Even the most convinced proponents of a free market realize that there are things that cannot be left to the market to sort out. Human rights, law and order, security, and basic social security have, in almost all societies, been regulated by non-market institutions, often by the state. And even for those things that are regulated by markets there are many governmental rules, some stupid and others very much needed. The more central an issue is to our society, the more regulations there are. For example, all countries have labor regulations. They are there because we realize that the workers are a weaker party in the supposedly ‘free’ labor market: they need some kind of protection. It is also apparent that Nature needs protection: far more than we give her today.
Food production and consumption are also subject to myriads of regulations in most countries. Throughout history, the food supply has been subject to political intervention. The Romans tried to regulate prices, although they failed, like most other subsequent efforts – the record of government interventions in food markets is rather poor. The fact that we have major famine in several places in the world while lots of food is wasted in other parts of the world is also an indication that markets in food don’t work very well in safeguarding the survival of fellow humans. We cannot deal with food mainly as a marketable commodity – very few societies ever have. If things get rough, governments, civil society and groups of people will step in and regulate, distribute and produce outside of the market system. The market system also has very few levers that guide it to supply food that is nutritious.
The market in food is totally dysfunctional for shaping the farming system in the best way for its role of planetary stewardship, a role that is increasingly important as agriculture occupies more and more of the surface of the planet and natural resources are under immense pressure. There are almost no market mechanisms in place for undertaking this important task, and there is a limited potential for them to emerge. Even if they did they will never reach the extent required, considering that the value of agricultural ecosystem services might well be as high as the total value of agricultural production. At present the market is still driving farmers the other way; into more and more specialization and monocultures and less stewardship of nature resources. Already today massive government interventions are directed to compensating for market failure. We need to look in other directions if we wish to sustainably manage the agriculture landscape.
‘Agriculture and food systems, with their associated nature and landscapes, are a common heritage and thus, also a form of common property’ according to Professor Jules Pretty[i] at the University of Essex. Stepping away from market imperatives frees our minds and thinking about food and farm production. This of course has implications for land and other resources needed for farming and food production. The more food is viewed as a public good, the less appropriate it is that the productive factors needed to produce foods, seeds, land, water etc, are provided by the market. When food is a right, and the production and distribution of food takes place in the commons instead of in the market and new ways of addressing the unfair distribution of food can emerge.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 already defines food as a human right: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” (Article 25). The right to food has been re-asserted ever since, for example at the 2009 World Summit on Food Security in Rome. There, world leaders agreed on ‘the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food’.[ii] The new constitution of Kenya, approved by a popular referendum in 2010, states the right of every person “to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality” and imposes a duty on the State to respect, protect, promote and fulfill that right. A study in 2011 identified twenty-four countries in which the right to food was explicitly recognized, many of them in Latin America. Of course, it is one thing to proclaim a right and another one to enact it. Rights need a guarantor, duties and obligations, and an enforcer of some kind. Increasingly courts are using the constitutions or international treaties as a basis to safeguard people’s right to food.[iii] The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for the United Nations, Olivier De Schutter, writes in the report to the General Assembly in August 2013: ‘The right to food has come to the fore as Governments realize that their efforts to combat food insecurity and hunger have been failing and realize the urgent need to strengthen national legal, institutional and policy frameworks’.[iv]
Brazil has been successful in the fight against hunger and in promoting the right to food. The Fome Zero (zero hunger) program was initiated during Lula’s presidency. Its most important component is Bolsa Família, whereby poor families get a basic income tied to conditions such that the children go to school and are vaccinated. The cost of the whole program is just 0.5% of Brazilian GDP but it reaches 44 million people, more than a fifth of the population. Malnutrition in Brazil decreased from 13% to below 2% between 1994 and 2006. The program also includes the purchasing of local food, often organic, to schools and other support measures to small farmers.[v]
Rethinking food as a right, farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons necessitates the building of new institutions fit for these purposes; Jose Luis Vivero Pol, a food governance researcher describes these as “a third force of governance and resource management by the people as a compliment to the market and the state”.[vi] This will require experimentation at the personal, local, national and international levels. This doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribution, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies, and rejects the view that market forces are the best way of allocating food producing resources, such as land, water, knowledge and seeds.
[i] Pretty, J. 2002 Agri-culture: Reconnecting people, land and nature Earthscan.
[ii] United Nations General Assembly 2013 The Right to Food, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 7 August 2013, A/68/288
[v] Sanchez-Montero, M. and N. S. Ubach 2010 ‘Undernutrition, What Works?’ ACF International Network.