From Food Monopolies to Food Commons

04 Oct 2011

Calls for food sovereignty, food justice and even “food democracy” are ringing from fields to kitchens around the world. In the face of the recurrent food and diet crises plaguing our planet, farmers, farm and food workers, consumers—politically engaged citizens—are struggling to regain control over their food systems. Why?

Because the “solutions” to these crises offered by governments, agri-food monopolies and multilateral institutions—e.g., more “free” trade, genetically engineered crops and the spread of giant retail chains—brought on the crises to begin with. With a billion people “stuffed” and a billion “starved” on the planet, why do the G-8 countries, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization continue to prescribe catastrophic solutions to catastrophe?

The answer is simple: the oligopolies dominating our global corporate food regime are also in crisis. The record profits and massive wealth they accumulated during the 2008 and 2011 food price inflation crises must be re-invested in order to maintain a compound rate of growth. (A compound growth rate is essential if these corporations are to keep their shareholders from selling off stock.) Unfortunately for these corporations, the imperative to re-invest comes at a time of global recession and negative economic growth. It also comes at a time when these very monopolies—because they are monopolies—have saturated their existing markets. The Monsanto corporation already dominates the industrial corn and soy market in North and Latin America. If Europe won’t permit the entry of its GMOs, where can it go to sell more seed? ADM and Cargill already control most of the world’s grain; where can they offload their product? Wal Mart and Carrefour dominate the world’s retail market; where can they expand? All are struggling to break open the vast markets of India, China and other “emerging economies,” but this is not an easy proposition anymore. Where can they re-invest their vast amounts of accumulated wealth? The monopolies have what is called a crisis of over-accumulation.

Who will solve the crisis of over-accumulation for the monopolies? The poor.
The poor are not getting any richer, but as a group they are growing at the rate of 8% and because they make up nearly half of the world’s population they offer a vast, expanding market opportunity for the agri-food monopolies. With the promise of “saving the world from hunger,” these corporations are now busy leveraging public development funds of northern governments to open new markets in Africa and Asia. Foreign food and development aid—which is fuelled by public money—is being directed to poor countries so that they can buy GM grain, fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic engineered seeds from the northern monopolies. Many studies and reports have shown that agroecology is the best answer to hunger and climate change in the Global South. Poor countries also have to be allowed to protect their own agriculture. The oligopolies controlling our food systems are not solving the problem of hunger—rather, hunger is being used to solve the problem of over-accumulation for the oligopolies.

How can private corporations twist the use of public money to advance their unsustainable and inequitable food systems around the world? Because we let them. Over the last three decades the waves of neoliberal globalization has not only ruined local and regional food systems, it has privatized our public industries, public education, public health, public research, and many other aspects of our public life. It is not just the “private sector” that now dominates the public spaces where decisions are made concerning the future of our food systems—its the monopolies.

This monopolization of public space has also resulted in a “monopolization of the mind.” Our ideas, our hopes, our dreams and creativity are constantly bombarded with the messages that insist that only corporate solutions to the world’s problems are valid. Only corporations can save the world from hunger; only corporations can provide us with healthy food; only they can save us from the crises they created to begin with. But by convincing us that only they have the solutions, they actually have us solving their problems.

Food sovereignty, food justice and food democracy are movements of people that seek other solutions. They seek to re-open public spaces of decision so that people rather than monopolies decide what we eat, how it is grown, and how the multi-trillion dollar wealth of our world food systems is distributed. How can our movements make sure that our public resources are used for the public good rather than monopoly interests? By re-establishing the public sphere within our food systems—by taking back the “food commons.”

A food commons is not only a physical place where food is produced, processed, sold or consumed; it is also a social space where decisions are made in the interest of the common good. Whenever food activists take back a part of the food system in the interest of the common good, they are constructing a food commons. This is why food sovereignty as an organizing concept and precondition for food justice, food democracy and the right to food is so important: it implies a space that is sovereign to the corporate food regime. It is a space in which people—not corporations—decide.

People and communities construct food commons when they link the sovereign places of decision to the sovereign spaces of production and consumption within our food systems. The food commons gives the concept “local” an entirely new meaning. Aside from consuming locally-grown food, it means that food system decisions are taken locally and that food dollars are locally re-invested. Turning our food systems into equitable and sustainable engines of local jobs and economic growth is an important strategy to deal with the global recession, poverty and hunger.

The social construction of food commons is taking place around the world in the nooks and crannies of the existing corporate food regime. Little by little, the different experiences of community gardens, fair trade, community service agriculture, food policy councils, farmer’s movements and consumer movements are slowly converging in their efforts to build a better food system. In some cases, these efforts try to transform existing places, like schools, neighborhoods and farms, use political spaces—like parent-teacher associations, food policy councils, community land trusts and production cooperatives—to make good, democratic decisions about our food systems. Some communities have worked with local “anchor institutions” such as hospitals, schools and universities, and even local law authorities. These agree to pool purchasing power to set up worker cooperatives, gardens and greenhouses to supply food to communities and the anchor institutions.
These experiences do not necessarily use “food commons” as their organizing concept, but to the extent that they bring parts of the food system into the public, rather than the corporate sphere, they are indeed constructing a dimension of a food commons.

Building an integrated, local food commons implies citizen control over “absolute space”; or all aspects of the food chain at a regional scale. The public control over land based food producing resource can be established through a Food Commons Trusts that allows neighborhoods to own farm land and food system infrastructure in perpetual (public) trust for the benefit of all citizens. Food Commons Banks can provide financial services to food system enterprises, producers and consumers. In order to aggregate and distribute local and regional food, create and coordinate regional markets, and provide services to communities and local food enterprises, Food Commons Hubs can be established.

The objective of this integrated Food Commons approach is to create regional food systems with the potential for sustainable economic growth. A food system organized in an integrated food commons can revitalize and ensure the continuity of small and midsized family farms, food processing and retail enterprises that steward the land, nourish our communities and our health.

There are different paths to re-establishing public control over our food systems. The food commons concept provides a promising road map.

First published in Slow magazine issue #50

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