How is it possible that extreme hunger and food abundance coexist in today's world? Why is it that food, one of the most fundamental necessities of life, is so scarce for so many people even though the global food system produces so much and wastes so much? These questions have long bothered Jose Luis Vivero Pol, an anti-hunger activist, agricultural engineer, and advocate for treating food as commons.
Studying the reasons for persistent hunger amidst plentiful food, Vivero began to see that the real problem is our societal treatment of food as a commodity -- an object valued by its market price and traded in global markets. The presumption that food should be a commodity departs from millennia of human history in which societies found ways to share food and ensure that people had enough to eat. Treating food as a commodity inevitably means that millions of people worldwide will not be able to afford food and therefore must go hungry or eat nutritionally degraded, unhealthy food.
Vivero Pol works as a PhD Research Fellow of Food Transitions at the Université catholique de Louvain, in Belgium. He realizes that attempting to decommodify food is a long-term proposition that requires a structural rethinking of our food system. But he emphasizes that food-as-a-commodity is an artificial social construct, not the natural order of life.
Indeed, food commons have been the norm throughout human history, and even in today's hyper-marketized world they remain widely prevalent. In many countries of Europe, the amount of land still managed as commons for growing food is 20 or 30%. In Iceland, 40% of land is still managed as commons.
It’s a bit odd that land reform is barely mentioned in most progressive agendas. Maybe that's because it is seen as challenging the presumed virtues of private property and capitalist markets. Yet secure access and tenure to land is essential for achieving so many progressive goals, from building new sorts of regional food systems to providing affordable housing and enabling local self-determination and personal well-being.
Severine is a young organic farmer, activist and organizer based in Maine who has had a remarkably productive career as an advocate for young farmers and land reform. She helped start Agrarian Trust, an organization dedicated to supporting land access for the next generation of farmers. In recent years, Agrarian Trust has started ten Agrarian Commons in the US, in an attempt to make community-supported, collectively stewarded farmland available to younger farmers. As the project notes: “With 400 million acres of land in the U.S. expected to change hands over the next two decades, the time for transformation in land ownership is now.”
Agrarian Trust is just one of many new ventures that Severine has helped set in motion. She also played a key role in starting Greenhorns, a grassroots cultural organization that produces a literary journal, radio show, blog, and other media for young farmers. She helped launch Farm Hack, a project that designs and builds farm equipment using open source principles.
More recently, Fleming pulled together Seaweed Commons, a network of people concerned about seaweed aquaculture and intertidal commoning. The project is focused on improving “the ecological literacy of stakeholders in the marine economy.” The challenge includes preventing toxic algae blooms, capturing the runoff of nutrients from salmon pens around the world, and ensuring ethical, environmentally responsible cultivation of seaweed for biofuels and aquaculture.
I don't normally post long essays, but I want to share this terrific piece by Maywa Montenegro de Wit on the struggle to create a socio-legal class of seeds can be shared.This mode of seed usage prevailed throughout most of history, of course, but as major ag-biotech corporations have aggressively pushed proprietary and genetically modified seed, seed-sharing and breeding among farmers has become marginalized and sometimes illegal. This has made farmers more dependent on expensive seeds and industrial farming techniques with harmful ecological impacts. It has also discouraged traditional agricultural practices that work with nature in which seed is shared and improved upon through commoning.
Montenegro isan assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Her work draws on political ecology, science and technology studies, and rural sociology to address issues of seed diversity and access to it.
C.R. Lawn knows what primitive accumulation feels like. As founder of the Fedco Seeds cooperative, he saw fungicide treatments become ubiquitous in the 1980s, and decided to stop sell- ing seeds laced with the hazardous chemicals. In the 1990s, as GMOs came online, he placed a moratorium on the technology out of concern for unknown risks. Nine years later, when Monsanto bought out Seminis — Fedco’s largest supplier of vegetable seeds — Fedco began boycotting the company because, as Lawn explains, “we could not in good conscience sell their varieties.” The chemicals, the GMOs, and the patents, Lawn says, are part of a broader phenomenon: “We have privatized our common wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the common good.”
C.R. Lawn and his Fedco growers and packers are not alone in these deliberate rejections of seed enclosures. They are part of a movement gaining traction in many parts of the world, Global North and South, that refuses to adopt the dominant wisdom: that agrobiodiversity is best managed as private property; that breeding innovation will not occur in the absence of patents, variety protections, and other intellectual property (IP) rights; and that “improved seeds” result from individual ingenuity, rather than from collective knowledge, gleaned in and through experience with the land. From India to Peru, France to the Philippines, social movements are now advancing a bold discourse of seed freedom, seeking to reclaim what has been appropriated, privatized, and separated from the everyday and practical experience of farmers and farmer-breeders.
This chapter traces a novel expression of seed freedom that emerges from something old: the concept of a “commons.” Conventionally defined as social or natural resources not owned by anyone, but over which a community has shared and equal rights, the commons go back many centuries in agrarian history, their enclosures marking a crucial juncture in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I add to the burgeoning new commons literature by looking at commons as a biocultural form, speciﬁcally in relation to seeds. Scholarly emphasis to date has been primarily on rules and institutions of resource management, following the principles of a well-governed commons. My argument is that seeds turn our attention to the politics and practices of access to means of reproduction. We consider how community rules, values, and practices of making new seed varieties — or plant breeding — are at once driven and shaped by a larger political economic order. We explore how seed diversity is gained and/or lost through histories of legal, scientiﬁc, and biological enclosure.
Following recent contributions to commons scholarship, I emphasize commons as a living, dynamic ﬁeld of practice — not simply a resource divided amongst people, but a social transformation developed in and through the practices of commoning. Moving from noun to verb, this formulation also puts greater emphasis on the people and communities intrinsic to the commons — not just on the seed, but on farmers, seed savers, and plant breeders.
In the nearly 50 years since the Park Slope Food Co-op Brooklyn opened, it has become both legendary and taken-for-granted. People seem to forget that its success was based on heroic struggle and lots of difficult internal commoning. Many outsiders see a gilded precinct of New York City filled with affluent professionals, not realizing that the Co-op arose from within a funky neighborhood of ordinary people who wanted high-quality, affordable, responsibly produced groceries. And indeed, most of its members are still ordinary, middle-class New Yorkers.
A lengthy piece in The New Yorker magazine (November 25 issue) captures the complicated and colorful history of the Co-op magnificently. “The Grocery Store Where Produce Meets Politics,” by Alexandra Schwartz, dives deeply into the inner life of the Co-op and the people who both venerate it and condescend to it. The Park Slope Food Co-op is a landmark achievement of what can be achieved through commoning in a co-operative organizational structure.
The Co-op's most salient achievement may be its sheer scale. It has more than 17,000 members and annual sales revenues of $58.3 million. Yet it is still run as a participatory, democratically managed operation whose members actively care about eco-friendly agriculture and socially minded practices.
Unlike many co-ops that regard themselves as quasi-corporations competing in the market, perhaps with a nod to social concern, the Park Slope Food Co-op remains unabashedly committed to functioning as a commons. It is a self-help collective, as one of its leaders put it, not a do-gooder project.
In her early encounters with the Co-op, journalist Alexandra Schwartz found it “to be claustrophobically crowded, illogically organized, and almost absurdly inconvenient. In other words, it was love at first sight. Suddenly, on my editorial assistant’s salary, I was eating like an editor-in-chief.” The Co-op is not a sleek, modernist Whole Foods store with precious upscale touches. It’s a place where you can get fantastically fresh local produce, inexpensive cheese, and high-quality expeller-pressed cooking oils. Prices are generally 15% to 50% less than those of a conventional grocery store.
As readers may have noticed, I have not been blogging much in recent months. That's because I've been completing a new book with my colleague Silke Helfrich that has been consuming most of my time. (More about that soon.) Fortunately, only a month or so is left before we finish the manuscript! At that point I expect to resume blogging on a more regular schedule.Thanks for your patience!
In the meantime, I have been getting out and about a bit. On September 29, I delivered a keynote talk at the Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas, hosted by The Land Institute. The annual festival, now 40 years old, brings together several hundred progressives from around the country concerned about agriculture, food, land, and social change.
The Land Institute, founded by a hero of mine, Wes Jackson, is a leading independent agricultural research center. Its plant breeders and ecologists have an ambitious mission: to develop "an agriculture system that mimics natural systems in order to produce ample food and reduce or eliminate the negative impacts of industrial agriculture."
One of the most impressive achievements of the Land Institute is its development of a perennial wheat called Kernza, which could radically reduce the ecological impact of conventional agriculture. The Institute is also developing a range of other crops using the principles of "perennial polyculture," which relies on complementary, mutually supportive crops in the same field.
The event's main events were held in a large, open barn that felt unusual warm and intimate despite the chilly weather that day. A print version of my remarks are below; a video can be seen here. (My talk starts at the timemark 41:00 and goes through 1:22.)
Imagine that you’re a farmer who bought a John Deere tractor for $25,000 – or perhaps a big, heavy-duty model for $125,000 or more. Then something goes wrong with the computer software inside the tractor (its “firmware”). Thanks to a new licensing scheme, only John Deere can legally fix the tractor – for exorbitant repair prices. Or maybe you want to modify the tractor so it can do different things in different ways. So sorry: the license prohibits you from bypassing the encryption, taking it to an independent repair shop, or fixing it yourself.
This very type of problem inspired hacker Richard Stallman to invent free software in the late 1970s. When an experimental laser printer donated to MIT by the Xerox Corporation kept jamming, Stallman tried to develop a software fix so he could help everyone who used the printer. He quickly discovered that the source code for the machine was proprietary -- a stupid, self-serving limitation that prevented him from helping his colleagues.
This sort of copyright control has frequently crippled machinery over the decades. The basic point is to protect a company's market power and proprietary control -- a form of power usually protected by law. Under US law, for example, bypassing “digital rights management,” or DRM, systems on DVDs, CDs or websites is against the law.
In the case of land vehicles such as tractors, a legal exception was carved out under US copyright law in 2015. But John Deere was able to evade that provision by requiring farmers to sign a new licensing agreement when they buy a tractor. The license prohibits “nearly all repair and modification to farming equipment, and prevent[s] farmers from suing for ‘crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software,’” Koelber writes.
As more and more plant varieties have become privatized through patents, and as large corporations have bought up smaller seed breeders, a dangerous consolidation has occurred. The genetic diversity of agricultural crops has shrunk, making crops more vulnerable to disease and our food supply more insecure. Meanwhile, farmers and the public have become more dependent on a few large agrochemical companies.
In short, seed patents have become a tool for privatizing seed from the pool of open and commonly owned plant genetic resources: an insidious enclosure of seed commons.
This scenario is eerily similar to the consolidation of software for personal computers some twenty years ago. Microsoft used its market dominance to incorporate all sorts of software programs into its Windows operating system, a strategy sometimes referred to as “embrace, extend and extinguish.” As Microsoft exploited its de facto monopoly over common software systems, programs for word-processing, spreadsheets and other functions began to go out of business.
But just as open source software served as a powerful antidote to proprietary software, so a group of academics, activists and plant breeders in Germany has now pioneered a similar antidote to seed patents: an open source license.
The Open Source Seed license, recently released by a group called OpenSourceSeeds, is trying to “make seeds a common good again.” The license amounts to a form of “copyleft” for new plant varieties, enabling anyone to use the licensed seeds for free. Like the General Public License for free software, the seed license has one serious requirement: any seeds that are used, modified or sold must be passed along to others without any legal restrictions.
A feeling of joy and achievement runs through the group of ten people gathered in Robert’s kitchen. After three years of planning, they have come to celebrate: Ingrid and Fabien will soon be able to settle down and develop their farming business. The farm is theirs!
In this small, pastoral village of the French Pre-Alps, establishing young farmers is an act of will. Everywhere, small mountain farms are closing down; work is hard and the business not deemed profitable enough. When aging farmers retire, they do not find a successor. The best land is sometimes sold off to one of the few more or less industrialized farms that remain. Overall, villages are progressively abandoned or become havens of secondary residences.
In Saint Dizier, a small village of thirty-five inhabitants, local people have decided differently. Municipality members, local residents and farmers have decided to preserve agriculture as a component of local economic activity and lifestyle. They also view farmers as young, permanent residents for the village. So they keep an eye on land put for sale, and have contacted farmers and landowners to learn their plans for the future. The municipal council has sought public subsidies to acquire farmland and rent it to young farmers, but with no success.
In 2006, villagers started to work with Terre de Liens, a recently established civil society organization focused on securing land access for agroecological farmers. Everywhere in France, high land prices and intense competition for farmland and buildings have become a major obstacle for young farmers. Obstacles are even higher for those doing organic agriculture, direct sales or other “alternative” forms of agriculture, which usually are not deemed profitable enough by banks or worthy of public policy support.
Amazingly, it is sometimes a criminal act to retrieve food that has been thrown away. Often it is simply seen as culturally inappropriate or embarrassing. But when an estimated $165 billion worth of food gets thrown away in the U.S. every year, surely it’s time to change our attitudes about food waste.
That was the point behind Rob Greenfield's cross-country bicycle trip this fall. To call attention to the amount of food that is wasted, the San Diego activist spent months on the road, surviving entirely on food that he pulled out of dumpsters behind grocery stores and pharmacies.
Typically Greenfield would arrive in town on his bicycle and start to rummage through dumpsters. He usually emerged with perfectly good food – bunches of bananas, apples, boxes of unopened crackers and cookies, packs of soda, bottles of iced tea, and a smorgasbord of other perfectly edible food. Then he would take a photo of the haul of "waste."
In a trip that took him to some 300 dumpsters, Greenfield estimates that he recovered over $10,000 worth of food and fed well over 500 people. On his website, Greenfield posted many photos of his dumpster harvests.
Greenfield said, “I’ve learned that I can roll up in nearly any city across America and collect enough food to feed hundreds of people in a matter of one night. The only thing that limited me was the size of the vehicle I had to transport it. My experience shows me that grocery store dumpsters are being filled to the brim with perfectly good food every day in nearly every city across America, all while children at school are too hungry to concentrate on their studies." About 50 million of 317 million Americans are food insecure, he notes.