food

Currently, less than 3% of the food that Americans eat is grown within 100 to 200 miles of where they live.  And many people in poorer neighborhoods simply do not have ready access to affordable local produce.

A fascinating new project, the Food Commons, aspires to radically change this reality.  It seeks to reinvent the entire “value-chain” of food production and distribution through a series of regional experiments to invent local food economies as commons. 

By owning many elements of a local food system infrastructure – farms, distribution, retail and more – but operating them as a trust governed by stakeholders, the Food Commons believes it can be economically practical to build a new type of food system that is labor-friendly, ecologically responsible, hospitable to a variety of small enterprises, and able to grow high-quality food for local consumption.

Food Commons explains its orientation to the world by quoting economist Herman Daly:

“If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food.  This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one.  A community’s complete dependency on outsiders for its mere survival weakens it….The most fundamental requirement for survival is food.  Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”

Food Commons is a nonprofit project that was officially begun in 2010 by Larry Yee and James Cochran.  Yee is a former academic with the University of California Cooperative Extension who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for years.  Cochran is the founder and president of Swanton Berry Farms, a mid-scale organic farming enterprise near Santa Cruz, California.

What would the world look like if we began to re-conceptualize food as a commons?  Jose Luis Vivero Pol of the Centre for Philosophy of Law at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium has done just that in a recent essay, “Food as a Commons:  Reframing the Narrative of the Food System.”  

The piece is impressive for daring to imagine how the world’s estimated 668 million hungry people might eat, and how all of us would become healthier, if we treated more elements of the food production and distribution system as commons.  Instead of managing food as a private good that can only be produced and allocated through markets, re-conceptualizing food as a commons helps us imagine “a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centered food system,” writes Vivero Pol. 

One reason that the commons reframing is so useful is that it helps us see the ubiquity of enclosures in the food system.  We can begin to see the galloping privatization of farmland, water, energy and seeds.  We can see the concentration of various food sectors and the higher prices and loss of consumer sovereignty that comes from oligopoly control. 

Enclosure is snatching shared resources from us and preventing us from managing them to maximize access and good nutrition.  This is often known these days as “resource grabbing,” as companies and national governments race to seize as many abundant, cheap natural resources as they can on an international scale.  This is one reason for the many pernicious enclosures of land commons in Africa and Latin America in recent years. There is a huge exodus from traditional and indigenous lands as China, Saudi Arabia, Korea, hedge funds and others buy up natural resources.  These enclosures are moving us “from diversity to uniformity, from complexity to homoegeneity, and from richness to impoverishment,” writes Vivero Pol.  

Raj Patel has been tracking the pathologies of the global food system for many years.  An activist and academic who teaches at the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies, Patel has just published a second, updated edition of his 2008 book, Stuffed and Starved The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

The problem with the food system is not that we don't produce enough calories to eradicate hunger, Patel notes.  It's that the food system has its own priorities of institutional consolidation and profit, which means that more than 1 billion people in the world are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight – which is worse than when the first edition of Patel's book came out. 

Patel has also been a serious student of the commons.  His 2010 book, The Value of Nothing:  How to Reshape the Market Society and Redefine Democracy, is a lucid overview of the fallaciious premises of market economics and its dismal performance.  He also goes on at length about the ability of the commons paradigm to help ameliorate food sovereignty, environmental sustainability and social justice.

Recommended reading is a recent interview with Patel at Stir, the vigorous, commons-oriented British political journal founded by Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh.  (Incidentally, Stir is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to pay for a print run of a book collecting some of its best articles.)

Here are a few excerpts from Stir’s interview with Patel:   

On genetically modified crops & climate change:  “We have an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that agro-ecological farming systems will be able to feed the world in the future.  The GM advocates are saying, “What about drought-resistance and climate-change-ready crops?” That seems to be nonsense!  To have a crop that is climate-change-ready is ludicrous because change is precisely change — it is so many different things.  It could be new pests, rains coming at the wrong time; it could be too much rain, or too much heat.  It is impossible to have a single crop that is ready for those possible changes.  We’ve already seen the limits of that because Monsanto has a product called ‘Drought Guard’ — a genetically-modified crop that performs no better than any conventional crop in resisting anything but a mild drought.  The problem with this is that climate change isn’t about mild anything but extreme weather events.”

Provocative Reading

Every day all sorts of fascinating, commons-relevant stories flow through my computer. I thought I'd showcase a few of the more notable ones.

Silent Protocol Wars

Radical Philosophy, a UK journal, has a fascinating essay, “A Tale of Two Worlds,”  by Nicolás Mendoza, about the “silent protocol wars” that websites like WikiLeaks, 4Chan and the Anonymous hackers are embroiled in with nation-states. The “de-localized collaborative community” is arguably the biggest social innovation of the Internet. It is the source of what Mendoza calls a “rogue episteme” – alternative, sometimes-subversive ways of seeing and engaging with the world. But will these alternative networked communities be made technically impossible if they continue to challenge the authority and control of the nation-state? Recent provocations by WikiLeaks (the US Embassy Cables leak) and Anonymous' retaliatory acts raise the question.  The implications for the civic sovereignty of citizens elsewhere around the world is huge.

Mendoza writes: 

“There is no remote corner of the Internet not dependent on protocols,” Laura DeNardis insists. What DeNardis stresses is the ultimate preponderance of the technical over the social protocol. Lessig inaugurated this line of thinking when he famously stated “Code is Law.” But protocol runs deeper than software: if code is law then protocol is the constitution. This is why, as long as attention is diverted toward anything spectacular (like tactical and superficial DdoS [denial of service] attacks), governments can start the demolition of the protocols that grant the possibility of autonomy to the network. In reaction to the release of the US Embassy Cables [by WikiLeaks], the UN called for the creation of a group that would end the current multi-stakeholder nature of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to give the last word on Internet control to the governments of the world.

Governments, of course, want to assure their own capacity to conduct surveillance, censorship and control. The question is whether the autonomous communities as embodied by WikiLeaks and Anonymous (who act as a vanguard for the larger, less politicized set of Internet users) can survive the protocol wars. “This is where the war stands to be won,” writes Mendoza: “in the building of autonomous structures of all sorts (structures that bypass and outcompete existing ones) on top of other new structures until the entire old world is unnecessary.”

A new British publication, Stir, short for Stir to Action, has released its second issue as editor Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh bravely tries to give voice to a new kind of post-liberal, globally aware activist readership.  True to its name, Stir features a number of provocative articles and invigorating interviews with iconoclasts.  If we're lucky, this venture from the edge may actually help assemble a "constituency of unrealistic pragmatists," in the words of George McKay, author of a wonderful piece on on “radical gardening.”

In an interview with author Mckenzie Wark, we learn some of the lessons that the Situationists may have for contemporary political and cultural activism.  The Situationist International “was an extremely marginal avant-garde movement that was formed in 1957 and then dissolved itself in 1972,” Wark noted, describing his new book, The Beach Beneath the Street.  “Why the hell would anybody be interested in this tiny marginal activity? The footprint the Situationists left in political aesthetic culture is vastly greater than their actual numbers. As their leading light, Guy Debord, said ‘all you need is a few trustworthy comrades’.”

That’s a great premise for any movement:  a few trustworthy comrades with the imagination and daring to challenge the narcoleptic conformism of our times.  Even some of the most active activists that I know are half-asleep because they have so internalized the prevailing political paradigm and cultural norms.

Buying Respectability

Imagine that you're a company that is increasingly besieged by complaints that your heavily advertised junk foods and sugary drinks are contributing to obesity, diabetes and other health problems. The First Lady has even gotten into the act, making "eating healthy" a personal priority. Naturally, the company wants to neutralize public criticisms about its unhealthy products and refurbish its corporate image.

What better way than to buy a slice of respectability and high-minded objectivity from an Ivy League school -- say, Yale University?

That’s exactly what PepsiCo did recently when it announced that it would fund a graduate fellowship in nutritional science at the Yale School of Medicine. The masters or PhD student will explore "obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome." The depressing part is, Yale was only too eager to play along and sell its name for peanuts. It will receive $250,000 over the course of five years. For this, the dean of Yale School of Medicine, Robert Alpern, praised "PepsiCo's commitment to improving health through proper nutrition" and called PepsiCo's partnership with Yale "a visionary investment in the future of science."

NAFTA, Mexican Corn and the Commons

What happens when a market-based agricultural juggernaut invades a 9,000-year-old system of commons-based maize production in Mexico? What are the on-the-ground consequences? How have the farmers using traditional agriculture responded? Journalist Peter Canby offers a stunning account of this saga in his well-reported piece in The Nation, “Retreat to Subsistence.” Highly recommended reading.

"The Gleaners and I"

After seeing a famous painting by Francois Milet, Les Graneuses ("The Gleaners"), of a group of women stooped over picking up leftover stalks of wheat, French documentary film maker Agnes Varda began to wonder about modern-day gleaners — the people who scavenge their food from the scraps that our modern industrial society discards as waste. She wondered about trash in our modern times: “Who finds a use for it? How? Can one live on the leftovers of others?"

The result, The Gleaners and I, is a moving depiction of the people who — after the harvest — pick through the dirt to find potatoes and tomatoes left behind, scour the beach for oysters washed up after storms, pick grapes and figs that farmers reject, and go "dumpster diving" to recover discarded loaves of bread, sandwiches and other food.

The Enclosure of Apples

A century ago, in 1905, there were more than 6,500 distinct varieties of apples to eat, reports Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times. People had their own favorite apples when it came to cooking and eating. They would use different ones for making pies, cider and apple sauce. They could choose from an exotic array of apples with names like Scollop Gillyflower, Red Winter Pearmain, Kansas Keeper.

Now, Klinkenborg writes, "only 11 varieties make up 90 percent of all the apples sold in this country, and Red Delicious alone counts for nearly half of that." For those who wonder what an enclosure of the commons looks like, this is a prime example.

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