Understanding property rights helps to explain the structural problems in our economic system and how they relate to the management of resources. For a sustainable food system, this knowledge is paramount.

When a farmer purchases land, the land becomes his or her private property. This land can then be used as the farmer deems appropriate, subject to laws and the farmer’s own cultural beliefs and social values. The resources this land produces – in the case of farming, mainly food – are treated as private commodities that can be bought and sold in the market place.

In this scenario, everything seems fairly straightforward. However, our capitalist economic system of supply and demand to increase profit or utility complicates matters. For instance, some companies patent seeds that they sell to the farmer. Patents protect the use of seeds by designating ownership: the seed becomes property of the company. This prevents people from using the seed without permission and payment. The agro-industrial food system starts with private seed ownership by companies, with most farmers buying seed instead of saving their own seed. Any infringement of this may leads to a lawsuit and economic repercussion. Today just six seed giants control 75% of seed and pesticide sales and related research and development.

Who’s governing whom?

Typically, food grown by the farmer is then processed, packaged and distributed by a handful of big companies and sold at a supermarket. In Britain most food is sold through Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s or Morrisons. Governing this whole process are lucrative bilateral, regional and mega-trade deals that determine who sells what, to whom and by whose rules. Trade deals relating to food, such as the TTIP which is currently being negotiated, have become so powerful that they are taking over the role of government in regulating markets and the exchange of property.

Profit over people and planet

As a private resource, food is subject to the control of its owner. For agribusinesses that are mostly concerned with profit, the drive is to increase the efficiency and productivity of food production – more profit with fewer inputs. The green revolution undoubtedly improved yields for farmers in the short- to medium-term, but we are now seeing a decline in soil health and bio-cultural diversity as a result of the chemical inputs into farming and the more exploitative rotations instituted by the revolution.

Profits also drive food manufacturers to increase efficiency and economies of scale. ‘Premiumisation’ of products, such as adding protein or vitamins to foodstuffs, adds value to products with little extra input, or, as is more often the case, allows companies to swap expensive ingredients for cheaper ones. Companies are always thinking of novel ways to add value to their products to retain competitive advantage and increase profits. Companies that cannot keep pace are driven out of the market.

The supermarkets are also privy to these tactics. The current supermarket price war and the rising popularity of discount chains has driven down prices at the expense of farmers’ production costs. Alternative brands such as Lidl and Aldi are pushing competitors into privatising parts of their production process. Competition has become so tough that Nestlé, one of the ‘Big 10’ global food and drinks companies, has gone so far as to try and trademark the distinctive shape of its Kit Kat. Colours, shapes and even sounds are made private property in order to maximise profit.

This could be seen as simply healthy competition, but in reality it leads to the marginalisation of small-scale producers, food companies and retailers. For instance, supermarkets impose quotas on farmers to fulfil their demand for a crop and then reject produce that doesn’t meet their cosmetic standards. Farms have to expand as quotas increase in order to deal with the amount of food that will inevitably be rejected. The rigours of this make it difficult for smaller-scale farmers and food producers to compete. This, inevitably, reduces the diversity of food producers in the supply chain, leaving mainly large-scale farmers and producers who have the capacity to conform to the rules and regulations of their buyers.

As a result, we find ourselves with a predominance of multinational food companies producing monocultural crops on a vast scale. Because these companies are operating within the wider sphere of the global commodities market, the whole system is vulnerable to global price shocks – as evidenced in the 2008 food crisis – and food security is weakened around the world.

Money puts food on the table

What is forgotten in all this is that healthy and nutritious food should be considered a human right. And yet it is unaffordable and inaccessible to millions of people. In many parts of the world, food is grown exclusively for export, depriving local citizens of the right to eat. Food security becomes dependent on aid and trade, as the last remaining parcels of land are bought up or simply appropriated in the global ‘land grab’ phenomenon.

We are often told that we need to produce more food to feed the 9 billion people the population is predicted to grow to by 2050. However, Ulrich Hoffman, head of the Trade and Sustainable Development Section at the secretariat of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, stresses that our neoliberal economic values mask the fact that countries have more than enough food to feed themselves. The problem is not with quantity but with an agenda focused on increased trade and development, which means food is moved around the world according to market prices. According to Hoffman:

Essential elements of a truly sustainable agricultural production system, such as diversified production, functional use of biodiversity, closed local nutrient cycles, low external-input and energy dependence, were undermined or jeopardised [in the recent wave of trade liberalisation agreements…] It was also ignored that small-scale farmers, not export-orientated and globally focused large-scale producers, provide the bulk of food [to local people].

Food as a commons

So, what is the alternative to the corporate food system that we are currently locked into? The concept of food as a commons – a shared resource produced on ‘common’ land – offers a way forward out of privatisation. It suggests that food resources can be commonly pooled together, managed by a group of people and collectively owned without the need to privatise.

Neoclassical economics – the dominant thinking in mainstream economic theory today – views everyone as self-interested individuals competing in a market determined by supply and demand. As a result, some economists believe that if we manage our own resources it will lead to a ‘tragedy of the commons’. However, cooperation and altruism are possible. Societies can indeed build trust and develop informal rules and norms to manage the shared commons of food and other resources. The US political scientist Elinor Ostrom was awarded a Nobel Prize for evidencing this in many societies around the world. The idea of food as a commons places people’s welfare at the forefront of food economics by incorporating justice, equality and environmental stewardship.

Feed Bristol is a project that provides one example of how food as a commons works. The five-acre urban farm is managed by a group of volunteers and a few full-time staff. The volunteers are largely recovering from drug and alcohol addiction and use the site as a way to reconnect with nature, learn valuable skills and meet new people. The project successfully produces food using organic principles and shares the surplus among volunteers. They also plant local varieties and wildflowers to encourage pollination and offer courses and other learning opportunities for anyone who comes to visit.

Since Feed Bristol began in 2012, Project Manager Matt Cracknell says the social return on investment has been £6.7 million as of 2014. The project does not accrue profits nor does it overexploit the land; it has been conceived holistically to bring multiple benefits with minimal technological input. It is connected to Sims Hill Shared Harvest, a community supported agriculture project that delivers free or subsidised vegetable boxes to households in exchange for work. By using people power there is less need for machinery, while the financial barriers of eating organic food are reduced.

Towards food sovereignty

Food sovereignty explicitly emphasises that ownership of food should belong to the community that is producing it – such as in the case of Feed Bristol. Not only does this shorten supply chains, it also supports the local economy and is of a scale that can be managed collectively. So, food sovereignty and food as a commons go hand-in-hand; if you have collective ownership over the land, it becomes a common good. This has profound implications for policy makers who have historically sought to privatise or nationalise resources. With privatisation comes monetisation, while with nationalisation comes regulations that are out of the control of the community.

As Feed Bristol shows, there are hidden and often non-economic dimensions of food that can only be realised when it is managed at an appropriate scale. Jose Luis Vivero Pol, human rights activist and proponent of food as a commons, sees this alternative as a powerful moral narrative: “I see it as a common ground for contemporary urban food movements and customary rural indigenous resistance struggles to converge.”

From fringe idea to mainstream

This article skims the surface of a highly complex field of study emerging at the fringes of mainstream academia. In thinking about food, we often forget to reflect on the economic system that governs both its production and us. If we begin to recognise the flaws of this system, we could open the door to the next paradigm shift. The move to relocalisation and collective action can help us wriggle free from the corporate control of food and emerge with a vision that is more sustainable and inclusive. Food, after all, is a human right not a privilege.

Photograph: Steph French

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