Preprint Article Version 1 NOT YET PEER-REVIEWED

Epistemic Regards on Food as a Commons: Plurality of Schools, Genealogy of Meanings, Confusing Vocabularies

Version 1 : Received: 5 April 2017 / Approved: 7 April 2017 / Online: 7 April 2017 (04:13:41 CEST)

How to cite: Vivero-Pol, J. Epistemic Regards on Food as a Commons: Plurality of Schools, Genealogy of Meanings, Confusing Vocabularies. Preprints 2017, 2017040038 (doi: 10.20944/preprints201704.0038.v1). Vivero-Pol, J. Epistemic Regards on Food as a Commons: Plurality of Schools, Genealogy of Meanings, Confusing Vocabularies. Preprints 2017, 2017040038 (doi: 10.20944/preprints201704.0038.v1).


Commons and food are experiencing a revival in recent years and yet the links between both are almost absent in academic and political discourses. Commons are often portrayed as historical and yet innovative governing mechanisms that can challenge the State-Market hegemony. On the other side, food is both a relevant agent of change and a major driver of planetary destruction, being thus cause and solution to multiple crises that affect humankind. Departing from the commodification of food as one root cause of the broken global food system, this text firstly situates and discusses the different schools of thought (or epistemologies) that have addressed the private/public, commodity/commons nature of goods in general, and then explores how those schools have considered food in particular. To do so, the author has defined five epistemologies, four academic (economic, legal, historical and political) and one non-academic (grassroots activists). The analysis highlights how those epistemologies have yielded incommensurable understandings and conflicting vocabularies, hence creating confusion in the socio-political realm and even rejection around the idea of food being considered as a commons. The economic epistemic regard has reigned over the others by applying an approach to commons, public and private goods that is theoretical, reductionist and ontological instead of phenomenological, therefore preventing or obscuring other scholarly or practical understanding of commons. When applied to food, the iron law of economics dictated that food, a private good based on rivalry and excludability, shall be better allocated through market mechanisms with absolute proprietary rights and valued as a pure commodity. This reductionist view collides with the plurality of meanings of food in different societies, civilisations and historical periods, as other schools of thought indicate. The author uses diverse epistemic tools to re-construct food as a commons, based on its essentiality to human beings and societies and the customary and contemporary praxis to produce, consume and govern food collectively through non-market mechanisms for more than 2000 centuries. As commoning has instituting power to create different political and legal frameworks, if food is valued differently the entire architecture of the global food system would change, as the grassroots activist school claims. Re-commoning food defies the legal and political scaffoldings that sustain the hegemony of market and state decision-makers over eaters and food producers and informs sustainable forms of food production (agro-ecology), new collective practices of governance (food democracies) and alternative policies to regain control over the food system (food sovereignty). Food as a commons is an agent of change with transformative power, no matter what economists say.

Subject Areas

food; commons; epistemologies of food; commons epistemologies; food narratives; food values; public good theory; academic schools; paradigms

Readers' Comments and Ratings (1)

Comment 1
Received: 8 May 2017
Commenter: Parke Wilde
Commenter's Affiliation: Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University
The commenter has declared there is no conflict of interests.
Comment: 1. This article criticizes a strict neoliberal economic perspective in which food is primarily produced and allocated through market mechanisms. It argues that the few exceptions acknowledged under this economic perspective for public goods and externalities, for example have been too narrowly applied. Instead, the author argues for "re-commoning food," giving a much greater role to the commons in the production and allocation of food.
2. The author could clarify whether the severe indictment of the neoliberal economic perspective applies to all economic approaches that appreciate a large role for markets in production and allocation of food, or just to really strict perspectives that assign little role to governments and commons. Elinor Ostrom, whose work heavily influenced this article, is a political scientist who received the Nobel prize in economics and one of the most-cited thinkers in the economics literature. Most economists appreciate the commons, in Ostrom's sense, while also appreciating the contribution of markets. No economic or social system has ever provided adequate food to large urban populations without using markets for key functions -- especially signals to producers about quantities needed and signals to consumers about quantities available. Several high-profile 20th Century attempts to do away with market signals have been disasters. In sum, without subtracting from the article's interest in commons, one could consider for completeness giving more discussion to a suitable role for markets in the food system.

3. The sections defining the commons are exceedingly complex. At times, they follow the tradition of Schelling or Ostrom, and at other times the definition seems more radical or even utopian. It was not clear to me if the multiple definitions were intended to be sufficiently consistent with each other that the author is using them all, or instead if both author and reader must choose from contrasting options the definition that is most correct. One could clarify which definitions ultimately are accepted or rejected, so that it becomes clearer what really is meant by the concluding recommendation for "re-commonizing" the food system.

4. Three important systems for making agriculture and food decisions in society are: markets, governments, and civil society decision-making mechanisms. Broadly, the article is arguing for a greater role for this third option. If this vision is to be practical, not merely utopian, it would be useful to consider multiple diverse concrete examples. In my own view, as you think of the wide variety of real-world conflicts in domestic and international food policy, you will find examples where the remedy is "more markets," others where the remedy is "more government," and other where the remedy is "more principled or ethical behavior enforced by norms in civil society." From this article, I only hear interest in the third of these.

5. For "re-commonizing" the food system, one could decide more firmly whether this involves making use of existing norms in civil society, or creating new ones. The article discusses existing norms in traditional societies, and could give more treatment to the role of norms in modern urbanized societies. To the extent that new norms must be created, the author may find the need to reflect more heavily on democratic government decision-making. For example, how would new norms oriented toward the commons, with reduced role for market-based decision-making in production and consumption of food, be instituted in societies where a large fraction of the public accepts the role of markets in the food system?
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