What would it take to decommodify food?
And what would it take to move towards it?
Commodification is one of the most fundamental challenges when it comes to food. We can talk about farming methods, we can talk about regenerative agriculture, we can talk about carbon emissions. But what’s often missing from the discussion is a challenge to the idea that food is not a right, but a privilege; something one must be able to afford, rather than a basic necessity. That food is meant to be bought, not shared.
It’s something I come back to often, because it’s difficult to imagine the pathway forward towards decommodification when anything resembling a commons for food is so incompatible with the capitalist system we currently live within. I wonder how this kind of system can begin to take root in order to start challenging the predominant, commodified view of food.
I wanted to explore that question today, because it’s one that I don’t have any clear answers to—only some ideas to put forward. As always, the thoughts of this community are welcomed and encouraged as we explore these topics together.
Out of all the three basic human needs—air, water, and food—the last one is the only one that is considered to be a purely private good. When food is regarded as such, it is reduced to only its most tradable or marketable features, weighing profitability more heavily than any of its other characteristics (such as its relevance to culture, human survival, or ecological systems). As a result, food has become largely deprived of its non-marketable attributes, and success is measured through how well it fits into the supply chains of the industrialised system and how much profit can be extracted from it.
The result is a host of negative externalities including hunger (when people cannot afford the price set for food), environmental degradation, and loss of diversity. Under this system, food can be speculated upon by investors on the global financial markets, it can be patented by private companies, and when convenient, it can be diverted to other uses (like biofuels) when this is more profitable.
The fundamental problem is that this view of food as a private good is not usually questioned, so the solutions that emerge are all based on access or technological tweaks, rather than as challenges to the background assumption that food ought to be a private good.
Until we can begin having that conversation, we will not move towards meaningful change. Food is not like other commodities; for one, it is a basic requirement of survival. It’s incredibly important to cultural traditions. And it has a massive role to play in protecting environmental systems. In order to revalue these aspects of food, it can no longer be regarded as a purely private good.
So where does that leave us? How do we move forward? I have no definitive answers, but when thinking about solutions, the first thing that becomes clear is that there will be no silver bullet. Rather—like with most transformative change—the pathway forward will consist of experimentation at many different levels, which will inevitably be different based on the particular place where the changes are occurring.
The first step may be to remind ourselves that it was not always like this, and that it does not have to be this way in the future. For most of human history, food was not regarded as a purely private good. More often than not, food was cultivated using something closer to a commons model, with forests, fields, and water shared amongst a group of people. Food also tended to have deep roots in mythology, culture, place, and heritage. These kinds of models still exist in some pockets of the world where enclosures and privatisation have failed to eradicate them. (A more complete discussion of decommodification would require delving deeper into the enclosure movements, but we have written about that elsewhere).
So, we must first believe that a new model—one based on reciprocity and a commons-based approach to food production—is possible. And not only that; we must recognise that we are at a particularly crucial moment in transitioning to a new food regime. As researcher Jose Luis Vivero Pol writes on the subject,
“Transitions between regimes stem from internal strains, claims by marginalised groups, power imbalances, outrageous capital accumulation and contradictory relations resulting in crisis and transition towards a successor regime. Currently, the corporate food regime (industrial food system) is coming under increasing
scrutiny by aware citizens, combatant grassroots organisations, concerned governments and small-scale stakeholders in the food chain as the major fault lines of inequality, inefficiency and unsustainability become ever more evident.” (p. 12)
The supremacy of the current regime is already in question. How we move towards transforming into a new order largely still remains to be seen. But beginning to re-value the non-commodifiable aspects of food is one important place to start. For example, advocating for more open-source knowledge and exchange within agriculture is one in-road. Re-learning the importance of agriculture to one’s cultural heritage is another. Beginning to see oneself as a citizen of the food system with agency, rather than as a passive consumer, is another. The in-roads are endless.
There are also shifts that could occur on the policymaking level, including limiting non-food uses for crops (such as biofuels), limiting or banning speculation into agricultural products, and beginning to loosen the hold that patenting and intellectual property systems have over biological life forms. There is also the massive issue of land access, which must transform significantly in order to support a commons-based food regime. Land occupation movements like MST in Brazil are, to me, some of the most inspiring actions being undertaken in this regard.
I don’t think that the path forward will look like some huge confrontation of the dominant system; I think it will look more like a patchwork of actions that emerge organically out of people’s creativity, energy, and vision. It is ultimately through the creation of alternatives that we weaken the dominant system; through creating choices where once there were none.
What that means is that it is on all of us, as individuals and members of communities, to begin looking around us and asking how we can begin to rebuild a commons-based food system in our spheres of influence. It could look like setting up a community fridge or pantry, growing food in your garden and sharing it with those around you, saving seeds, or putting pressure on local government to take responsibility for guaranteeing food as a human right (as was done in Belo Horizonte).
Actions don’t have to be grand in scale; what they must do is weaken the fabric of the commodified system, even if in small ways. We must refuse to subscribe to the idea that food is a private good, and we must stubbornly and systematically move towards building a world where food is celebrated in all of its complexity and significance, rather than reduced to its most marketable form. Where it is shared, not sold. And where we cultivate such abundance and self-reliance amongst ourselves that the old system simply becomes obsolete. We cannot forget that we can reject the premise that food ought to be a private good, and move towards the commons again.
This article from Open Democracy detailing the massive profits that grain companies have reaped from the current instability of the food system. Profiting off of hunger is a perfect demonstration of the urgent need to reimagine the commodification of food.
This podcast episode from Green Dreamer featuring Dr. Bayo Akomolafe, titled “Slowing down and surrendering human centrality.” I’ve been thinking a lot about how my perspectives on food often lack a multi-species perspective, and conversations like these are wonderful places to begin unpacking that view.
This press briefing developed with IPES-Food filled with resources to support journalists’ work, including: the most crucial storylines around food, climate and COP27, a breakdown on how food systems can be a major part of the climate solution, quotes, and a toolkit to cut through the greenwashing.
This instalment of Offshoot was written by Thea Walmsley