Regional Food Commons

SUBHEAD: Food is treated as a private good in today’s industrial food system, but it must be re-conceived as a common good.

By David Bollier on 18 March 2014 for -

Image above: Photo of a local food market. From second article below. (

Currently, less than 3% of the food that Americans eat is grown within 100 to 200 miles of where they live. And many people in poorer neighborhoods simply do not have ready access to affordable local produce.

A fascinating new project, the Food Commons, aspires to radically change this reality. It seeks to reinvent the entire “value-chain” of food production and distribution through a series of regional experiments to invent local food economies as commons.

By owning many elements of a local food system infrastructure – farms, distribution, retail and more – but operating them as a trust governed by stakeholders, the Food Commons believes it can be economically practical to build a new type of food system that is labor-friendly, ecologically responsible, hospitable to a variety of small enterprises, and able to grow high-quality food for local consumption.

Food Commons explains its orientation to the world by quoting economist Herman Daly:
“If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food.  This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one.  A community’s complete dependency on outsiders for its mere survival weakens it….The most fundamental requirement for survival is food.  Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”
Food Commons is a nonprofit project that was officially begun in 2010 by Larry Yee and James Cochran. Yee is a former academic with the University of California Cooperative Extension who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for years. Cochran is the founder and president of Swanton Berry Farms, a mid-scale organic farming enterprise near Santa Cruz, California.

In 2012, Larry Yee told me in a phone conversation, the leaders of Fresno’s business, academic and social justice communities invited the Food Commons to develop its first prototype/proof of concept in Fresno. Fresno leaders see the idea as a way to foster economic development, create jobs and provide access to healthy foods -- this in a region that has the most impoverished congressional district in the nation, along with all the nutritional deficiencies that this entails. Last November, the Food Commons Trust in Fresno finished its business plan; it plans to launch the first phase of Food Commons business operations by 2014.

Strictly speaking, Food Commons is not a commons – it is a project that seeks to launch and support regional food commons, which it defines as an integrated regional structure of production, governance and distribution benefits everyone. As the project’s website puts it, “Food Commons is developing a new physical, financial and organizational infrastructure for localized food economies that are fair, just and sustainable for the health and well-being of our people, our communities and the planet.”

The project consists of three components:
Food Commons Trusts is a nonprofit “quasi-public entity to acquire and steward critical foodshed assets such as land and physical infrastructure.  It holds those assets in perpetual trust, which are then used to benefit everyone.  The Trust would lease land and facilities to participating small farms and businesses at affordable rates, giving entrepreneurs opportunities that they might not have in more concentrated markets.
Food Commons Banks are community-owned financial institutions that provides capital and financial services to all parties in the regional food chain.  This would allow eco-minded farmers and specialty agriculture to obtain the financing that they might need to succeed.

Food Commons Hubs are locally owned, cooperatively integrated businesses that help deal with the complex logistics of aggregating and distributing food and the various players in the regional food system.  The Hubs would also help small food businesses “achieve economies of scale in their administrative, marketing, and human resources and other business functions” and provide technical assistance and specialized vocational training.
The stated goal of the project is to build “a networked system of physical, financial and organizational infrastructure that allows new local and regional markets to operate efficiently, and small to mid-sized food enterprises – from farms to processors, distributors, and retailers – to compete and thrive according to principles of sustainability, fairness, and public accountability.”

As a sign of its values and ambitions, Food Commons invokes the democratic and cooperative models of the Mondragon Co-operative network in Spain, the Organic Valley Co-op in the U.S., and the VISA International financial services network. To fulfill itsvision, Food Commons has set up a governance structure revolves around two core principles:
Preservation of common benefit along the value chain.The governing boards of entities within the Food Commons system will be tasked with balancing the needs of the whole system, from the environment, to workers, to farmers and fishers, to aggregators/processors, to retailers, and to consumers.

Sustainable, steady-state profitability.  The governing boards will establish goals, incentive structures, and checks and balances that drive efficient use of resources and sustainable positive economic value creation, not unlimited growth and maximization of shareholder profit at the expense of other stakeholders, including future generations.
The watchwords of the new system is “accountability, economic viability and social equity.” The Fresno project aims to be "a proof of concept and as an engine for economic development, job creation, and healthy food access in a region characterized by the paradox of great wealth and agricultural resources existing side by side with entrenched poverty, food insecurity, and diet-related chronic disease.”

Besides Fresno, another regional Food Commons project is underway in Atlanta, Georgia, both at the largest regional scale as well as in neighborhood-scale community food systems, which the project calls “Fertile Crescent.”

In Auckland, New Zealand, Food Commons has been developing a third project – an online marketplace “where food growers and producers of any scale can sell directly to customers online via a super low cost distribution system. The idea is to short circuit the standard long supply chains so that the growers are paid more and the customers pay less.”

One cannot help but be impressed by the ambition, rigor and scope of the Food Commons project. If you’d like to learn more, download a pdf file of its 2011 annual report.

Food - A Commons not Commodity
By Jose Luis Vivero Pol on 13 October 2013 for OurWorld -

Food is treated as a private good in today’s industrial food system, but it must be re-conceived as a common good in the transition toward a more sustainable food system that is fairer to food producers and consumers.

If we were to treat food as a commons, it could be better produced and distributed by hybrid tri-centric governance systems implemented at the local level and compounded by market rules, public regulations, and collective actions. This change would have enormous ethical, legal, economic, and nutritional implications for the global food system.

A common resource versus a commodity
Food, a limited yet renewable resource that comes in both wild and cultivated forms, is essential for human existence. Over time, it has evolved from a local resource held in common into a private, transnational commodity.

This process of commodification has involved the development of certain traits within food to fit the mechanized processes and regulations put in practice by the industrial food system, and it is also the latest stage in the objectification of food—a social phenomenon that has deprived food of all its non-economic attributes. As a result, the value of food is no longer based on the many dimensions that bring us security and health, including the fact that food is a:
  • Basic human need and should be available to all
  • Fundamental human right that should be guaranteed to every citizen
  • Pillar of our culture for producers and consumers alike
  • Natural, renewable resource that can be controlled by humans
  • Marketable product subject to fair trade and sustainable production
  • Global common good that should be enjoyed by all
This multidimensional view of food diverges from the mainstream industrial food system’s approach to food as a one-dimensional commodity. Even so, the industrial food system has yet to enclose, or to convert into private property, all aspects of our food commons, including:
  • Traditional knowledge of agriculture that has been accumulated over thousands of years
  • Modern, science-based agricultural knowledge accumulated within national institutions
  • Cuisine, recipes, and national gastronomy
  • Edible plants and animals created in the natural world (e.g., fish stocks and wild fruits)
  • Genetic resources for food and agriculture
  • Food safety considerations (e.g., Codex Alimentarius)
  • Public nutrition, including hunger and obesity imbalances
  • Extreme food price fluctuations in global and national markets
Our most basic human need, privatizedThe industrial food system’s enclosure of food through the privatization of seeds and land, legislation, excessive pricing, and patents, has played a large role in limiting our access to food as a public good. The system now feeds the majority of people living on the planet and has created a market of mass consumption where eaters become mere consumers.

As such, the industrial food system’s goal is to accumulate under-priced food resources while maximizing the profit of food enterprises, instead of ensuring food’s most important non-economic qualities, such as nutrition. Many believe this has resulted in the failure of the global food system.

We can’t rely on the market
Within the mainstream “no money no food” worldview, hunger still prevails in a world of abundance. Globally speaking, the industrial food system is increasingly failing to fulfill its basic goals of producing food in a sustainable manner, feeding people adequately, and avoiding hunger. The irony is that half of those who grow 70% of the world’s food go hungry today.

 Most believed that a market-led food system would finally lead to a healthier global population, yet none of the recent analyses of the connection between our global food system and hunger have questioned the privatization of food. As a result, most people believe food access to be the main problem of global hunger.

But reality proves otherwise. Unregulated markets simply cannot provide the necessary quantity of food for everyone — even if low-income groups were given the means to procure it. An industrial food system that views food as a commodity to be distributed according to market rules will never achieve food security for all.

There won’t be a market-driven panacea for our unsustainable and unjust food system; rather the solution will require experimentation at all levels — personal, local, national, and international — and diverse approaches to governance — market-led, state-led, and collective action-led. We need to bring unconventional and radical perspectives into the food transition debate to develop a different narrative for our food system.

Practical implications of a common food system
A “re-commonification” of food — or, in other words, a transition where we work toward considering food as a commons — is an essential paradigm shift in light of our broken global food system. However, there would of course be practical consequences of this paradigm shift. Food would need to be dealt with outside of trade agreements made for pure private goods, and, as a result, we would need to establish a particular system of governance for the production, distribution, and access to food at a global level. That system might involve binding legal frameworks to fight hunger and guarantee everyone the right to food, cosmopolitan global policies, ethical and legal frameworks, universal Basic Food Entitlements or Food Security Floors guaranteed by the state, minimum salaries matched to food prices, bans on the financial speculation of food, or limits on alternative uses of food, such as biofuels.

Agricultural research and locally adapted, evidence-based technologies would highly benefit from crowdsourcing and creative-commons licensing systems to improve the sustainability and fairness of the global food system as well. When millions of people innovate, we have a far greater capacity to find adaptive and appropriate solutions than when a few thousand scientists innovate in private labs.

There is more and more evidence today that the copyrighted agricultural sector is actually deterring food security innovations from scaling up, and that the freedom to copy actually promotes creativity and innovation, such as with open-source software.

What it might take to “re-commonify” of our food system
Collective civic actions, or alternative food networks, are key in the transition toward a more sustainable and fairer food system because they are built on the socio-ecological practices of civic engagement, community, and the celebration of local food.

Based on Elinor Ostrom’s polycentric governance, food can be produced, consumed, and distributed by tri-centric governance schemes comprised of collective actions initially implemented at the local level; governments whose main goal is to maximize the well-being of their citizens and to provide a framework enabling people to enjoy their right to food; and a private sector that can prosper under state regulations and incentives.

Today, in different parts of the world, there are many initiatives that demonstrate how such a combination yields good results for food producers, consumers, the environment, and society in general.

The challenge now is to scale up those local initiatives. Self-governing collective actions cannot create the transition by themselves, thus there will be space for local governments, entrepreneurs, and self-organized communities to coexist, giving the state a leading role in the initial stage of the transition period to guarantee food for all.

We are just starting to reconsider the food narrative to guide the transition from the industrial food system toward an attainable and desirable utopia. It may take us several generations to achieve, but, as Mario Benedetti rightly pointed out, utopias keep us moving forward.

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