Staying alive shouldn’t depend on your purchasing power

People should not be hungry with the food, resources, and technology at our disposal. PA

How much would you pay for staying alive? How much would you pay for breathing pure air? That may seem a silly question since air is everywhere, accessible to all. Air is a global public good, part of the commons – and yet in China a smart entrepreneur is already selling canned air at around 50p a can.

People also have to pay for water, after all. And there’s a huge range in food expenditures between countries, from the £2,724 a Norwegian spends every year to the £132 typically spent by an Uzbek. So the essentials of life – air, food and water – must all be paid for. And while some nations have social welfare to provide the essentials, for everyone else no money means starving to death.

Today, purchasing power determines how much and which type of food can be accessed or produced by one’s own hand. Food is regarded as a private good. And yet some aspects of food production are considered part of the commons – agricultural knowledge accumulated over thousands of years, or from publicly funded research institutions, cooking recipes and national gastronomy, ocean fisheries, wild fruits and animals, and seedbanks and genetic material of plant and animals. Others are seen as a common, shared goal – food safety considerations, or maintaining food price stability and security.

And going even further, as my recent paper proposes, why not consider food itself as a commons, an earthy resource essential for each human being, to be produced, consumed and governed in common? Such a thought would embrace, perhaps even surpass the individualist approach to human rights. For example the right to clean water, the desirable right to clean air and the well-established right to food?

Food has been completely commodified, from a common local resource to a private, transnational, industrial commodity, to be speculated without moral consideration to achieve the best price. A race for land and water to support commercial food production has torn up vast areas of Africa and Latin America, while corporations drive obesity epidemics from increased consumption of ultra-processed food and drink.

The value of food is no longer based on the fact it is a basic human need that should be available to all, a fundamental human right that should be guaranteed to every citizen, a pillar of every national culture, certainly a marketable product that should be subject to fair trade and sustainable production, and a global good that should be enjoyed by all. Instead these multiple dimensions are superseded by food’s tradeable features; value is confused with price.

The common market and the commons

Some of the means to produce food are private goods – land, agro-chemicals – while others such seeds, rainfall, agricultural knowledge are not. Land enclosure, privatisation, legislation, excessive pricing and patents have all played a role in limiting the access to food as a public good. The industrial food system exists mainly to maximise profit for a few, not to maximise the nutritional benefits of food to all.

And the failure of this food system to feed the world, adequately and sustainably, cannot be ignored. The paradox is that half of those who grow 70% of the world’s food are hungry, hunger kills 3.1 million children per year, and increasingly food is used as livestock feed or biofuels. Up to a third of all the world’s food is wasted – enough to feed 600 million hungry people each year. Hunger still prevails in a world of abundance even as obesity grows steadily.

A food system anchored in market principles of supply and demand will never feed the world, because the private sector is not interested in feeding people who cannot pay. No analysis or research of recent decades has ever questioned this nature of food as a private good, and so the perception is that access to food is the problem.

The standard economic definition of public goods is anchored in the idea of non-rivalry and non-excludability. Many societies have and still consider food as a common good, as well as forests, fisheries, land and water. As long as the replenishment rate outpaces the consumption rate, any resource – forests, fish, fresh air, food – can be considered an always available, renewable resource.

Towards three-part governance of food

Bringing food back into the commons is essential for making the system more sustainable and fairer for food producers and consumers. The political economist Elinor Ostrom, a commons expert, suggested polycentric governance as a novel means to solve global problems, such as climate change. To bring about food production and supply as a global public good would require something similar; a three-part hybrid institutional arrangement formed by state institutions, private companies, and self-organised groups.

Such a major transition will require experimentation, at personal, local, national, and international levels. It will require diverse approaches to governance, whether by the market, state or by collective actions for food. It will take several generations, and will require all three working together, as no single element can carry out the transition by itself.

Governments have a vital role in countering the tendency toward wealth concentration, redistributing economic power towards the poor through genuine tax, credit, and land reforms. Two recent examples that might help are a meat tax to reduce meat consumption, or highly taxing junk food that contains high levels of sugar, fat and salt. Nevertheless, governments’ leading role should shift towards self-negotiated collective action from groups of producers and consumers. The benefit consumers receive by protecting, producing and using their own resources through their self-organised actions is key to understanding the value, not just the cost, of the food they eat. It requires civic engagement, community and equal stewardship of resources.

There are already many initiatives worldwide that demonstrate how a right combination of collective action, government regulations and incentives, and private sector entrepreneurship yield good results for food producers, consumers, the environment, and society. The challenge is how to scale up those local initiatives to national level.

People’s capacity for collective action can complement the regulatory mandate of the state, and the demand-driven private sector. After all, millions of people innovating have far more capacity to find solutions than a few thousand scientists in laboratories. What’s more, collective action for food also helps rebuild the infrastructure of civic life eroded by individualistic behaviour, as philosopher Michael Sandel explains in What’s The Right Thing?

Far-reaching practical implications

Some practical recommendations: keep food out of trade agreements that deal with purely private goods. Instead, new production and distribution models for food are required. It would entail, among others, binding legal frameworks to fight hunger, obesity, and guarantee the right to food. It would include fraternal ethical and legal frameworks, universal Basic Food Entitlements or Food Security Floors guaranteed by the state. A minimum salary could be levelled with the costs of a typical food basket, financial speculation of food would be banned, and the non-consumption uses of food such as biofuels limited.

These are all geared towards establishing Universal Food Coverage, as called for by Amartya Sen, a social scheme that parallels the universal health and education that is the basis of the welfare state.

Navigating the path between these arrangements will be one of the major challenges of the 21st century, as long as the population continues to grows. A fairer and more sustainable food system is possible; I do not expect to see it during my lifetime, but I hope my descendants may.