angalactic gargleblaster and the heart of gold

The food commons transition

Collective actions for food security

Jose Luis Vivero Pol | January 22, 2014

Treating food as a purely private good is denying millions of people access to this basic resource. Food should therefore be seen as a commons or public good. It could then be produced and distributed more effectively by a governance system combining market rules, public regulations and collective actions. 

Food, air and water are the three essentials our human body requires to function. They are limited but renewable resources produced by nature but their public-private status varies. Air is still considered a global public good (GPG), and yet it is already becoming commodified, through creative accounting based on the economic valuation of environmental processes (carbon trade schemes and pollution quotas are private entitlements to pollute). 2 Water is in the process of being rebranded from a public to a private good, a process that is highly contested in many cities. 3 Food is however largely regarded as a purely private good, although wild foods could be considered a commons. 

Nowadays, the value of food is no longer based on its many dimensions that bring us security and health – food as part of our cultural foundations, access to food as a human right, food as a sustainable natural resource or as essential fuel for the human body. These multiple dimensions have been superseded by its tradable features, confusing its value and price.

In the search for fairer and more sustainable and inclusive food systems, the solutions are connected to the existing system, in which food remains a tradable good. The private sector has been involved more than ever before, for example through a wide variety of partnerships with the public sector and civil society, in fighting the shortcomings of the current food system. However, there is an alternative that is rarely mentioned: seeing food as a global common good. In a fairer and more sustainable food system, the non-monetary dimensions of food would be revalued, and global and local food production and distribution systems would not be exclusively governed by the rules of supply and demand. 4

Institutional arrangements based on collective actions would also be given consideration, appropriate legal entitlements, adequate funding and political support. Self-regulated collective actions for food – whether market-based, share-based, organic, local or fair trade-based – represent the third pillar of governance of the evolving food system. The state-market duopoly in food provision will need to accommodate this mounting force of citizens’ action to reclaim food as a commons not exclusively accessed by purchasing power. Food can be shared, given for free, guaranteed by the state, cultivated by many and traded on the market. But purchasing power should not exclusively determine our access to such an essential resource.         

Reliance on market forces

The industrial technology-dominated food system achieved remarkable outputs during the second half of the twentieth century by increasing food production and giving millions of urban and rural consumers access to food. Tripling global crop production, increasing yields, lowering food prices and moving away from customs and skills to more systematically organized and controlled ways of producing food are all commendable achievements for humankind. 5 This linear rise in food production has outpaced population growth, benefiting virtually all people in the world, and the poor especially, as they spend a greater share of their income on food. 6

The dominant economic doctrines of recent decades have propagated the notion that market forces by themselves can regulate national and international food systems to lift hungry people out of starvation and destitution. It is claimed that market-led food production and allocation would finally achieve a better-nourished population, as long as the world’s average wealth increases. However, reality has proven otherwise, as unregulated markets do not necessarily guarantee sufficient food for low-income groups even if they are assured of enough income. Moreover, despite the widespread reliance on self-regulation of industry and public–private partnerships to improve public health and nutrition, there is no evidence to show that they are effective against hunger and obesity and in ensuring food safety. 7

A food system based on the notion of food as a commodity to be distributed according to the rules of the market cannot achieve food security for all. 8 The private sector is clearly not interested in people who do not have the money to pay for their services or goods, whether that be healthy food or staple grains. Moreover, markets, which are governed by self-interest, will not provide sufficient public goods, such as public health, good nutrition or the eradication of hunger, with large-scale non-monetary benefits for human beings. Such public goods have to be sought and maintained by the public sector and through the collective actions of citizens.

Transnational corporations, for example, are major drivers of obesity epidemics, maximizing profits by increasing consumption of ultra-processed food and drinks. 9 The consumption of such unhealthy food and drinks is rising faster in poor countries in food systems that have been highly penetrated by foreign multinationals. 10 In these countries, government regulations and public opinion are usually not capable of restricting corporate leverage. 11 The only mechanisms that can prevent the harm caused by these unhealthy commodity industries are public regulation and market intervention. 12 That means more state, not less.

The side-effects of the industrial food system are illustrated by the fact that 70% of people suffering from hunger are small farmers or agricultural labourers. 13 Furthermore, agriculture uses water intensively, 14 but poorly. The industrial system reduces the nutritious properties of some foodstuffs by storing them in cold rooms, or through peeling, boiling and transformation processes. 15 An overemphasis on the production of empty and cheap calories renders obesity a growing global pandemic, and food production is highly energy inefficient, as it takes 10 kcal to produce 1 kcal of food. 16 Other detrimental effects include soil degradation and loss of biodiversity. At current levels of food production and consumption, if we were all standard US citizens, we would need 5.2 planets to meet our needs. 17

The failure of the industrial food system

Globally speaking, we have a troublesome relationship with food, as more than half the world eats in ways that damage their health. For billions of people, eating is not a source of pleasure but a compulsory habit and certainly a cause of concern. Obesity and undernutrition affect an estimated 2.3 billion people globally, about one third of the world’s population, 18 and food and nutrition security is at the forefront of contemporary political debates. Hunger is the largest single contributor to maternal and child mortality worldwide, with 3.1 million people dying every year of hunger-related causes. 19 Additionally, excess weight and obesity cause 2.8 million deaths a year. 20

Despite many years of international anti-hunger efforts, and rising gross national incomes and per capita food availability, the number of hungry people has been reduced at a very slow pace since 2000 and there are 848 million undernourished people in the world. 21 Obesity is rapidly rising and there are expected to be 1,120 million obese people by 2030. 22 There are many ironic paradoxes produced by the globalized industrial food system: half of those who grow 70% of the world’s food are hungry, 23 food kills people, food is increasingly not for humans (a large proportion is being diverted to biofuel production and livestock feeding) and one third of global food production, enough to feed 600 million hungry people, ends up in the garbage every year. 24

Furthermore, the industrial food system is not more efficient or cost-beneficial than more sustainable food systems (whether modern organic or customary) as it is heavily subsidized and excessively favoured by tax exemptions. 25 The great bulk of national agricultural subsidies in OECD countries are mostly geared towards supporting large-scale industrial agriculture, 26 which makes intensive use of chemical inputs and energy. 27 This helps corporations lower the price of processed food compared to fresh food.

The productivity gains mentioned above have been uneven across crops and regions, 28 and global increases in production have been confined to a limited range of cereal crops (rice, maize and wheat) with smaller increases in crops like potatoes and soybeans. 29 Increased cereal production has supported the increase in chicken and pig production, but also led to concerns that human diets are becoming less diverse and more meat-based, with a subsequent increase in the ecological footprint. We produce 4,600 kcal per person of edible food harvest, enough to feed a global population of 12-14 billion, 30 but after waste, animal feed and biofuels have been deducted, we end up with no more than 2,000 kcal per person. 31 And yield improvements already seem to be reaching a plateau in most productive areas of the world. 32

The mechanization and commodification of the industrial food system did not come without a price and many undesirable external effects and consequences are evident nowadays. Moreover, in the last decade, seeing food as a pure commodity that can be speculated with, diverted from human consumption, and used to justify unethical land grabbing in the poorest but land-rich countries by the richest but land-poor ones, seems to have gone too far (see for example Untangling the myth of the global land rush).   

The enclosure of food production by the industrial model

Food has not, however, always been regarded in this way. For many centuries it was cultivated in common and considered mythological or sacred. 33 But during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, food evolved from a common local resource to a private transnational commodity, becoming an industry and a market for mass consumption in the globalized world of the twenty-first century. 34 The process did not run in parallel in all countries (e.g. the Communist era in USSR and its allies, or the varying degrees of penetration of market-led paradigms in customary native societies in developing countries). It has, however, ended up as the dominant industrial system, fully controlling the international food trade, feeding a great proportion of the global population, and giving rise to corporate control of life-supporting industries, from land and water-grabbing to agricultural fuel-based inputs.      

These enclosure mechanisms – through privatization, legislation, excessive pricing or patents – have played a role in limiting access to food as a commons, transferring its common properties from the many to the few. This commodification process is a human-induced social construct that deprives food of its non-economic attributes, retaining only its tradable features, namely durability, external appearance and the standardization of naturally-diverse food products.

This is how we reached the current situation, where the value of food is no longer based on its many dimensions that benefit humans. Its value in use (a biological necessity) has been almost completely dissociated from its value in exchange (its price on the market). 35 Seeing food as a pure commodity is radically opposed to all its other dimensions, so important for our survival, self-identity and community life. Many authors interpret this reduction of food’s dimensions to that of a commodity as the root cause of the failure of the global food system (see box 1). 36 Fully privatized food means that human beings can eat food as long as they have money to buy it or the means to produce it. These means are mostly private goods (land, agro-chemicals, patented seeds) although not always (local landraces, rainfall, agricultural knowledge). With the dominant ‘no money-no food’ rationality, hunger still prevails in a world of abundance.

Fruit and Veg, Old City, Jerusalem / David Masters via flickr

Fruit and Veg, Old City, Jerusalem / David Masters via flickr

Food as a commons

 Commons are resources owned and managed in common, shared and beneficial for all or most members of a community. 37  In economics, public goods are defined in terms of ‘non-rivalry’ and ‘non-excludability’, in other words individuals cannot be effectively excluded from their use and use by one individual does not reduce their availability to others. 38 Examples of commons include fresh air, non-patented knowledge, national defence, universal public health, social security and peace. In the strict sense, food is rival because if I eat a cherry it is no longer available for others to eat, and excludable (although if someone is excluded from food they will starve to death in less than 10 days). However, cherries are continuously produced by nature and cultivated by humans, so they are not restricted in numbers. As long as replenishment outpaces consumption, food is considered a renewable resource with a never-ending stock, like air. Food produced by nature and harvested in a sustainable way is unlimited and available worldwide. It is, however, not enough to feed us all and we therefore have to produce it ourselves.

Excludability and rivalry are not absolute but were created by human beings, which means we can modify them. Goods often become private or public as a result of deliberate policy choices. Many societies have considered, and still consider, food as a commons, together with forests, fisheries, land and water, while different civilizations have assigned varying values to natural resources and this certainly continues to evolve. The degree of excludability and rivalry depends on the nature of the good, technological developments and how property rights are defined by entitlements, regulations and sanctions that allow certain activities and proscribe others for specific groups or people. 39

Food excludability and rivalry can therefore be contested and revisited. Both properties are attributes assigned to food, largely based on the dominant ideology, particular economic thinking and historical considerations. The commodification of natural resources essential for human beings can thus be reversed and the re-commonification of food is considered essential for the transition to a fairer and sustainable food system.

We need to bring unconventional and radical perspectives into the debate on this transition. All previous transitions shared the common denominator that food was always viewed as a private good produced by private means and traded in the market. None of the most relevant analyses produced in recent decades on the fault lines of the global food system and the existence of hunger have questioned the nature of food as a private good. 40 Common understanding therefore affirms that the main problem is the lack of access to food, reaffirming the private nature of food and its absolute excludability. But, as Einstein wrote, problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.

Dual approach

There is a need to reclaim a rationale of the commons in the discourse on food at global, national and local level. Fortunately, several dimensions of food are already considered as commons (see box 2), as are healthy food and adequate nutrition. 41 In both economic and political terms, food and nutrition security (FNS) could be considered a global public good as it is beneficial for individuals, communities, nations and the planet in general, even if not everybody is contributing or paying for its provision.

It seems clear that any government has a deep concern about food issues at national and international level, as subsidized food production and consumption policies are the norm all over the world (see above on subsidies to industrial agriculture). Furthermore, food safety regulations are considered a global common good to be dealt with by states, 42 and food-related civil unrest is as much a subject of political concern nowadays as it has been throughout history. However, the political discourse of the OECD 43 and WTO calls for national trade barriers and subsidized agriculture to be dismantled in developing countries while billions are spent on subsidizing food systems in rich countries. For every government, food is unlike any other commodity as it is highly regulated and heavily subsidized, a sign of its special nature as the mainstay of societies.     

This dual approach reflects food’s status as a de facto impure public good, governed in many aspects by public institutions (food safety regulations, seed markets, fertilizer subsidies, 44 the EU Common Agricultural Policy, 45 or the US Farm Bill 46), provided by collective actions on the basis of thousands of customary and post-industrial collective arrangements (cooking recipes, farmers’ seed exchanges, consumer-producer associations) but largely distributed by market rules: you eat as long as you have money to purchase food or food-producing inputs.

Tri-centric governance

Nowadays, in different parts of the world, there are numerous examples of local transitions towards sustainable food production and consumption. 47 Based on Elinor Ostrom’s concept of polycentric governance, 48 food is being produced, consumed and distributed by agreements and initiatives formed by state institutions, private producers and companies, and self-organized groups under self-negotiated rules.

These tri-centric governance schemes are usually comprised firstly of civic collective actions for food (also called Alternative Food Networks), undertaken initially at local level. Such networks primarily aim to preserve and regenerate the commons that are important for the community (food as a common good). Secondly, there are governments, whose main goal is to maximize the well-being of their citizens by providing an enabling framework for them to enjoy the commons (food as a public good). And lastly, the private sector can trade undersupplied, specialized or gourmet foodstuffs (food as a private good). The private sector role in this tri-centric system is similar to the roles of private schools and private hospitals in countries with public health and education systems. These systems demonstrate that the right combination of self-regulated collective actions, governmental rules and incentives, and private entrepreneurship yield good results for food producers, consumers, the environment and society in general. The challenge now is how to scale up these local initiatives to national level.

As the re-commonification of food will take several generations, the transition phase requires greater public sector involvement. States have a vital role to play through taxation and incentives schemes, public credit and subsidies for collective actions, enabling legal frameworks that are not too stringent for self-regulated initiatives and land reforms to maximize common interest. The state must be seen as a funding and operational instrument to achieve well-being for its citizens, of which food security is a part. However, this leading state role should gradually be shifted to self-initiated collective actions by producers and consumers, as the public provision of food does not exceed the net benefits yielded by self-organized and socially-negotiated food networks. Therefore, there should be enabling spaces for local governments, local entrepreneurs and local self-organized communities to coexist.

Food-related elements that are already considered as commons

Policy-makers and academics are moving from the stringent economic definition of public/private goods to a looser but more practical definition of ‘global public goods’, goods to be provided to society as a whole as they are in everybody’s interest. Many food-related aspects are already considered, to a certain extent, as common goods, while others are contested (wild foods and water) or generally regarded as private goods (cultivated food).

The following food-related elements are already generally considered as commons:

a. Traditional agricultural knowledge: commons-based, patent-free knowledge that would contribute to global food security by scaling up and networking grassroots innovations for sustainable and low-cost food production and distribution.

b. Modern science-based agricultural knowledge produced by national institutions: More research funds should be invested in sustainable practices and agro-ecology knowledge developed by universities and research centres, instead of further subsidizing industrial agriculture.

c. Cuisine, recipes and national gastronomy: Food, cooking and eating habits are inherently part of our culture, just as much as language and birthplace, while gastronomy is regarded as a creative accomplishment of humankind, equal to literature, music or architecture. Recipes are a superb example of commons in action, and creativity and innovation are still dominant in this copyright-free domain of human activity.

d. Edible plants and animals produced by nature (fish stocks, and wild fruits and animals): Nature is largely a global public good (e.g. Antarctica or the oceans) so natural resources should also be public goods, although it varies depending on the proprietary rights in force in each country.

e. Genetic resources for food and agriculture: Agro-biodiversity is a whole continuum of wild-to-domesticated diversity that is important to people’s livelihoods, and it should be mostly patent-free to promote and enable innovation. Seed-exchange schemes are considered networked-knowledge goods with non-exclusive access and use conditions, produced and consumed by communities

g. Food safety considerations: As zoonotic pandemics are public bads with no borders, epidemic disease knowledge and control mechanisms are widely considered as global public goods and are already governed through a tri-centric system of self-regulating private sector efforts, governmental legal frameworks and international institutional innovations, like the Codex Alimentarius.

f. Nutrition, including hunger and obesity imbalances: There is a growing consensus that health and good nutrition should be seen as global public goods.       

g. Extreme food price fluctuations in global and national markets are public bads that benefit none but a few traders and brokers. Those acting inside the global food market have no incentive to supply the good or avoid the bad, so there is a need for concerted action by states.

Practical implications of considering food as a commons

The legal, economic and political implications of seeing food as a commons are extremely far-reaching. They would extend far beyond countries where people are hungry as governance of the food system would entail extra-territorial obligations. 49 Up to now, advocacy for anti-hunger measures has been based on demonstrating the economic and political impact of hunger on society, 50 highlighting the links between food insecurity, social unrest and productivity losses. 51 Non-economic arguments, such as moral obligations, public health considerations, social cohesion or human rights, have largely been neglected. 52 Considering food as a commons would provide an adequate rationale to support these non-economic arguments.

Food would be kept out of trade agreements dealing with purely private goods, 53 and it would be necessary to establish a commons-based governing system for the production, distribution and access to food, similar to agreements proposed for climate change and universal health coverage. That would pave the way for more binding legal frameworks to fight hunger, 54 and guarantee the right to food for all, as well as for reinforced cosmopolitan global policies 55 and fraternal ethics, 56 such as those originally proclaimed during the French Revolution.

On the same lines, universal food coverage 57 could also offer a sound means to realize this new narrative. It would guarantee a daily minimum amount of food for all citizens (i.e. one loaf of bread, ten tortillas or two injeras). 58 This universal entitlement would protect the only human right declared as fundamental in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: freedom from hunger. Food coverage could also be implemented as a basic food entitlement, 59 or a food security floor. 60 During the transition period, and as an immediate mechanism, the state should guarantee that the minimum salary is equal to the food basket.

Moreover, there would be legal and ethical grounds to ban futures trading in agricultural commodities, as speculation on food considerably influences international and domestic prices and benefits no-one but the speculators. Considering food as a commons would prioritize its use for human consumption and limit its non-consumption uses. Applying today’s economic rationale, the best use of any commodity is where it can get the best price (e.g. as feed for livestock, pharmaceutical by-products or biofuel).

Additionally, it could backstop the narrative to reverse excessive patents, applying the same principles of free software to food security and nutrition. The patents-based agricultural sector is slowing or even stalling the scaling up of agricultural and nutritional innovations. The freedom to copy actually promotes creativity rather than deters it, as can be seen in the fashion industry or the computer world. Millions of people innovating on locally-adapted patent-free technologies have far more capacity to find adaptive and appropriate solutions to the global food challenge than a few thousand scientists in laboratories and research centres.

Collectiveness versus competitiveness

Civic collective actions for food are built on civic engagement, food-related conviviality, reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods and increasing seasonal and local products. Unlike the market, food commons are about cooperation, sharing, stewardship, equity, self-production, sustainability, embeddedness and direct democracy from local to global. Homo cooperans replaces Homo economicus when dealing with natural essentials for humans. 61

These collective actions share the multidimensional consideration of food as an essential resource, a human right, a cultural item and a tradable asset. This perspective diverges from the mainstream uni-dimensional approach of the industrial food system of food as a commodity. The de-commodification of food will imply delinking commodities and well-being, accepting free food schemes as part of the welfare state and increasing the proportion of goods and services consumed outside the formal market and the public sphere (food sharing, exchange groups, producer-consumer associations, community-supported agriculture, etc.).

The institutional arrangements that govern local food systems and people's capacity for collective action are essential agents in any reconfiguration of the global food system to render it fairer and more sustainable. Finding the right balance between this tri-centric institutional setup to govern the production, distribution and consumption of food will be one of the major challenges of the twenty-first century. We need to develop a food system that provides meaning, and not just utility, to the production, trading and consumption of food. 62 To achieve this sustainable food system we need to reconsider how food is regarded by society, not merely as a privatized commodity but as a common good to be enjoyed by all, and to apply that concept to achieve that goal.


Olivier De Schutter has been the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food since May 2008. He is a Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain and at the College of Europe (Natolin). He is also a Member of the Global Law School Faculty at New York University and is Visiting Professor at Columbia University. His publications are in the area of international human rights and fundamental rights in the EU, with a particular emphasis on economic and social rights and on the relationship between human rights and governance. His most recent book is International Human Rights Law (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).

Philip McMichael is a Professor of Development Sociology, Cornell University. He has authored many books and publications on agrarian questions, food sovereignty and food regimes. He has worked with the FAO, UNRISD, La Vía Campesina, IPC for Food Sovereignty, and the Civil Society Mechanism (CFS). The latest book “Food Regimes and Agrarian Questions” develops the methodological contributions of food regime analysis, re-examining the agrarian question historically.

Photo credit main picture: angalactic gargleblaster and the heart of gold


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    Evenson, R.E. & D. Gollin (2003). Assessing the Impact of the Green Revolution, 1960 to 2000. Science Vol. 300-5620: 758-762.

  • 29.

    Godfray HCJ et al. (2010). Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science 327:812-818.

  • 30.

    UNCTAD (2013b). Trade and Environment report 2013. Wake up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. UNCTAD. Geneva

  • 31.

    Lundqvist, J., C. de Fraiture and D. Molden (2008). Saving Water: From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain. SIWI Policy Brief. Stockholm International Water Institute.

  • 32.

    Lobell, D.B., K.G. Cassman & C.B. Field (2009). Crop yield gaps: their importance, magnitudes, and causes. Annual Review of Environmental Resources, 34: 179–204. Cassman, K.G., P. Grassini & J. Van Wart (2010). Crop yield potential, yield trends, and global food security in a changing climate. In: C. Rosenzweig, D. Hillel (Eds.), Handbook of Climate Change and Agroecosystems, Imperial College Press, London. pp. 37–51.

  • 33.

    Throughout history, many types of food have often been endowed with sacred beliefs (fish and bread in Christianity, people are made of corn among the Mayan peoples, quinoa is sacred for the Peruvian Incas, cows are sacred and uneatable in India) and their production and distribution are thus governed by non-market rules. In many cases this means they are produced, distributed and eaten as commons. See:  Montanori, M. (2006). Food is culture. Arts and traditions on the table. Columbia University Press, New York. Fraser, E.D.G. & A. Rimas (2011). Empires of food. Feast, famine and the rise and fall of civilizations. Arrow Books. Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, germs and steel. A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Vintage, London. Pp. 85-156

  • 34.

    Fischler, C. (2011). L'alimentation, une consommation pas comme les autres. Sciences Humaines. Consommer. Comment la consommation a envahi nos vies. Grands Dossiers N° 22.

  • 35.

    Timmer, C.P., W.P. Falcon & S.R. Pearson. (1983). Food Policy Analysis. Published for the World Bank, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

  • 36.

    There is a growing literature of alternative food movements in both developed and developing countries, produced by academic rural sociologists and Keynesian economists, that highlights the pervasive nature of food produced by the industrial food system and denounces the perspective of food as a pure commodity that can be speculated with, modified genetically, patented by corporations or diverted from human consumption to maximize profit. The commons approach to food is gaining ground via urban-led, indigenous and customary alternative food networks, rural food sovereignty movements and academic schools of thought in the US (Berkeley, Cornell), Canada (Toronto) and the UK (Swansea, Essex). See Anderson, M. (2004). Grace at the table. Earthlight Vol. 14 No.1, Spring. Christ, M.C. (2013). Food Security and the Commons in ASEAN: the role of Singapore. Working paper, International Conference on International Relations and Development Secretariat, Thammasat University, Bangkok. Kotagama, H, H Boughanmi, S Zekri, S Prathapar (2008/2009). Food Security as a Public Good: Oman’s Prospects. Sri Lankan Journal of Agricultural Economics Vol.10/11: 61-74. Magdoff, F. & B. Tokar, eds. (2010). Agriculture and Food in Crisis. Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal. Monthly Review Press, New York. Zerbe, N. (2009). Setting the global dinner table. Exploring the limits of the marketization of food security. In Clapp, J. & M.J. Cohen, eds. The Global food crisis. Governance challenges and opportunities. The Centre for International Governance Innovation & Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo.

  • 37.

    Sandel, M.J. (2009). Justice. What’s the right thing to do? Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.

  • 38.

    Samuelson, P.A. (1954). The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure. The Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 387-389. Ver Eecke, W. (1999). Public Goods: An Ideal Concept. Journal of Socio-Economics 28: 139-156.

  • 39.

    Enclosure is the decrease in accessibility of a particular resource due to privatization or new legislation, transferring common properties ‘from the many to the few’. Expanding copyrights, issuing permits or taxing specific activities enable the enclosure of what were previously commons. The enclosure and full privatization of goods owned by no one reflects capitalism’s insatiable appetite. Several examples illustrate this process. For example, fishing from the seashore or collecting mushrooms in the forest used to be free and are now regulated by license or banned in many areas and certain seasons. Plant-genetic resources in the form of seeds used to be public goods until scientific and technological progress enabled us to synthesize DNA, modify living organisms and reconstruct genes in the laboratory, producing genes and seeds that are now subject to copyright licenses. Setting quotas is also a way to restrict open-sea fishing. Another form of enclosure of the commons is developing new markets for the services these common-pool resources provide. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first attempt to create an international market for permits for greenhouse gases, and perhaps the first steps towards the enclosure of the pure air in the atmosphere. See Arvanitakis, J. (2006). The Commons: Opening and Enclosing Non-commodified Space. Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies. Vol 3-1. Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks. How social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press. New Haven. Pp 329-344. Hess, C. (2008). Mapping the New Commons. Presented at “Governing Shared Resources: Connecting Local Experience to Global Challenges;” the 12th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, England, July 14-18, 2008. Nuijten, M. (2006). Food Security, Technology, and the Global Commons 'New' Political Dilemmas? Focaal 48: v-vii. Young, O. R. (2003). Taking Stock: Management Pitfalls in Fisheries Science. Environment 45 (3).

  • 40.

    All researchers and policy-makers implicitly agree that food is purely a private good that you gain access to when you purchase it on the market or produce it yourself with other privately-owned inputs. In line with this thinking, there is widespread agreement that the main problem nowadays is the lack of food access, although food production concerns are also gaining momentum. This approach is evident in the following food security policy documents: MDG and WFS Plans of Action, the CFS Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition 2012, the G-8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition 2012, the G-20 L’Aquila Food Security Initiative, The G-20 Action Plan on food price volatility and agriculture 2012 and the World Economic Forum New Vision for Agriculture. See also FAO (2012). The future we want. End hunger and make the transition to sustainable agricultural and food systems. FAO, Rome. UK Government (2011). The future of food and farming: challenges and choices for global sustainability. Final project report. Foresight, Department for Business Innovation and Skills. The Government Office for Science, London. World Bank (2008). World development report 2008: Agriculture for development. Washington, DC. WEF (2013). Achieving the New Vision for Agriculture. New models for action. The World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland. Additional references can be also found in Vivero, J.L. (2013). Food as a commons: reframing the narrative of the food system SSRN Working paper series

  • 41.

    Recent academic debate that has already permeated international fora reclaims public health as a global public good, and a similar consideration is also proposed for food safety considerations and transboundary animal diseases, food price stability in international and national markets and world food security. See : Unnevehr, L.J. (2006). Food Safety as a Global Public Good: Is There Underinvestment? Plenary paper prepared for presentation at the International Association of Agricultural Economists Conference, Gold Coast, Australia, August 12-18, 2006. Timmer, P. (2011). Managing Price Volatility: Approaches at the global, national, and household levels. Stanford Symposium Series on Global Food Policy and Food Security in the 21st Century, May 2011. Page, H. (2013). Global Governance and Food Security as Global Public Good. Center on International Cooperation, New York University. Chen, L.C., T.G. Evans & R.A. Cash (1999). Health as a global public good. In Inge Kaul, Isabelle Grunberg & Marc A. Stern, eds. Global public goods. International cooperation in the 21st century. UNDP, Oxford University Press

  • 42.

    Richards, T.J. W.E. Nganje & R.N. Acharya (2009). Public Goods, Hysteresis, and Underinvestment in Food Safety. Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 34(3): 464–482

  • 43.

    Average support for agricultural farmers in OECD countries in 2005 reached 30% of total agricultural production, equal to one billion $ per day.

  • 44.

    Fertilizer subsidies are widely used all over the world, either explicitly or in more subtle ways, as governments recognize the strategic value of the agricultural sector.

  • 45.

    The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a multi-state supported programme to help food producers earn a better living, increase price competitiveness in the international market and incentivize  rural inhabitants to remain in rural areas so as to become custodians of the landscapes and the environment. In 2011, the total CAP budget for 27 EU countries was 58 billion euros.  Comparative data on state support to agriculture can be found at:  EU (2012). Comparative analysis of agricultural support within the major agricultural trading nations. Directorate General for Internal Policies. Brussels.

  • 46.

    The US Farm Bill incorporates not only schemes to support agriculture but also nutrition programmes such as food stamps and school lunches. In 2012, food stamps alone amounted 100 billion $ and the US Senate schedules nearly 1 trillion $ for the next 10 years of the Farm Bill.

  • 47.

    The following are just a few of the numerous food innovations that are mushrooming all over the world, mostly in urban areas by concerned citizens:  food trusts in the USA (, food swaps in Australia (,  community-supported agriculture in the USA ( ), community food growing and free harvest in Belgium ( ), food gleaning in the UK ( ), food policy councils in Canada (Toronto, and Brazil (Belo Horizonte, ), local foodsheds in New York (, or the Slow Food movement starting in Italy and now extended to 150 countries ( ).  

  • 48.

    Elinor Ostrom was an American political scientist who was awarded the Nobel Price for Economics in 2009 for her analysis of economic governance of the commons. She analysed hundreds of institutional arrangements and collective actions to govern common-pool resources, such as coastal fisheries, irrigation schemes and community forests.   

  • 49.

    Kent, G., ed. (2008). Global Obligations for the Right to Food. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

  • 50.

    Grantham-McGregor, S. et al (2007). Development potential in the first 5 years for children in developing countries. The Lancet, 369:60–70. Martínez, R. & A. Fernández (2008). The cost of hunger: Social and economic impact of child undernutrition in Central America and the Dominican Republic. WFP-ECLAC, Santiago. World Bank (2006). Repositioning nutrition as central to development. A strategy for large-scale action. Washington, DC.

  • 51.

    Messner E. & M. Cohen (2008). Conflict, food insecurity and globalization. En J. Von Braun y E. Díaz-Bonilla. Globalization of food and agriculture and the poor. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India, pp. 299-366. Lagi, M., K.Z. Bertrand & Y. Bar-Yam (2011). The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East.\ Holt-Giménez, E & R Patel (2009). Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. Fahumu Books, UK

  • 52.

    Pinstrup-Andersen, P. (2007). Eliminating Poverty and Hunger in Developing Countries: A Moral Imperative or Enlightened Self Interest?  In Pinstrup-Andersen, P & P. Sandøe, Peter (eds.). Ethics, Hunger and Globalization – in Search of Appropriate Policies. Pp. 15-27. Sidel, V.W. (1997). The public health impact of hunger. Am J Public Health. 1997 December; 87(12): 1921–1922. FAO, CEPAL & PMA (2007). Hambre y Cohesión Social. Cómo revertir la relación entre inequidad y desnutrición en América Latina y el Caribe. FAO Santiago, Chile.

  • 53.

    Rosset, P.M. (2006). Food is Different: Why the WTO Should Get Out of Agriculture. Zed Books, London, UK.

  • 54.

    MacMillan, A & JL Vivero (2011). The governance of hunger. Innovative proposals to make the right to be free from hunger a reality. In: Martín-López, MA & JL Vivero, eds. New challenges to the Right to Food. CEHAP, Cordoba and Editorial Huygens, Barcelona.

  • 55.

    Held, D. (2009). Restructuring global governance: cosmopolitanism, democracy and the Global Order. Millennium: Journal of International Studies. Vol 37, No 3, pp. 535-547. 

  • 56.

    Gonthier, C.D. (2000). Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: The Forgotten Leg of the Trilogy. Mcgill Law Journal / Revue de Droit de Mcgill, vol. 45: pp. 567-589.

  • 57.

    An idea called for by Nobel Prize Amartya Sen

  • 58.

    HLPE (2012). Social protection for food security. A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome 2012. 58-59.

  • 59.

    Van Parijs, P. (2005). Basic income. A simple and powerful idea for the twenty-first century.

  • 60.

    Similar to the social protection floor proposed by Deacon, B. (2012). The social protection floor. CROP Poverty Brief

  • 61.

    The concept of Homo economicus, introduced by economist John Stuart Mill in nineteenth century, sees humans as rational and narrowly self-interested actors whose main goal when dealing in the market is to maximize utility as consumers and economic profit as producers. By contrast, Homo cooperans sees human beings as primarily motivated by cooperation, the common of their society, community or group and to improve their environment.  De Moore, T. (2013). Homo cooperans. Institutions for collective action and the compassionate society. Inaugural Lecture, August. Universiteit Utecht.  Persky, J. (1995). Retrospectives: The Ethology of Homo Economicus. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 9-2: 221-231

  • 62.

    Anderson, M. (2004). Grace at the table. Earthlight Vol. 14 No.1, Spring 2004