Food: a public commons?


World hunger continues to increase, affecting 777 million people in 2015 and 815 million in 2016. Would it help if we changed the way we look at food in our societies? That’s the idea of José Luis Vivero-Pol.

His 20 years in the field of food security and nutrition inspired José Luis Vivero-Pol, a researcher at UCL’s Centre for the Philosophy of Law and Earth and Life Institute, to become interested in the ‘status’ of food. ‘I worked extensively on food, agricultural and nutrition policy cases,’ Jose Luis Vivero-Pol says, ‘and everywhere I found the same situation: we consider world hunger and the rise in obesity public health problems, yet food access remains private. So it’s market forces that rule over food access. From production to distribution, everything is determined by the market and profit maximisation.

Food: a commodity

Food’s status has become entrenched over the past 70 years. ‘We’ve accepted that it be considered a commodity, whereas education and healthcare were placed under the purview of public policy. Access to them is guaranteed for citizens because it was decided both would be managed as a public commons. And yet education and healthcare aren’t more essential than food to living. That’s what made me question the situation.

To delve deeper, Jose Luis Vivero-Pol returned to university to write a thesis. ‘I wanted to think about these questions: What are the moral foundations for this conceptualisation? How do you implement change? What changes are possible? To whom do I speak about them?, etc.’ His plan: analyse research articles to identify lines of inquiry, and conduct case studies with food security and nutritional specialists.

50 million Europeans in a state of food insecurity

His first observation: while Europe is invested in countering hunger in the world, part of its own population has narrow or no access to food. ‘We estimate that Europe has 50 million people living in food insecurity’, Jose Luis Vivero-Pol says. ‘However, the right to food remains absent in major European treaties. The most recent United Nations agreement on sustainable development introduced a section on this right but it was eliminated owing to both pressure from the United States and European permissiveness. This is very paradoxical: Europe supports human rights but mainly via legal policy, and very little socially.

Don’t stigmatise people in need

There are of course many European initiatives to help people in need, but Jose Luis Vivero-Pol thinks they’re insufficient and stigmatising. ‘Going to a food bank is no small matter. It shows you’re in need, you have no other choice and you can’t otherwise feed your family. It’s degrading for many people. This doesn’t happen when these same people go to school or hospital, because education and healthcare are global commons; they feel they have the same access as everyone else. My idea is to find a system that provides access to food to the same effect as it provides access to healthcare and education, without being stigmatised, through “universal food coverage”.

State farmers

One of his ideas for this system begins with agri-food farms and industries that meet the food needs of public institutions. Thus farmers would be directly employed by the state. ‘Many professionals work for the state: teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, notaries, secretaries, etc. The agri-food sector could certainly join their ranks and supply school canteens, for example. Children would receive one meal a day paid for by their parents’ taxes. State bakeries could provide each citizen a daily loaf of bread.’ The idea isn’t to eliminate the private sector from the agri-food field but to govern and finance a private sector that would complement it to meet non-essential food needs.

champs de blé

Ban foodstuff speculation

Another crucial point,’ Jose Luis Vivero-Pol continues, ‘is to ban foodstuff speculation. Worldwide consensus prevents the creation of a human organ market and it does so because everyone agrees that such a market is neither ethical nor moral. I think it should be the same for food. Food is essential to human life, thus it’s neither ethical nor moral to speculate on foodstuffs, as is the case now. To change this, food management must no longer be under the supervision of the World Trade Organization, because food isn’t like other commodities. We have to imagine an entirely new system of governance.


Paradigm shift

How can this type of project be implemented? ‘First of all,’ Jose Luis Vivero-Pol says, ‘I think it’s essential to shift the paradigm and instil in everyone that food is a public and human commons, as was proposed for water by the European Citizens’ Initiative, as a way of changing mentalities. This was achieved in the past with the abolition of slavery, so it can work, on the condition that the social construct of food changes. But this takes time, half a century at least, so patience is necessary.

‘Next, I think the starting the movement requires reliance on alternative projects implemented by producers and “eaters”, because they're the most involved and already conscientious – buying groups, subscribers to weekly organic food deliveries, etc. They’re the driving force of this paradigm shift, they’re bypassing the supermarkets, they consume more conscientiously and, above all, they no longer simply consider food a commodity.

‘They’re also proposing initiatives very much in line with this paradigm shift: Ghent in Transition, supported by Michel Bauwens, one of the commons movement’s most respected intellectuals; Louvain Partnership Research on Ecological and Social Transition in which my co-supervisors Prof. Philippe Baret and Prof. Olivier de Schutter participate; Incroyables Comestibles de Belgique, which grows and shares vegetables in urban gardens throughout Louvain-la-Neuve.

Supportive policies

Finally, Jose Luis Vivero-Pol insists on the importance of implementing a polycentric system of governance. ‘That is, a state that plays the role of facilitator, that provides more space for citizens themselves to organise. This requires laws that facilitate the implementation of the vision to which we aspire. Currently, food and nutritional security legislation is biased in favour of big industries rather than small-scale producers and eaters, and thus must change’.

How to finance the paradigm shift remains to be seen. ‘It’s not that complicated when we analyse how the current market works. The private agri-food market is highly subsidised by the state through common agricultural policy. We’re talking approximately €50 billion a year. I’m proposing to simply change the flows and grant a greater percentage of these subsidies to initiatives that are more sustainable, smaller-scale and more focused on the commons.’

Elise Dubuisson


A glance at José Luis Vivero-Pol's bio

José Luis Vivero

1989-1996      Agricultural Engineer specialised in agricultural production, University of Córdoba (Spain)

1996                Development Cooperation Degree, Complutense University of Madrid (Spain)

1999                Geopolitics Degree, UCL

2004                Food Security Degree, Wageningen University and Research Center (Netherlands)

1999-2001      Agricultural Attaché of the EU Delegation in Ethiopia

2002-2009      Food Security Officer, FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

2009-2012      Regional Coordinator, Action Against Hunger in Central America

2012-2017      PhD in Agricultural Sciences and Bioengineering, UCL

Published on October 16, 2017