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March 23, 2012

Celebrating All We Share Three Times a Day

5 ways that food is a commons

Last weekend, OTC co-director Julie Ristau and I spoke at Chicago’s Good Food Festival , a celebration of local and organic food, sustainable agriculture, farmers, chefs, food artisans, families business people and everyone who cares “about the quality of their food and how it is produced.” The festival, held annually in Chicago and Los Angeles, is sponsored by “FamilyFarmed.org”:http://familyfarmed.org/

Our panel was titled, “Growing a Good Food Community”, and I outlined some of they ways that the principles of the commons apply to food and agriculture. This does not mean that farmers’ land should legally be owned by all of us; but rather that everyone is affected by the way we raise, process and distribute food.

Topsoil is a Commons

We’re not talking Soviet-style collectivization of agriculture here—simply an understanding that we all depend on the soil, like air and water, for basic human survival. Together we have a stake in protecting farmland’s fertility for ourselves and future generations. This is a long established tradition in the U.S. going back to the creation of soil and water conservation measures in the 1930s, and before that to indigenous people’s agricultural practices.

Priceless topsoil floating down the Mississippi River, which creates the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, is a violation of the commons—and of common sense. So is the depletion of nutrients in the soil through intensive commodity and chemical farming. So is the recent surge of speculation in farmland—in the Midwest, in Africa and around the world—which treats bountiful soil as an investment to be bought and sold, not as a source of food to feed everyone.

Sustainable Farming Practices are a Commons

For centuries, indigenous people and peasants around the world have invented agricultural traditions that preserve land, water and communities. One example is acequias—cooperatively-run irrigation systems in the American Southwest that have sustained farming communities for more than 400 years.

The modern world needs to rediscover these commons-based solutions, not only modeling our own agriculture innovations on them, but also assisting peasant farmers and indigenous communities to stay on the land to continue these traditions.

Scientific Knowledge is a Commons

New breakthroughs in agronomy, biology, botany, entomology, genetics, ecology and other scientific disciplines—much of it flowing from research paid for with our tax dollars—rightfully belong to all of us and should be used for the common good, not the bottom line of large agribusinesses. Equally important, more research money should be invested in the study and promotion of ecological agriculture, not further subsidization of industrial agriculture.

Cuisine is a Commons

One of the humanity’s greatest creative achievements—the equal of language, music and architecture—is the food we eat. From sushi to souvlaki, gumbo to gruyere, we enjoy a feast of great things that are the shared inheritance of humanity, very few of which are patented, copyrighted or trademarked. Indeed, Michael Pollan in his book Food Rules: An Eater’s Guide says, “It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos or Pringles.)”

Recipes are a Commons

Exchanging recipes is a favorite custom in almost every culture—and a brilliant example of the commons in action. Everyone benefits from this sharing that flourished outside the market economy.