And then Julian Dobson tweeted the link to an article in Slow Food (an organisation for which I have an enormous soft spot - despite their tendency to peddle piffle) about moving to something called a "food commons". The author begins with a diagnosis:
Because the “solutions” to these crises offered by governments, agri-food monopolies and multilateral institutions—e.g., more “free” trade, genetically engineered crops and the spread of giant retail chains—brought on the crises to begin with. With a billion people “stuffed” and a billion “starved” on the planet, why do the G-8 countries, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization continue to prescribe catastrophic solutions to catastrophe?
Now there's some truth in this since our international trade in food is hideously skewed by the persistence of developed world subsidy for basic food. Not only are these systems - Europe's Common Agricultural Policy, the USA's corrupt farm support systems and Japan's nonsensical protectionism - largely responsible for much of the dysfunction in food commodities markets but they act primarily to support the big producers and big food businesses. Thousands of small farms have closed despite billions in agricultural subsidy.
Yet the words free trade are not mentioned here as a solution. Instead - under the banner of a "food commons" - we get what amounts to a proposal for managed trade:
A food commons is not only a physical place where food is produced, processed, sold or consumed; it is also a social space where decisions are made in the interest of the common good. Whenever food activists take back a part of the food system in the interest of the common good, they are constructing a food commons. This is why food sovereignty as an organizing concept and precondition for food justice, food democracy and the right to food is so important: it implies a space that is sovereign to the corporate food regime. It is a space in which people—not corporations—decide.
Bluntly, the most efficient way to do what this author suggests is called a "free market" where producers, processers and consumers interact to set prices, distribute scarce resources and meet needs. The great thing about free markets is that everyone understands them and they are proven to work.
The problem is that too much of our food production and distribution takes place in anything but free market conditions. From the arbitrary governments that plague much of sub-Saharan Africa to the grant-farming that typifies agriculture in the developed world, food producers are fighting against a system run in the interests of others.
Yet amidst all the waffle about neo-liberalism, the author seems more concerned with creating some kind of collective farm system:
The public control over land based food producing resource can be established through a Food Commons Trusts that allows neighborhoods to own farm land and food system infrastructure in perpetual (public) trust for the benefit of all citizens. Food Commons Banks can provide financial services to food system enterprises, producers and consumers. In order to aggregate and distribute local and regional food, create and coordinate regional markets, and provide services to communities and local food enterprises, Food Commons Hubs can be established.
We know precisely what the result of this approach will be - reduced yields, target-based production systems, malnourishment, corruption and, in the worst cases, starvation. It sounds good to call it a "commons", to make out that somehow this approach is superior and liberating but the reality is that it removes individual choice, denies property rights and creates the very environment that led to catastrophic famines in Russia, the Ukraine and China.
Rather than this sort of argument, we should instead be looking to do three things that will transform the world's trade in food:
- Abolish agricultural protection, price fixing, quotas and local protections
- Establish defensible property rights in developing countries
- Replace managed trade in commodities with open and free markets
Do these three things and much of the problem we see diagnosed here will go away. Go down this trendy-lefty, "food commons" route and the result will be more malnutrition, more starvation and more international oligopoly.