about food.

Is food a commons or a commodity?

I recommend to read the Jose Luis Vivero Pol’s paper on this issue (which is unfinished and the author himself ask for people’s contribution to enrich his research with examples and references, a real example of intellectual communing!) available at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development:

The UN has maybe added food security in 1996 to their top priority agenda, however famines and malnutrition is still affecting millions. The problem is not that there is not enough food (actually the world has never produced so much) but that its access and prices discriminate the poorest and the most vulnerable. How is it possible to have on average 868 million people suffering from hunger a year (FAO), while at the same there is over 500 million obese? There must be a problem here! And what is even more shocking, is that we lose or waste 1.3 billion tonnes of food per year, enough to feed 600 out of the 868 million hungry people.

Reducing food to a commodity, run by the market rules, has not been a successful operation for the world as we realise that hunger still exists and has even developed in new places. Furthermore, the heavy industrialisation of agriculture has impoverished soil and has produced products, which are poorer in nutriments than ever before, and left millions of farmers out job.

In Jose Luis Vivero Pol words’: “Globally speaking, we eat badly, produce food in a rather unsustainable manner and consider food merely as a commodity, neglecting its dimensions as a human right, a basic human need or a major pillar of cultural identification”.

Human beings need three elements to live: air, water and calories (food).

Without access to one of these elements, we die fairly quickly… therefore can we, morally speaking, consider these elements as commodities and sell them to people according to their purchase power? Since all human beings have the right to life, all three elements should be considered as human rights: food is, since 1963, considered as a right for all human beings, water has been recently added by the UN in 2010, leaving the air still out of any regulation as still accessible for free and in abundant quantity (until when…?).

Most of the people on the planet have access to all three elements; however their quality will tremendously vary, impacting heavily on people’s life expectancy.

Pol refers in his paper to the rivalry or the excludability nature of food, which is actually depending on socially imposed system: food can be considered as rivalry and non-restricted good: if we eat a fruit, it will not prevent Mother Nature from producing more fruits so more people can eat them. However, more and more, food has become an excludability good, which means that some people may be excluded from having access to certain goods (property rights) or they could not afford to access it (price). This is how we arrive to the situation where agriculture and food industry is now concentrated in the hands of few multination corporations, which are enclosing the free access, production and exchange of food, making it a highly excludable commodity.

If food and its production has become a commodity although it is recognised as human right, how can we reclaim it as commons now that it has a market price? Is it still possible to go back and redistribute its rights? This is what the food sovereignty campaigners try to fight for through the Via Campesina ”an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe”.

Is food sovereignty still possible to achieve in an era where half of the population lives in urban areas?

Is food part of the cultural and individual choices, we have to make every day to stay who we are?

If so, is it a commons or a commodity?










2 Responses to “Is food a commons or a commodity?”

  1. u0953238 Says:

    I have always argued that to some extent people from developing countries tend to eat quality,locally and organically produced food.

  2. peterezekiel Says:

    In my work I’ve found that child malnutrition is sometimes linked to the sale of higher value crops (with better nutritional value) while living on a diet of poor quality food. This is evident in some Andean communities, where farmers will sell on their beans and vegetables and feed their families a diet of cheap, but nutritionally poor quality pastas. While this situation has existed for some time, it reached UK headlines earlier this year when the social impact of the increased global demand for quinua was reported in the Guardian:

    This community in Peru is tackling malnutrition among children by looking at diet and agriculture on a local scale. Farmers are encouraged to grow better and more diverse food stuffs to give children a balanced diet.

    This is certainly a greater challenge in more urban areas where access to food is often determined by income, as there is no land available to grow your own.

    Nathan McClintock is a geography researcher in California. His study area of study over the past decade has looked at these very issues around food commons in urban areas. If it is of interest, this is his website:

    In particular, his study of public lands in Oakland and their suitability as Urban Commons for food production shows (theoretically at least) that it is possible. By taking unused or underused public lands and converting them into agricultural space for the local community to use.

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