Friday, January 24, 2020

To feed or to profit? To eat or to consume?

We can no longer let the distribution method - the market - dictate how we farm and how we eat. We need to develop new tools and institutions in order to cater for the many functions of food and farming.  A process of decommodification should be at the core of the alternative food movement.

Many alternative food schemes want to change how food is produced and try to bring producers and consumers closer to each other. Many challenge powerful actors in the food chain such as agri-business, food industries, supermarkets and governments. A few challenge also globalization.  But very few challenge the market as such even if they often use or promote new ways of marketing.
One of the more interesting arms of the food movement is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The international CSA network, Urgenci, describes CSA like this:
CSA is the name we give to a diversity of approaches that all aim to strengthen direct farmer-eater relationships. This includes sharing risks and benefits. This is the essence of CSA.”
In the master thesis Food: to feed or to profit? - (De)commodification in the food system and Community Supported Agriculture, Emma Vandenbroeck puts CSA in the context of decommodification (the process contrary to commodification). She has interviewed six CSA practitioners, three in Sweden and three in Belgium.  Several of those seem to have thought about their own practice as a decommodification process: “not looking at food production as just a business. It’s actually producing food for people and it’s more than a business” (Joel). Others spoke about taking food out of the economy/market or take people out of their consumer or supermarket perspective.
This is also how the Urgenci network sees CSAs: 
Indeed, for CSA to be more than just another direct marketing scheme, the growers and the eaters, as they sometimes call themselves, need to work together to create local social/economic forms, based on trust, which encourage initiative and self-reliance, share the risks of agricultural production, share information, are human-scale and efficient, charge according to needs/costs (not market) 
Emma Vandenbroeck notes that this, in a Marxist terminology, reflects a shift from exchange value of food to use value: “the aim of feeding people is based on the use value of food, making profits as a business from selling food in the market is based on the exchange value of food.”
In reality, food has not just one use value, but many. Jose Luis Vivero-Pol is one of the pioneers of a narrative of food as commons.* In his article, Food as Commons or Commodity? Exploring the Links between Normative Valuations and Agency in Food Transition in Sustainability 2017 he outline six different dimensions of food. Food is a
  • essential 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; and
  • global common good that should be enjoyed by all.
The dimensions of food (Vivero-Pol 2017)

The role of food as a tradeable good is just one of many dimensions of food. Even “use value” is somewhat too limiting when discussing food. To the dimensions of Vivero Pol I would add that food and food production is the most important interface between humans and the natural world. We partake in the natural world and it becomes part of us when we eat. This is demonstrated very well by the fact that the number of non-human cells in the human body equals or surpass the number of human cells (the actual proportion is disputed).

Farming, hunting, fishing or gathering are also very important tools for how we manage the environment. In the Anthropocene farming has become the main human instrument for ecosystem management, for the better or (mostly) for the worse). More than half of the biological production in the terrestrial systems of the Earth is taking place in the agriculture landscapes and the management of those agricultural landscapes is our most important tool for managing nature, a nature that we are totally dependent on even in these modern times. This means that farming is essentially an instrument for planetary stewardship, something I elaborate extensively upon in my book Global Eating Disorder (2016).

The commodification of food has gone much further than being a pure transaction or a method of distribution. What has increasingly happened is that the institution developed for food distribution, dominates all other functions and roles of food. That markets don’t give sufficient, or even good, guidance for the management of planet Earth is probably apparent for most readers. And why should they? Markets are mechanisms for distribution of goods and services (in a favorable interpretation) or extraction of wealth (with a more critical interpretation --  I’d say both). Clearly there is no evidence or even theoretical causation that supports the notion that markets are well adapted to other roles, such as ensuring access to food by all – which is the reason that almost a billion go hungry to bed, or taking care of the environment.

To cater for all the other important roles and functions of food and farming, we need to develop non-market mechanisms. There are many such arenas, some new some old: growing (gathering, hunting) food for yourself or for a community, cooking instead of buying food, throwing parties, collective farming, city gardeners (the city of Gothenburg has its own employed market gardener who supplies vegetables to schools), even municipal cattle. Payment for conservation efforts or carbon sequestration on farms are also some kind of non-market food production, even though they can also be transformed into commodities if put into a market context through procurement or auctions. Efforts to reduce dependency of purchased input for farming can also be a step towards decommodification, the less you have to buy in, the less you have to sell. Government controls of food prices or supplies (e.g. the Canadian dairy supply management) are also ways to at least reduce the impact of competition.

As little as the market can be the sole mechanism to deal with all functions there is probably no single tool that can cater for all roles. More likely, there will be many different tools emerging once we enter the path of decommodification of food. Most important is for the journey to begin.

* Jose Luis Vivero-Pol, Tomaso Ferrando, Olivier De Schutter, Ugo Mattei have recently edited a Handbook of Food as a commons. I have also written about food within this narrative, e.g. in the article Food: from commodity to commons.