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Nature and food commodification. Food sovereignty: Rethinking the relation between human and nature

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Abstract

The article aims to explore the link between commodification of nature and commodification of food. The latter is in fact one of the most negative and controversial aspects of nature commodification. The examination of food commodification represents fertile ground for investigating the relationship between humans and nature. In this context, food sovereignty provides a useful paradigm that not only serves as an alternative to the current food regime, but also allows for the experiencing a different kind of relationship between humans and nature. Food sovereignty represents a unique social movement in which community, political, and cultural rights are intertwined with the issue of food. Through its multidisciplinary approach and its strongly ethical component, food sovereignty constitutes an opportunity in order to contrast the progressive commodification of nature and of the environment.
To cite text:
Porcheddu, Federica (2022), “Nature and Food Commodicaon. Food Sovereignty: Rethinking the
Relaon between Human and Nature”, Philosophy and Society 33 (1): 189–217.
Federica Porcheddu
NATURE AND FOOD COMMODIFICATION.
FOOD SOVEREIGNTY: RETHINKING THE RELATION
BETWEEN HUMAN AND NATURE
1
ABSTRACT
The arcle aims to explore the link between commodicaon of nature
and commodicaon of food. The laer is in fact one of the most negave
and controversial aspects of nature commodicaon. The examinaon
of food commodicaon represents ferle ground for invesgang the
relaonship between humans and nature. In this context, food sovereignty
provides a useful paradigm that not only serves as an alternave to the
current food regime, but also allows for the experiencing a dierent kind
of relaonship between humans and nature. Food sovereignty represents
a unique social movement in which community, polical, and cultural
rights are intertwined with the issue of food. Through its muldisciplinary
approach and its strongly ethical component, food sovereignty constutes
an opportunity in order to contrast the progressive commodicaon of
nature and of the environment.
Introducon
Food is an essential element for the survival of human beings and the most ba-
sic human need. However, access to food is still one of the most serious prob-
lems in contemporary society. As reported by the FAO:
The latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,
published today, estimates that almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019
– up by 10 million from 2018, and by nearly 60 million in ve years. High costs
and low aordability also mean billions cannot eat healthily or nutritiously.
(FAO 2020)
1 This article is the result of my 3 months research as a post doc researcher at the Cen-
tre for Advanced Studies (CAS SEE) of the University of Rijeka in 2020.
KEYWORDS
human, nature, food,
commodification, food
sovereignty, ethics
Federica Porcheddu: Phd in Moral PhilosphyMember of the international research group Arte e Riconoscimento
(HIRC-University of Perugia), Italian referent and member of the scientific Committee for the Cahiers
d’études lévinassiennes; federica_porcheddu@libero.it.
PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIETY
VOL. 33, NO. 1, 1–278
UDK 179
https://doi.org/10.2298/FID2201189P
Original Scientific Article
Received 10.01.2021. Accepted 26.05.2021.
NATURE AND FOOD COMMODIFICATION190 │ FEDERICA PORCHEDDU
The global outbreak of Coronavirus has made the contradictions of the
current food regime even more evident. Social and political inequalities have
emerged even more clearly as the no longer negligible symptom of a seriously
ill society, which, although advanced and evolved, does not seem to be able to
guarantee the freedom and fundamental rights of the individual. The access
to food during the pandemic turned out to be one of the biggest problems still
unresolved at a global scale.
As reported in the UNSG Policy brief:
The COVID-19 pandemic is a health and human crisis threatening the food
security and nutrition of millions of people around the world. Hundreds of
millions of people were already suering from hunger and malnutrition be-
fore the virus hit and, unless immediate action is taken, we could see a global
food emergency. In the longer term, the combined eects of COVID-19 itself,
as well as corresponding mitigation measures and the emerging global reces-
sion could, without large-scale coordinated action, disrupt the functioning
of food systems. Such disruption can result in consequences for health and
nutrition of a severity and scale unseen for more than half a century. (UNSG
Policy brief 2020)
The commodication of food is at the root of the problems of malnutrition
and hunger in the world.
As Magdo points out “The contradiction between plentiful global food
supplies and widespread malnutrition and hunger arises primarily from food
being considered a commodity, just like any other” (Magdo 2012: 15). As
amply demonstrated by the theory of food regimes developed by McMichael
and Friedmann, food as a mere commodity is the result of an economic and
political process typical of capitalist society. The birth and expansion of neo-
liberalism have completely transformed the global food regime, resulting in
the near absolute commodication of food and its transformation from a vi-
tal component of life into an instrument for speculative investment and prot
at any cost, which do not benet the producer or the consumer (Zerbe 2019).
The commodication of food is one of the most negative and controversial
aspects of the commodication of nature, having a devastating impact not only
on the life of human beings but also on the entire ecosystem.
In this regard, for many years now, food sovereignty has been ghting for
democratic access to food as a strategy to reduce hunger, malnutrition and rural
poverty. As it is well known, food sovereignty constitutes a completely dierent
paradigm from food security. In fact, the concept of food sovereignty emphasis-
es that the issue related to access to food is not at all a problem of insucient
trade, a simple problem of distribution or allocation, rather a matter of rights.
This is a crucial point because the distinction between the two concepts rests
on a diametrically opposite conception of food. Avoiding the issue of social
control within the production and consumption system, the concept of food
security remains tied to a vision of food as a mere commodity. Dening food
as the fundamental right of every human being, food sovereignty, proposes a
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 191
de-commodied vision of food and represents an alternative paradigm both
to food security and to the current food system.
The article aims to examine the concept of food commodication starting
from the more general concept of commodication and neoliberalisation of
nature. The rst section will be devoted to analysing the traditional concept
of commodication and neoliberalisation of nature in the academic literature.
The second section will deal with examining the concept of food commodi-
cation through the lens of the theory of food regimes, showing how the com-
modication process is closely interconnected with the economic and political
mechanisms of the current capitalist society.
Finally, the last section will examine the fundamental concepts of the food
sovereignty movement showing how it is able to propose a de-commodied
vision of food and a dierent perspective on the relationship between man
and nature which relies on a Rights-based approach emphasising at the same
time the most delicate aspect (i.e the concept of sovereignty) for its concrete
application on a global approach.
1. Commodicaon of Nature. Denions
A commodity is, in the rst place, an object outside us, a thing
that by its properties satises human wants of some sort or
another. The nature of such wants, whether for instance they
spring from the stomach or from folly makes no dierence.
Karl Marx
The commodication and neoliberalisation of nature can be considered as the
two sides of the same coin resulting from the capitalist system of production.
The commodication and neoliberalisation of nature are, in fact, the two main
processes through which the relationship between man and nature is experi-
enced and conceived in the capitalist system of production.
To penetrate these two processes has a twofold function: (i) to highlight the
negative eects of commodication of food and nature; (ii) to identify possible
alternatives in order to promote a sustainable development and an equitable
distribution of natural resources.
Due to a rich and growing literature on commodication it is dicult to
nd a single denition or conceptualisation. The same goes for the concept
of nature’s neoliberalisation, “a new and fast-growing geographical research
about neoliberal approaches to governing human interactions with the physi-
cal environment” (Castree 2008a: 131), for the most part based on case study2.
2 As the recent research by critical geographers shows so well, the last thirty years
have seen an ever greater variety of biophysical phenomena in more and more parts of
the world being subject to neoliberal thought and practice. To oer some examples:
Manseld (2004a; 2004b) has investigated new sheries quota systems in the North
NATURE AND FOOD COMMODIFICATION192 │ FEDERICA PORCHEDDU
According to Appadurai’s more generic notion of commodication: a com-
modity is anything exchanged or exchangeable. (Appadurai 1986). Other schol-
ars, such as Ben Page for example, insist on the role of money in the commod-
ication process. He states that commodication is “the process during which
a thing that previously circulated outside monetary exchange is brought into
the nexus of a market” (Ben Page 2005: 295). Similarly, Castree denes com-
modication as “a process where qualitatively dierent things are rendered
equivalent and saleable through the medium of money” (Castree 2003: 278)
and, Peter Jackson (Jackson 1999: 96) argues that commodication refers “lit-
erally, to the extension of the commodity form to goods and services that were
not previously commodied”. On the contrary, in her study of water supply in
England and Welsh, Karen Bakker argues that “private ownership and markets
do not necessarily entail commodication”, rather resource commodication
is a contested, partial and transient process, commodication is distinct from
privatisation” (Bakker 2005: 543).
However, despite the existence of several denitions, it bears noting that
all scholars agree that the commodication process is not something intrinsic
to the things, but is rather an assigned quality brought about through an active
process. As Kopyto puts it, commodication:
is best looked upon as a process of becoming rather than as an all-or-none state
of being. Its expansion takes place in two ways: (a) with respect to each thing,
by making it ex-changeable for more and more other things, and (b) with re-
spect to the system as a whole, by making more and more dierent things more
widely exchangeable. (Kopyto 1986: 73)
This means that the use value of anything is systematically displaced by the
exchange value. Prudham distinguishes two fundamental and interconnected
aspects in the commodication process: stretching and deepening. The former
is “the development of relations of exchange spanning across greater distance
of space and time”, the latter is “the systemic provision of more and more types
of things in the commodity-form” (Prudham 2009: 125).
Pacic as a form of marketisation and enclosure; Bury (2005) has examined the sell-o
of mineral resources in Peru to overseas investors; Bakker (2004; 2005) has scrutinised
the post-1989 privatisation of British water supply and sewage treatment, and also wa-
ter mercantilisacion in Spain (Bakker, 2002); Robertson (2000; 2004; 2006) has looked
at the recent sale of wetland ecological services in the mid-western USA; Nik Heynen
and Harold Perkins (2005) have explored why and with what eects public forests have
been privatised in ‘post-Fordist’ Milwaukee; McCarthy (2004) has investigated the new
‘right to pollute’ among certain rms in the NAFTA area, and also community forest
projects in North America (McCarthy 2005b; 2006); Prudham (2004) has traced the dire
consequences of ‘regulatory rollback’ in the area of drinking water testing in Ontario;
Kathleen McAfee (2003) has examined corporate attempts worldwide to commodify
the genetic material of plants, animals, and insects; Haughton (2002) has examined the
dierential character of national neoliberal water governance frameworks globally; and
Laila Smith (2004) has explored the eects of implementing cost recovery measures in
the management of Cape Town’s water supply. (in Castree 2008a: 136–137)
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 193
In his article ‘Commodifying what nature?’ Castree develops a synthesis
of the concept of commodication which essentially refers to a Marxist ap-
proach. According to his analysis commodication is a process through which
qualitatively dierent things are made equivalent and exchangeable through
the medium of money. By taking on a general quality of exchange value, they
become commensurable (Castree 2003: 278).
On a deeper level, as Castree aptly showed, commodication implies sev-
eral interconnected aspects, which cannot be considered independently of one
another. These aspects can be summarised as follows: a) privatisation, which is
the assigning of a legal title over a commodity to a particular actor; b) alienabil-
ity, described as the capacity of a given commodity to be physically and morally
separated from sellers; c) individuation, separating a commodity from support-
ing context through legal and material boundaries; d) abstraction, which is the
consideration of individual things as equivalent based on classiable similarities;
e) valuation, monetising the value of a commodity, and nally, f) displacement,
spatiotemporal separation, obscuring origins and relations. The commodica-
tion process is produced as an interrelation of all these aspects and therefore
implies a dynamic process and not a static quality of things. (Castree 2003).
Similarly, Appadurai writes that “the commodity is not one kind of thing
rather than another, but one phase in the life of some things … things can move
in and out of the commodity state, that such movements can be slow or fast,
reversible or terminal, normative or deviant” (Appadurai 1986: 14–17).
Considerable scholarship has explored the various ways in which highly
specic, lively and unruly, material and contested ‘natures’, including water
(Bakker 2003; Swyngedouw 2005); sh (McEvoy 1986; Manseld 2003); trees
(Prudham 2003; 2005); wetlands (Robertson 2006); fossil fuels and minerals
(Bridge 2000; Bridge, Wood 2005); genes (McAfee 2003); organic foods (Guth-
man 2002; 2004) are extracted, cultivated, rened, processed, represented and
made to circulate in the commodity-form, and with all manner of political and
ecological implications (Prudham 2009: 129).
It therefore seems fair to state that, despite the dierent meanings through
which the term of commodication is understood by various scholars, it is possi-
ble to isolate a fundamental aspect which – in my opinion – represents the fun-
damental constitutive feature of this concept: namely, the notion of abstraction.
Through abstraction it is in fact possible to dissolve the qualitative dier-
ences between things by making them equivalent or commensurable while, at
the same time, dissolving their specicity. As Prudham put it, social relations
of abstraction are necessary in order for discrete things to be rendered com-
mensurable and exchangeable, particularly where money is involved” (Prudham
2009: 129). Moreover, dierence “is both dissolved but also renegotiated and
reproduced in legible forms” (Prudham 2009: 129). It is through this mecha-
nism that nature becomes governable, calculable and legible.
The commodication of nature involves a change in the way nature is con-
ceptualised, and therefore, discursively represented. This process implies that
the ecosystem is transformed by and for production. (A striking example is the
NATURE AND FOOD COMMODIFICATION194 │ FEDERICA PORCHEDDU
conversion of forests into plantations for ber or other products). This entails
that nature is treated as a capitalistic value. Natural entities become a vehicle
for the realisation of prot and are subject to the pressure of the market, where
the accumulation of wealth overrides other concerns. This results in putting
a price on the ecosystem while forgetting to put a price on its exploitation.
According to this perspective, nature is not conceived as an essential element
for human life, but rather as a means to be possessed in order to be guaran-
teed the greatest possible prot. The commodication of nature implies a vi-
olent act of appropriation by human beings as well as an intrinsic denial of its
systemic structure that systematically separates most of us from a real contact
with the biophysical world on which we are, nonetheless, utterly dependent.
This in turn obscures the social and environmental relations of production,
allowing for nature’s homologation. As Kopyto points out, the production of
commodities is also a cognitive and cultural process … dierences in whether
and when a thing is a commodity reveal a moral economy that stands behind
the objective economy of transactions (Kopyto 1986: 64).
Thus, from a normative and ethical standpoint, one of the most negative
implications is that the consumer is often not aware of what kind of social, en-
vironmental and power relations are being reproduced and supported trough
the purchase of any commodity. As David Harvey says, “the grapes that sit on
supermarket shelves are mute; we cannot see the ngerprints of exploitation
upon them or tell immediately what part of the world they are from” (Harvey
1990: 423). This phenomenon has been dened by Marx as the “fetishism”
of the commodity. Similarly, another essential aspect that is obscured in the
commodication process is the amount of human labor required to produce
a certain commodity. The exchange value, thanks to which the circulation of
commodities is made possible, never reects the human labor necessary to
produce a particular commodity.
Particular attention must be paid to this aspect, since the reverse process,
dened as de-commodication, can only be achieved by reversing the terms of
this relationship. In fact, according to Sayer, consumption is a form of de-com-
modication in so far as it reverses the ontology of things from exchange val-
ue back to use value.
With all this in mind, and going beyond the purely formal aspects of the
commodication process itself, it is necessary to contextualise the commod-
ication of nature in a broader spectrum of relations that involves both the
political and the economic aspects.
As Appadurai writes: “economic exchange creates value. Value is embodied
in commodities that are exchanged. Focusing on the things that are exchanged,
rather than simply on the forms or functions of exchange, makes it possible to
argue that what creates the link between exchange and value is politics, con-
strued broadly” (Appadurai 1986: 3).
Politics, private ownership and power relations play indeed a fundamental
role in the process of commodication of nature; in fact, “politics is the link be-
tween regimes of value and specic ows of commodities” (Appadurai 1986: 57).
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 195
1.2 Neoliberalisaon of Nature
As for commodication of nature, the neoliberal approach or market environ-
mentalism is the specic policy, governance, that involves natural regulation
through forms of commodication (e.g. Ecotourism, territorialisation). Accord
-
ing to this perspective natural resources are more eciently allocated if treated
as economic goods, thus, market is the principal mechanism of allocation. In
particular, as we will see later, the market, corporations, play a fundamental
role in the process of commodication of food.
Nature is protected through investment and consumption (Hartwick, Peet
2003), and conservation cannot be achieved without addressing the dicult
and systemic inequities and power relationships that are inextricably linked to
so many of our global environmental problems today (McAfee 1999).
Finance capital in the neoliberal era has penetrated Braudel’s ‘structures of
everyday life’ and in so doing has sought to remake human and extra-human
nature in its own image. Beginning in the 1970s, nance capital has decisively
reshaped the rules of reproduction for the totality of nature–society relations –
extending, horrically, to the molecular relations of life itself. (Moore 2011: 14)
Prudham and McCarthy claim that “neoliberalism is also an environmen-
tal project, and that is necessarily so” (McCarthy, Prudham 2004: 277, their
emphasis). According to their study this nexus is better understood through a
historico-geographically specic perspective. “Only specic case studies can
unpack the complex interplay between neoliberal projects, environmental pol-
itics, and environmental change” (McCarthy, Prudham 2004: 279).
The issue of nature’s neoliberalisation has been mostly addressed by schol-
ars on the basis of specic empirical case studies. This method makes it more
dicult to identify a single denition of this concept.
Notwithstanding, as Castree has shown in his study, it is possible to iden-
tify commonalities in the various studies that can be summarised as follows:
privatisation; marketisation; deregulation; market proxies in the residual pub
-
lic sector and, nally, the construction of anking mechanism in civil society
(Castree 2008a: 142).
As Bakker has shown, “neoliberalisation unfolds as a range of strategies,
which vary depending on the target and type of socio-nature” (Bakker 2010: 725).
This therefore means that neoliberalisation, as a multiple dimensions pro-
cess, varies according to the type of nature that is considered (i.e. private prop-
erty rights are more dicult to establish for some types of resources – such as
ow resources – than others). Each resource, as Bakker points out, implies a
dierentiated neoliberalisation strategy. “Specic neoliberalisation processes
will have very dierent trajectories and eects when articulated with dierent
types of socio-natures” (Bakker 2010: 726).
A crucial element of the neoliberalisation of nature, from a strictly environ-
mental point of view, is the fact that it is constituted by an apparent paradox.
In fact, as Castree points out:
NATURE AND FOOD COMMODIFICATION196 │ FEDERICA PORCHEDDU
These logics show that ‘neoliberalism’ is, in environmental terms, an apparent
paradox: in giving full reign to capital accumulation it seeks to both protect
and degrade the biophysical world, while manufacturing new natures in cases
where that world is physically fungible. In short, nature’s neoliberalisation is
about conservation and its two antitheses of destroying existing and creating
new biophysical resources. It is not reducible to one or other rationale alone.
(Castree 2008a: 150).
Similarly, Bakker argues that:
The neoliberalization of socio-nature must thus be understood as, simultaneous-
ly, a disciplinary mode of regulation, and an emergent regime of accumulation
that redenes and co-constitutes socio-natures. A central irony of these pro-
cesses is that they purport to present a solution to environmental crises which
capitalism has played a role in creating. (Bakker 2010: 726–727).
Framed this way, neoliberalism would then be the way in which capitalism
faces and tries to resolve its internal contradictions as well as the way the way
in which our relationship with nature is experienced. In the words of Heynen
and Robbins, neoliberalism capitalism “drives the politics, economics and cul-
ture of the world system, providing the context and direction for how humans
aect and interact with non-human nature and with one another” (Heynen,
Robbins 2005: 5).
Commodication and neoliberalisation are not the same thing, but two in-
terconnected aspects, two internal processes of the same capitalistic system.
The commodication of nature constitutes a pivotal moment of capitalist
society, an emblem of what Marx has dened as a metabolic rift, an irrepa-
rable rift between nature and society, “in the interdependent process of the
social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself”
(Marx 1981: 449).
The metabolic rift underlies both the material and epistemic relations of capi-
talism. In separating agriculture from its natural foundations, the metabolic rift
informs the episteme through which we analyse the value relations of commod-
ity production. The abstraction of agriculture, and therefore the foundations of
social production, means that value relations organise agriculture, and it comes
to be understood in these terms. (McMichael 2009: 162)
Covering 4.4 billion hectares, over 50 percent of the earth’s surface, agri-
culture remains today the dominant nexus between human society and nature
(Kareiva et al. 2007).
For this reason, it can be said that the commodication of food constitutes
one of the most evident and negative aspects of the commodication of na-
ture, although, unfortunately, not the only one.
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 197
2. Food Commodicaon through the Lens of Food Regimes Theory
The commodication of food is perhaps one of the most problematic and con-
troversial aspects of the commodication of nature and a determining factor
of the current global food crisis.
According to the FAO report, in 2018 more than 820 million people suf-
fered from hunger. Nine million more than in 2017. The Global Report on
Food Crises 2020 appears even more dramatic due to the covid emergency;
here we read in fact:
The number of people battling acute hunger and suering from malnutrition is
on the rise yet again. In many places, we still lack the ability to collect reliable
and timely data to truly know the magnitude and severity of food crises grip-
ping vulnerable populations. And the upheaval that has been set in motion by
the COVID-19 pandemic may push even more families and communities into
deeper distress. (Global Report on Food Crises 2020)
An increase that has proven steady over the past three years. These data
highlights the fragility of the global food system and the need for its urgent re-
form. According to some Scholars the food system is broken (Vivero-Pol 2017).
To others, instead, “the food system is not broken, rather, it is working precise-
ly as a capitalist food system is supposed to work”. (Holt-Gimenéz 2017: 56).
The current crises in the globalising food system “are clearly connected,
then, to the persistence of neoliberalism as a motivating ideology legitimating
the unfettered commodication of food production and distribution and un-
dermining national and local control over food policies” (Andrée, Ayres, Bo-
sia, Massicotte 2014: 34).
Grasping the reasons and dynamics behind the commodication of food
is of primary importance for at least two reasons. Primarily, to propose an al-
ternative food regime that can tackle world hunger and allow us to redene
and rethink our relationship with nature in a way that is not that of domina-
tion or possession, based primarily on the superiority of the human being over
the natural world.
Secondly, to shed light on how food is produced, consumed, allocated and
wasted is also a way of understanding our relationship with the natural world,
the position of man in relation to nature and therefore, to rethink it. Perhaps
this might mean getting rid of the traditional anthropocentric vision and “in-
terrogate the status of non-humans as political subjects” (Bakker 2010: 718).
But let’s proceed step by step.
At the outset, it can be said that the commodication of food occurs accord-
ing to the same process as the commodication of the natural world. It is the
same dialectic according to which the use value is systematically displaced by
the exchange value. As we have seen in the previous pages, the commodication
process is not a static process, rather a process of becoming characterised by
several interconnected phases. These aspects were thus identied by Castree
in his article ‘Commodifyng what nature?’ in the following way: privatisation;
NATURE AND FOOD COMMODIFICATION198 │ FEDERICA PORCHEDDU
alienability; individuation; abstraction; valuation and displacement. All these
aspects show how the notion of commodication implies a dynamic process,
as acutely shown by Kopyto, which take place in two ways: ‘(a) with respect
to each thing, by making it exchangeable for more and more other things, and
(b) with respect to the system as a whole, by making more and more dierent
things more widely exchangeable’ (Kopyto 1986: 73).
In the recent Literature the issue of food commodication has been ad-
dressed through the lenses of the theory the theory of food regimes (FRT)3
proposed by Mc Michael and Friedmann. This theory represents a fundamen-
tal contribution but, as we will see, it is not the only way to deal with the phe-
nomenon of food commodication. According to this theory, the concept of
food as a mere commodity is the result of an economic and political process.
In fact, food regime analysis emerged to explain the strategic role of agri-
culture and food in the construction of the world capitalist economy (McMi-
chael 2009: 139).
According to McMichael:
Food regime concept is a key to unlock not only structured moments and tran-
sitions in the history of capitalist food relations, but also the history of cap-
italism itself. That is the food regime is an important optic on the multiple
determinations embodied in the food commodity, as a genus fundamental to
capitalist history. As such, the food regime concept allows us to refocus from
the commodity as object to the commodity as relation, with denite geo-po-
litical, social, ecological, and nutritional relations at signicant historical mo-
ments. (McMichael 2009: 163)
For the purposes of this article, I nd it particularly useful to address the
commodication of food through the FRT for two reasons. The rst is that,
as with the commodication of nature, most of the literature on food com-
modication is based on case studies, thus it is not an easy task to identify a
single denition. The second reason is that the theory of food regimes allows
us to highlight the crucial link between economics and politics in the com-
modication process.
More recently the most programmatic and extensive (re-)statements of food
regime analysis have come from McMichael in his article A food regime genealogy.
According to his analysis, it is possible to identify three food regimes in the
history of capitalism. A rst food regime from 1870 to 1914, a second regime
from 1945-1973, and a third corporate food regime from the 1980s proposed
by McMichael within the period of neoliberal globalisation and described as
the ‘corporate-environmental’ regime by Friedmann (2005).
3 The concept of food regime was rst articulated by Harriett Friedmann and Philip
McMichael in 1989 in their essay Agriculture and the State System. The rise and decline
of national agricultures, 1870 to the present.
The existence of a third, neoliberal food regime is contested among some food regime
theorists – see McMichael (2009), Friedmann (2009) and Burch and Lawrence (2009)
for an overview of this debate
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 199
What – according to McMichael – constitutes the distinctive feature of the
various food regimes is:
the instrumental role of food in securing global hegemony – in the rst, Brit-
ain’s ‘workshop of the world’ project linked the fortunes of an emergent indus-
trial capitalism to expanding cheap food supply chains across the world; in the
second, the United States used food politically to create alliances and markets
for its agribusiness. (McMichael 2013: 276)
The ‘corporate food regime’ is another moment. It denes a set of rules in-
stitutionalising corporate power in the world food system (McMichael 2009:
153). As the current food regime, it expresses a new moment in the era of cap-
italism and its distinguishing mark lies in the the politics of neo-liberalism.
This process began with the “European enlightenment and the transition
to capitalism, accelerated under the British imperialism and the colonial proj-
ect, and reached its zenith in the contemporary era with the nancialisation of
food itself” (Capra, Mattei 2015; Vivero-Pol 2017, as cited in Zerbe 2019: 157).
The third corporate food regime, as Holt-Giménez points out:
emerged from the global economic shocks of the 1970s and 1980s ushering in
the current period of neo-liberal capitalist expansion.During the 1980s Struc-
tural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) broke down taris, dismantled national mar-
keting boards, eliminated price guarantees and destroyed national agricultural
research and extension systems in the Global South. These policies were em-
bedded in international treaties through bilateral and international Free Trade
Agreements (FTAs). The establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO)
in 1995, and its Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), institutionalized the process of
agricultural liberalization on a global scale by restricting the rights of sovereign
states to regulate food and agriculture. (Holt- Giménez 2011: 111)
Framed in this context, the commodication of food as a theoretical and
material process was accelerated by two recent developments: the expansion
of intellectual property rights and the dramatic acceleration in the nanciali-
sation of food and agricultural markets (Zerbe 2019: 157).
As De Schutter observed:
What we are seeing now is that these nancial markets have developed massive-
ly with the arrival of these new nancial investors, who are purely interested in
the short-term monetary gain and are not really interested in the physical thing
– they never actually buy the ton of wheat or maize; they only buy a promise
to buy or to sell. The result of this nancialisation of the commodities market
is that the prices of the products respond increasingly to a purely speculative
logic. This explains why in very short periods of time we see prices spiking or
bubbles exploding, because prices are less and less determined by the real match
between supply and demand. (De Schutter cited in Livingston 2012)
According to Bursch and Lawrence “the dominance of nance capital, which
is symptomatic of the latest phase of capitalist development, has led to the
emergence of a nancialised food regime” (Bursch, Lawrence 2009: 275).
NATURE AND FOOD COMMODIFICATION200 │ FEDERICA PORCHEDDU
In the corporate food regime food has both an exchange value ( as com-
modity) and a use value (to feed people). The prioritisation of exchange value
to foster accumulation over the use value to feed people becomes the central
goal of the commodication of food (Zerbe 2019: 156).
As it can be seen, the question of commodication is substantially traced
back to the more general but at the same time fundamental phenomenon of
abstraction in this case too. The use value, food as an essential element for hu-
man beings, is constantly overshadowed by the exchange value.
This brings out a fundamental consequence, acutely pointed out by Harvey:
When you go to the supermarket you can see the exchange values [prices] but
you can’t see or measure the human labor embodied in the commodities directly.
It is that embodiment of human labor that has a phantom-like presence on the
supermarket shelves. Think about that the next time you are in a supermarket
surrounded with these phantoms! (Harvey 2018: 59)
What makes food a commodity is the reduction of its multiple values and
dimensions to that of market price, being prot maximisation the only driving
ethos that justies the market-driven allocation of such an essential element
of human survival (Vivero-Pol 2017).
This means that food, instead of being considered as an essential element
for the life of human beings, is a commodity that can only be purchased by
those who have enough money.
In the globalised food regime, food as a commodity is connected to injus-
tice, labour, lack, hunger, discrimination and violence.
The abstraction of agriculture through its incorporation and reproduction
within global capital circuits imparts a ‘food from nowhere’ (Bové, Dufour
2000) character to the corporate food regime (McMichael 2013: 287). As I
pointed out above, abstraction constitutes the fundamental trait of commodi-
cation. In this case, the abstraction of agriculture implies a constant disavow-
al of natural biodiversity. This means that any food can be grown anywhere in
the world through the use of intensive agriculture, greenhouses, or genetically
modied products, regardless of the eects such methods have on ecosystems
and climate change.
This abstraction cannot be disentangled from the power of corporations4
which have long played a central role in the international food system. With
an ever greater amount of food crossing international borders, it is not sur-
prising that global food corporations have become central actors in the sys-
tem (Clapp 2011). The power of corporations led to what McMichael dened
a ‘world agriculture’, namely not the entirety of agriculture across the earth
4 Grain giants ADM, Cargill, and Bunge took control of 80 percent of the world’s
grain (Vorley 2003). Chemical corporations Monsanto and DuPont together appropri-
ated 65 percent of the global maize seed market (Action Aid International Ghana 2006):
four companies – Tyson, Cargill, Swift, and National Beef Packing Company control
83.5 percent of the US beef supply (Hendrickson, Heernan 2007)
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 201
but a transnational space of corporate agricultural and food relations integrat-
ed by commodity circuits. Corporate circuits, in fact, frame the global trans-
formation of social, bio-political and ecological relations (McMichael 2013).
Value relations organise not only the agricultural sector, rather almost ev-
erything which turns into commodity form. As Moore argues “ theory value
identies a ‘deep structure’ of historical capitalism that gives priority to la-
bor productivity, and mobilises extra-human nature without regard for the
socio-ecological conditions of its (uncapitalised) reproduction, we have more
than a simple restatement of the problem” (Moore 2011: 19–20).
Food as a commodity is totally emancipated from any relation with space
and time. But this emancipation from space and time generates a paradox of
no small importance. On the one hand, and without any limitation, food is
constantly available regardless of what season it is. On the other, it is totally
isolated from the social and environmental context. In this way the food is not
only removed from the local and temporal context in which it was produced
but, at the same time, any relationship between the food and the consum-
er and between the consumer and the producer is lost, canceled. This means
that “consumers are unable to look back on the food’s production history, and
consequently they are equally unable to see how their own food consumption
inuences nature and society. The relations are lost” (Co 2006: 89). We eat
information. Consumers’ knowledge about food is in most cases reduced to
what can be read on food declarations (Co 2006: 92).
But the corporate food regime is a political construct rather than an inev-
itable condition.
As McMichael once again aptly showed:
The corporate food regime is a political construct, and its beneciaries consti-
tute only about a quarter of the world’s population, despite the widening eects
of social exclusion, through the appropriation of resources (material, intellectu-
al, and spiritual), and the privatization of public goods. At the same time, these
eects generate the conditions for overcoming the social and ecological crisis
of the corporate food regime, in resistance movements dedicated to the social
re-embedding of markets. (McMichael 2013: 290)
As it can be seen, McMichael’s approach tends to primarily enhance the
political aspect in the formation and reproduction of food regimes. Thus, this
approach identies stable periods of capital accumulation associated with
particular congurations of geopolitical power, conditioned by forms of ag-
ricultural production and consumption relations within and across national
spaces (McMichael 2013).
2.2 New Perspecve on Food Regimes Theory
In the extant debate, Mark Tilzey has recently proposed a dierent reading
of the food regimes theory in his article “Food Regimes, Capital, State, and
Class: Friedmann and McMichael Revisited” (2019). According to the author,
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although the theory developed by McMichael and Friedmann has been pivot-
al to our thinking about the relation between capitalism, the state, and agri-
culture, it is possible to encounter some problems that would undermine the
solidity of their theory.
Specically, Tilzey states that there are some aspects that are not entirely
explicit in the theory of food regimes but which are of particular importance
for understanding the formation and reproduction of food regimes.
First, they provide no explicit denition of capitalism. Second, and con-
joined to the above:
their conceptualisation of the relation between capitalism and the modern state
is seriously under-theorised. This concerns their neglect of the twin aspects
of this relation that enable us to make sense of both entities in their dialecti-
cal co-constitution: the ‘separation in unity’ of the institutional spheres of the
‘economy’ and ‘polity’, and the complementary accumulation and legitimation
functions of the state in relation to capital. (Tilzey 2019: 234)
Third, “Friedmann and McMichael either neglect, or deploy, a decient
class analysis, especially concerning inter-class ‘struggle’” (Tilzey 2019: 234).
As Tilzey states, in the FRT there is an unresolved tension between struc-
ture (which denes positions to the social practices of those occupying these
positions) and agency (conceived primarily in terms of the decisions and ac-
tions of individual land managers) that implies an abstract conception of cap-
italism. This means that in the FRT there is a dichotomy between terms rather
than a dialectical relationship between the state-capital relations from which
derives an understanding of the modern state as nothing but the contingent
outcome outcome of a sectoral articulation between agriculture and industry.
He suggest by contrast, “that the modern state is better conceptualised itself
as a social relation” (Tilzey 2019: 234).
This unresolved tension and their omission to present a theoretical basis for
conceptualising the dialectic between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, underlies, to a
considerable degree, the great schism that emerged in the 1990s, within rural
geography and sociology, between the ‘structuralism’ of ‘abstract globalism’
and the ‘post-structural’ frame of ‘abstract localism’. Further, it was this ‘ab-
stract globalism’ which mandated, and continues to mandate, its mirror image
‘abstract localism’. Below, and through the development of ‘Political Marxian’
and related approaches, we will attempt to vitiate this dualism of the two ‘ab-
stractions’ by means of revised conceptions of capitalism, class, agency and
state. (Tilzey 2019: 232)
The core hypothesis supported by Tilzey is that class relations play a fun-
damental role in order to understand the FRT.
Tilzey’s position aims to pinpoint a new causal basis for food regimes
through the use of Political Marxism, in alliance with neo-Gramscian Inter-
national Political Economy. This approach is aimed at supporting the idea that
the modern state and capitalism must be conceived in terms of class relations,
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 203
making a dierent periodisation possible. This new and revised theorisation is
conceivable through an eminently Marxian understanding of capitalism “which
takes as its starting point Marx’s desire, non-reductively, to understand capi-
talism in terms of the totality of social relations” (Tilzey 2019: 233).
This is the fundamental novelty brought by Tilzey to McMichael and Fried-
mann’s theory. Not only the hypothesis of the existence of a fth food regimes
characteristic of contemporary society, but above all the idea that the forma-
tion and reproduction of food regimes steams from social-property relations in
the hegemonic state (in the world system) and the international articulation of
these relations with receptive and complementary class interests in other states.
A dierent periodisation of food regimes derives from this interpretation:
1) The First National Capitalist Food Regime 1750-1846; 2) The First Interna-
tional, or ‘Liberal’, Food Regime 1846-1870; 3) The Second International, or
‘Imperial’, Food Regime 1870-1930; 4) The Third International, or ‘Political
Productivist’, Food Regime 1930–1980; 5) The Fourth International, or ‘Neo-
liberal’, Food Regime 1980-2010; 6) The Fifth International, or ‘Post-Neolib-
eral’, Food Regime.
The conceptual core of Tilzey’s proposal is based on a dierent reading
of the radical political economy that informed Friedmann and McMichael’s
theory, privileging the role of class relations in the relationship between state
and capitalism and between states but also, favouring the economic moment
over the political one. There is a need, writes Tilzey: “to specify modern cap-
italism in terms of class relations, composed of owners of the means of pro-
duction counter-posed to an expropriated class ‘free’ to sell its labour power,
in which, for the rst time, power over production is exerted ‘economically’,
not ‘politically” (Tilzey 2019: 237).
The post-neoliberal food regime arises from the dialectical understanding
of capital, state, and class, and the dynamics of combined and uneven devel-
opment; and because of this existence of a ‘post-neoliberal’ food regime has
not been seriously or systematically broached hitherto (Tilzey 2019). The key
feature of the post-neoliberal food regime are identied by Tilzey as follows:
(a) the appearance of ‘land-grabbing’ and neo-extractivism in the peripheries;
(b) the emergence of China, particularly, as a sub-imperium; and (c) the rise of
the Latin American pink tide states as a response to neoliberalism, and with-
in the favourable international conjuncture dened by China’s ascendance.
According to Tilzey’s interpretation the post-neoliberal food regime is char-
acterised by a fragmentation of neoliberal hegemony that involves a return to
to heightened inter-state competition and antagonism reminiscent of the Im-
perial Food Regime.
As Claimed by Tilzey, precisely from this fragmentation would arise an ep-
ochal crisis of the neoliberalism, if not yet of capitalism in general: “Imperial
monopoly nance capital has escalated its accumulation of land and natural
resources in the peripheries. Money alone, however, is becoming no longer
adequate to ensure continuing, and cheap, supply of food and energy to these
consumption heartlands of neoliberalism” (Tilzey 2019: 244). To understand
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this relation Tilzey proposes a dierent key relationship between capital and
state in which the state-capital nexus deploys to secure economic growth and
political stability, framing the form and function of food regimes.
The instability of the Post neo-liberal regime hinges, according to Tilzey’s
interpretation, on the deep ecological and political contradictions across the
inter-related dynamics of imperium, sub-imperium, and periphery. This in-
terpretation stems from Tilzey’s particular approach to the FRT, which has
its roots in a re-reading of a non-reductive Marxian theory in the form of ‘Po-
litical Marxism’ and a neo-Gramscian thinking used to comprehend the con-
cept of capitalism, state and class dynamics. This interpretation is neglected,
according to the author, in the traditional interpretation of the food regimes
developed by McMichael and Friedmann.
According to Tilzey, it is precisely this reinterpretation that would allow to
shed light on the current food regime which “may mark the endgame of cap-
italism in general, as it encounters an epochal crisis dened by spiralling po-
litical and ecological turmoil” (Tilzey 2019: 248).
Thus, according to Tilzey, this perspective allows:
to present a revised and more comprehensive periodisation of capitalist food
regimes, extending from the birth of the rst capital-state nexus in England in
the late eighteenth century through to the current re-emergence of overt state
management of, and inter-state competition around, ows of food and resources
in what we have chosen to call the ‘Post-Neoliberal’ regime. (Tilzey 2019: 249)
The fundamental conceptual core of Tilzey’s proposal is that the FRT elab-
orated by McMichael and Friedmann fails to identify the internal relations be-
tween state and capital, and therefore the understanding of both as class rela-
tions. This perspective therefore eliminates the dichotomy between structure
and agency cited above. The concept of class constitutes in fact the bridging
concept that encapsulates both structure and agency, or class position and po-
sitionality (Potter and Tilzey 2005).
Hence the neo-gramscian concept of ‘structured agency’ adopted by Tilzey,
which makes it possible to identify “the class fractional interests that comprise
capitalist social relations and directs attention to strategies and understand-
ings deployed by political agents in the defence or promotion of their inter-
ests” (Tilzey 2019: 234).
As we have seen, the analysis of food regimes allows to frame the commod-
ication of food within an economic and political context.
Nevertheless, I believe that this analysis does not take into consideration
a fundamental aspect of the question which, as we shall see, will instead be
central to the movement of food sovereignty. This aspect is what allows the
assumption of a perspective that is no longer only political or economical, but
ethical, and which considers food commodication as dependant on not recog-
nising food as a natural element essential to the life of human beings, and as a
cultural element and fundamental right to each of these beings. In this regard,
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 205
food sovereignty can oer a fundamental contribution since it does not only
constitute a challenge and an alternative to the current food regime, but also
represents a dierent way of understanding the relationship between humans
and nature as well as the relationship between human themselves.
3. Food Sovereignty: Rethinking the Relaon between Humans
and Nature
The concept of food sovereignty was formulated for the rst time during the In-
ternational Conference of Via Campesina in Tlaxcala, Mexico, in 1996, in oppo-
sition to the concept of food security as a universal ideal to prevent world hun-
ger. “Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global
levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic
access to sucient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and
food preferences for an active and healthy life”. (FAO 1996 cited in FAO 2003).
In contrast to this denition La Via Campesina claims:
We, the Via Campesina, a growing movement of farm workers, peasant, farm
and indigenous peoples’ organizations from all the regions of the world, know
that food security cannot be achieved without taking full account of those who
produce food. Any discussion that ignores our contribution will fail to eradicate
poverty and hunger. Food is a basic human right. This right can only be real
-
ized in a system where Food Sovereignty is guaranteed. (Via Campesina 1996b)
Compared to the notion of food security, the concept of food sovereignty
arms that social control within the food system constitutes a fundamental
aspect in order to guarantee food security. This certainly represents one of the
most critical aspects of the concept of food security. In fact, as Patel rightly
points out: “as far as the terms of food security go, it is entirely possible for
people to be food secure in prison or under a dictatorship” (Patel 2009: 665).
According to Via Campesina:
Long-term food security depends on those who produce food and care for the
natural environment. As the stewards of food producing resources we hold the
following principles as the necessary foundation for achieving food security [….]
Food is a basic human right. This right can only be realized in a system where
food sovereignty is guaranteed. Food sovereignty is the right of each nation to
maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods respecting
cultural and productive diversity. We have the right to produce our own food
in our own territory. Food sovereignty is a precondition to genuine food secu-
rity. (Via Campesina 1996)
Thus, the concept of food sovereignty emphasises that the question of food
is not at all a problem of insucient trade, a simple problem of distribution or
allocation, rather a matter of rights. This is a crucial question because the dis-
tinction between the two concepts rests on a diametrically opposite concep-
tions of food. Avoiding the issue of social control within the production and
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consumption system, the concept of food security remains tied to a vision of
food as a mere commodity. Recognising food as the fundamental right of ev-
ery human being, food sovereignty, proposes a de-commodied vision of food
and represents an alternative paradigm both to food security and to the current
food system. Food sovereignty arms the human right to food as extended
by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Na-
tions, but not simply through access to food but through the right of democrat-
ic control over food and food- producing resources (Holt-Giménez 2011: 128).
Although there is no single denition of food sovereignty, Windfuhr and
Jonsén (2005) identied seven principles that underlie the subsequent elabo-
rations of the concept of food sovereignty (Tab. 1)
Table 1: Summary of Via Campesina’s ‘Seven Principles to Achieve Food Sovereignty’
1. Food: A Basic Human Right – Everyone must have access to safe, nutrious and
culturally appropriate food in sucient quanty and quality to sustain a healthy
life with full human dignity. Each naon should declare that access to food is a
constuonal right and guarantee the development of the primary sector to ensure
the concrete realizaon of this fundamental right.
2. Agrarian Reform A genuine agrarian reform is necessary which gives landless
and farming people – especially women – ownership and control of the land they
work and returns territories to indigenous peoples. The right to land must be free
of discriminaon on the basis of gender, religion, race, social class or ideology; the
land belongs to those who work it.
3. Protecng Natural Resources – Food Sovereignty entails the sustainable care and
use of natural resources, especially land, water, and seeds and livestock breeds. The
people who work the land must have the right to pracce sustainable management
of natural resources and to conserve biodiversity free of restricve intellectual
property rights. This can only be done from a sound economic basis with security of
tenure, healthy soils and reduced use of agro-chemicals.
4. Reorganizing Food Trade – Food is rst and foremost a source of nutrion and
only secondarily an item of trade. Naonal agricultural policies must priorize
producon for domesc consumpon and food self-suciency. Food imports must
not displace local producon nor depress prices.
5. Ending the Globalizaon of Hunger – Food Sovereignty is undermined by
mullateral instuons and by speculave capital. The growing control of
mulnaonal corporaons over agricultural policies has been facilitated by the
economic policies of mullateral organizaons such as the WTO, World Bank and
the IMF. Regulaon and taxaon of speculave capital and a strictly enforced Code
of Conduct for TNCs is therefore needed.
6. Social Peace – Everyone has the right to be free from violence. Food must not
be used as a weapon. Increasing levels of poverty and marginalizaon in the
countryside, along with the growing oppression of ethnic minories and indigenous
populaons, aggravate situaons of injusce and hopelessness. The ongoing
displacement, forced urbanizaon, repression and increasing incidence of racism of
smallholder farmers cannot be tolerated.
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 207
7. Democrac control – Smallholder farmers must have direct input into formulang
agricultural policies at all levels. The United Naons and related organizaons will
have to undergo a process of democrazaon to enable this to become a reality.
Everyone has the right to honest, accurate informaon and open and democrac
decision-making. These rights form the basis of good governance, accountability
and equal parcipaon in economic, polical and social life, free from all forms
of discriminaon. Rural women, in parcular, must be granted direct and acve
decision making on food and rural issues.
Nowadays the Nyéléni Declaration for Food Sovereignty of 2007 (see Tab. 2)
is the main platform for citizens groups supporting Food Sovereignty around
the world, and an international reference point for discussions on Food Sov-
ereignty (Tab. 2)
Table 2: SIX PILLARS OF FOOD SOVEREIGNTY
(Nyéléni Declaration) (Nyéléni Forum, Mali 2007)
1. Focuses on Food for People: Food sovereignty puts the right to sucient, healthy
and culturally appropriate food for all individuals, peoples and communies,
including those who are hungry, under occupaon, in conict zones and
marginalised, at the centre of food, agriculture, livestock and sheries policies;
and rejects the proposion that food is just another commodity or component for
internaonal agri-business.
2. Values Food Providers: Food sovereignty values and supports the contribuons,
and respects the rights, of women and men, peasants and small scale family
farmers, pastoralists, arsanal sherfolk, forest dwellers, indigenous peoples
and agricultural and sheries workers, including migrants, who culvate, grow,
harvest and process food; and rejects those policies, acons and programmes that
undervalue them, threaten their livelihoods and eliminate them.
3. Localises Food Systems: Food sovereignty brings food providers and consumers
closer together; puts providers and consumers at the centre of decision-making on
food issues; protects food providers from the dumping of food and food aid in local
markets; protects consumers from poor quality and unhealthy food, inappropriate
food aid and food tainted with genecally modied organisms; and resists
governance structures, agreements and pracces that depend on and promote
unsustainable and inequitable internaonal trade and give power to remote and
unaccountable corporaons.
4. Puts Control Locally: Food sovereignty places control over territory, land,
grazing, water, seeds, livestock and sh populaons on local food providers and
respects their rights. They can use and share them in socially and environmentally
sustainable ways which conserve diversity; it recognises that local territories oen
cross geopolical borders and ensures the right of local communies to inhabit
and use their territories; it promotes posive interacon between food providers
in dierent regions and territories and from dierent sectors that helps resolve
internal conicts or conicts with local and naonal authories; and rejects
the privasaon of natural resources through laws, commercial contracts and
intellectual property rights regimes.
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5. Builds Knowledge and Skills: Food sovereignty builds on the skills and local
knowledge of food providers and their local organisaons that conserve, develop
and manage localised food producon and harvesng systems, developing
appropriate research systems to support this and passing on this wisdom to future
generaons; and rejects technologies that undermine, threaten or contaminate
these, e.g. genec engineering.
6. Works with Nature: Food sovereignty uses the contribuons of nature in diverse,
low external input agro-ecological producon and harvesng methods that
maximise the contribuon of ecosystems and improve resilience and adaptaon,
especially in the face of climate change; it seeks to heal the planet so that the
planet may heal us; and, rejects methods that harm benecial ecosystem funcons,
that depend on energy intensive monocultures and livestock factories, destrucve
shing pracces and other industrialised producon methods, which damage the
environment and contribute to global warming.
Food sovereignty is a complex and multifaceted reality that combines a po-
litical and ethical perspective. “Food sovereignty is a historical wedge in a cri-
sis conjuncture to recognise and promote alternative socio-ecological relations
to feed citizens rather than long-distance consumers” (McMichael 2014: 938).
It is not just a resistance movement “It is a process of accumulation of forces
and realities coming together from the citizens of the entire planet. Food sov-
ereignty is not just resistances, as there are thousands of resistances, but also
proposals that come from social movements, and not just peasant movements”
(Wittman 2009: 678–680).
The strength of this global movement is precisely that it diers from place to
place […] The world is a complex place, and it would be a mistake to look for
a single answer to complex and dierent phenomena. We have to provide an-
swers at dierent levels – not just the international level, but local and national
levels too. History shows that each phase of political development has a corre-
sponding institutional form: France’s response to the Industrial Revolution was
the nation-state; the WTO is the expression of this phase of the liberalization
of world trade. (Bové, Dufour 2001: 145)
The food sovereignty approach can be distinguished as an “epistemic shift”
in which value relations, approaches to rights, and a shift from an economic to
an ecological calculus concurrently challenge the rules and relations of a cor-
porate or neoliberal food regime (Wittman 2011: 90).
By focusing on ecologically sustainable food production and reconnect-
ing producers and consumers via the localisation of “food from somewhere”,
food sovereignty as part of an “agrarian regeneration movement” is increas-
ingly presented as having theoretical potential to rework (Wittman 2009c),
repair (Schneider, McMichael 2010), or heal (Clausen 2007) the metabolic rift
(Wittman 2011: 93).
If ‘food from nowhere’ is the peculiar trait of the current global food regime,
‘food from somewhere’ (McMichael 2009b; Wittman 2009c) can be identied
as the peculiar trait of the food sovereignty approach.
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 209
Food sovereignty then represents not only an alternative to the current
food regime but also outlines a dierent approach to nature, a dierent rela-
tionship between humans and nature as well as a dierent ethical perspective.
The implementation of sustainable agricultural practices aimed at preserv-
ing the land, seeds, water and all other natural resources, provides for a vision
of nature as a common heritage of humanity. Nature is not considered as a
means from which to obtain the greatest possible prot, but is rather a funda-
mental element of human life and is essential for its survival.
This constitutes a central element of agro-ecology:
the holistic study of agroe-cosystems, including all environmental and human
elements. It focuses on the form, dynamics and functions of their inter-rela-
tionships and the processes in which they are involved . . . Implicit in agroe-co-
logical research is the idea that by understanding these ecological relationships
and processes, agro-ecosystems can be manipulated to improve production and
produce more sustainably, with fewer negative environmental or social impacts
and few external inputs. (Altieri 2002: 8)
Through this practice becomes possible to improve production through
more sustainable practices, respecting the biodiversity of the environment
and, more importantly, engaging in a relationship with nature that is based on
knowledge and not on possession and which therefore takes into consideration
the need for regeneration of the land, aimed at conservation for future genera-
tions.Furthermore: “Agro-ecology also brings in other principles: circular, social
and solidarity economies building alternatives to linear and continuous eco-
nomic growth, cooperation and care (for people and ecosystems), and the crit-
ical role of local, Indigenous, and co-produced knowledge” (Duncan 2020: 5)
Cooperation between man and nature is certainly the most characteristic
and fundamental aspect of the food sovereignty approach. Food sovereignty
conceives cooperation in two ways: rediscovering the relationship of imma-
nence that binds man to nature, but also as an enhancement of human inter-
dependence in order to guarantee sustainable development and build com-
munity. In this sense, cooperation does not only happen during the practice
of agro-ecology as a sharing of techniques and knowledge, but is also inter-
twined with community gatherings, sharing food, and establishing solidarity
through new friendships.
Nature and humans represent the same side of the same coin. This is why
the movement of food sovereignty also has a strong ethical component. It is
not only a matter of rediscovering the role of man within nature and the envi-
ronment, but also a rediscovering of the value of the social relationships that
establish the community we live in. All this is made possible thanks to a dif-
ferent consideration of food which ceases to be understood as a commodity,
becoming instead an essential right of every human being. Food as what is do-
nated by nature becomes the medium through which it becomes possible to
establish a new relationship with the natural world subtracted from the mort-
gage of man’s absolute dominion over nature. In fact, food relations “become
NATURE AND FOOD COMMODIFICATION210 │ FEDERICA PORCHEDDU
the medium, and product, of an alternative, political ontology. “Sovereignty”
is the means by which this political ontology is to be secured” (Andrée, Ayres,
Bosia, Massicotte 2014: 350)
This same attitude translates into social practices oriented towards well-be-
ing and sharing rather than competition. As Patel observes, “Food sovereignty
oers a sophisticated attempt at developing a grounded, localised and yet in-
ternational humanism around the food system” (Patel 2005: 81). It promotes a
dierent concept of humanity which is based on the respect for human diver-
sity, mutual well-being, traditions and cultural values.
Thus, what is at stake in the concept of food sovereignty is not only food
as a natural resource, as an integral part of nature, rather how people choose
to live, what and how they choose to produce and consume, and how to con-
struct a more just, equitable, and democratic world. Against the reduction of
the human being to the ‘homo economicus’, typical of the neoliberal model,
food sovereignty ghts for an alternative conception of human being. As Schan-
bacher points out, “it represents a drastically dierent understanding of hu-
man relationship […] a clear alternative to purely economic understanding of
human relations – both human-to-human relationships and our relationship
to the natural environment” (Schanbacher 2010: 108).
Food sovereignty represents a unique social movement in which communi-
ty, political, and cultural rights are intertwined with the issue of food.
Through its multidisciplinary approach and its strongly ethical component,
food sovereignty constitutes an opportunity in order to contrast the progres-
sive commodication of nature and of the environment.
In the current international political scenario, the issue of food sovereignty
appears as a necessity that can no longer be sidestepped. Indeed, it is clear that
current policies to reduce malnutrition and hunger are not having any eect.
Insisting that food sovereignty becomes the common global policy means
trying to deconstruct a food regime that is no longer able to satisfy the needs
of the world population, and at the same time, rethinking our relationship
with nature.
Conclusion
As I tried to show above, the idea of food sovereignty represents a unique
movement in which politics, economics and ethics are closely intertwined.
The fundamental assumption that food, far from being a mere commodity, is
an inalienable right of every human being, allows us to undermine the vision
of ‘food from nowhere’ and replace it with that of food ‘from somewhere. The
use value of food (to feed people) becomes the main mechanism for going be-
yond the vision of food as a pure commodity.
Proposing food as an essential right radically changes not only the way of
understanding food but also the relationship between man and nature.
Food is a natural and cultural element, which cannot be dissociated from
either the human work necessary for its production or from biodiversity,
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 211
necessary to maintain the balance of the ecosystem and to reduce the eects
of climate change. The concept of food sovereignty was not developed by poli-
ticians or economists, but by those on whom world’s food supply still depends:
small scale food producers themselves. For these reasons it is not based on the
theory of maximum prot typical of capitalist society, but on a relationship of
harmony between man and nature.
The concept of cooperation as a fundamental element of food sovereignty
does not only concern the relationship between producer and consumer, but
also the relationship with the natural world. Through the practice of agro-ecol-
ogy it is possible to preserve the health of the ecosystem by enhancing the bio-
diversity of the food produced and consumed.
For these reasons:
Food Sovereignty is thus a more holistic system than Food Security. It recognizes
that control over the food system needs to remain in the hands of farmers, for
whom farming is both a way of life and a means of producing food. It ensures
that food is produced in a culturally acceptable manner and in harmony with
the ecosystem in which it is produced. This is how traditional food production
systems have regenerated their soils, water, biodiversity and climactic condi-
tions, for generations. (Fao 2014)
Thus, “Food sovereignty presents us all with an ethical choice, a choice that
invariably challenges both how we see the world and what we think constitutes
a just world” (Schanbacher 2010: 119).
The de-commodied perspective of food emphasised by food sovereignty
depends in a non-secondary way on an ethical approach to food, which con-
stitutes the fundamental trait of food sovereignty.
Through its right-based approach, food sovereignty could promote a global
change in the current food regime as it: respects the rights of people; under-
stands food to be more than a commodity, but a commons and a human right;
promotes agro-ecological food systems; maintains solidarity with food pro-
ducers and consumers around the world.
In my opinion, it is precisely the ethical approach that clearly distinguish-
es the concept of food sovereignty from that of food security, in which where
and how food is produced is not a fundamental question.
As for me, I think that food sovereignty can really help to promote a new
global food regime. In particular, I believe that the ethical approach constitutes
its real core that could provide a new starting point for a new education on
nature and human relations. Food sovereignty can constitute a new paradigm
for a new idea of a society removed from the dynamics of capitalist economic
power. If nature and food are understood as common goods to be preserved,
as essential rights of every human being, it becomes possible to inaugurate a
society, a politics and an economy based on solidarity and mutual well-being
rather than on the maximisation of prot.
However, for this to become possible, a more concrete and precise deni-
tion of its political component is necessary.
NATURE AND FOOD COMMODIFICATION212 │ FEDERICA PORCHEDDU
If it is true that food sovereignty can represent a valid alternative to current
food policies, I believe it is necessary to underline the most delicate aspect for
a concrete application of food sovereignty on a global scale.
Furthermore, while it is undeniably clear that food sovereignty is an emi-
nent political project, it is nevertheless complex to establish how such sover-
eignty, at the local, regional and national level, should be exercised.
In this sense, I think that, perhaps, the most problematic aspect of the con-
cept of food sovereignty is precisely the status of sovereignty as such.
It is a core that has never fully been made explicit, which might explain
why in more recent denitions of food sovereignty, increasing levels of in-
consistency can be found. A striking example can be found, among others, in
this sentence: ‘those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart
of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corpo-
rations’(Via Campesina 2007). The phrase ‘those who produce, distribute and
consume food’ refers, unfortunately, to everyone, including the transnational
corporations rejected in the second half of the sentence. As Patel points out,
there are, of course, many ways to get out of this impasse. One of these could
be to interpret the phrase ‘those who produce, distribute and consume food’
as subjects in esh and blood rather than legal subjects. However, even accept-
ing this naive denition, what remains unexplained is precisely the question
of sovereignty, as it must be admitted that even among human beings power
and control are unevenly distributed (Patel 2009).
The matter does not seem to be easily claried by referring to another
equally signicant aspect either, that is the right based approach. As it is well
known, food sovereignty oers a totally dierent vision of food compared to
the current global food regime. In fact, food is not a commodity among others
but a right that must be ensured for every human being on earth. According-
ly, the matter of food turns into a political one. Nevertheless, assuming food
as an inalienable right of each individual, does not directly allow us to clarify
which institution or body has the guarantee of this right.
Arming a right is indeed not a sucient condition for that right to be
guaranteed. For the language of rights to have any meaning, a guarantor of
these rights must be identied.
Among the most relevant issues in this regard it is possible to identify the
layering of dierent jurisdictions over which rights can be exercised, which
constitutes a central aspect of food sovereignty. This call includes a whole se-
ries of gures ranging from nations to peoples, passing through regions and
communities and reaching the state institution. But necessarily this call im-
plies a concomitant call for the spaces of sovereignty which vary according to
the dierent geographies of food sovereignty. But precisely on this point, “by
pointing to the multivalent hierarchies of power and control that exist within
the world food system, food sovereignty paradoxically displaces one sovereign,
but remains silent about the others” (Patel 2009: 668).
The issue of sovereignty is therefore not only one of the constitutive as-
pects of food sovereignty but it is also the most problematic and delicate one.
STUDIES AND ARTICLES │ 213
It is the fundamental nucleus around which the entire system of food sover
-
eignty revolves and, at the same time, the keystone for such a system to work.
A political and philosophical questioning about the status of food sover-
eignty is necessary. It is no coincidence that the name ‘food sovereignty’ nec-
essarily refers to a political question. In fact, it suggests the idea that food is
inextricably bound to the political realm.
Identifying the political nature of sovereignty with respect to basic control
over whom has access to food or healthy food, is therefore indispensable in
order to propose an alternative to the current global food regime.
Food as an essential right of every human being cannot be guaranteed with-
out a clarication of the concept of sovereignty. Understanding who should
exercise sovereignty, how it should be exercised, under what conditions, is per-
haps the main knot for the project of food sovereignty to be realised globally.
To clearly dene the concept of sovereignty, both in theoretical and practical
terms, is the only way for food sovereignty to become a concrete and eective
political practice. For these reasons, one of the future challenges for scholars
should be to provide a theoretical framework for the concept of sovereignty.
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Apstrakt
Ovaj članak ima za cilj da istraži vezu između komodikacije prirode i komodikacije hrane.
Komodikacija hrane je u stvari jedan od najnegavnijih i najkontroverznijih aspekata komo-
dikacije prirode. Ispivanje komodikacije hrane predstavlja plodno tlo za istraživanje od-
nosa između čoveka i prirode. U ovom kontekstu, prehrambeni suverenitet predstavlja ko-
risnu paradigmu koja ne samo da služi kao alternava trenutnom režimu ishrane, ve koja
takođe omoguava da se iskusi drugačija vrsta odnosa između ljudi i prirode. Prehrambeni
suverenitet predstavlja jedinstven društveni pokret u kojem su prava zajednice, kao i poli-
čka i kulturna prava isprepletena sa pitanjem hrane. Svojim muldisciplinarnim pristupom
i snažnom ečkom komponentom, prehrambeni suverenitet predstavlja priliku da se suprot-
stavi narastuoj komodikaciji prirode i okruženja.
Ključne reči: čovek, priroda, hrana, komodikacija, prehrambeni suverenitet, eka
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The central disagreement between McMichael and Bernstein boils down to how each of them analyses food and agriculture in relation to capitalist dynamics. McMichael thinks the main contradictions of capitalism now stem from agriculture, and any positive future will be guided by farmers. Bernstein thinks capitalism has fully absorbed agriculture (including farmers not expelled from the land) into circuits of capital, turning agriculture into simply one of many sectors of accumulation and a major font of surplus labor. They have arrived by different paths to the same deeper question: Granted its illumination of the past, does the food regime approach remain useful for interpreting present contradictions, and if so, how? To invite a wider exploration of this very real and important question, I have tried to shift the debate towards a conversation about the complexity of the current transition. I start by widening the frame of the debate to include other writings by McMichael (his method of incorporated comparison) and Bernstein (his distinction between farming and agriculture). I conclude that food regimes and agrarian changes must be located in a wider set of analyses of agrarian and capitalist transitions, each of which misses something important. Older agrarian thought about urban society has much to offer but misses larger food regime dynamics; socio-technical transitions and new commons literatures offer critical analysis of technics, but lack appreciation of the centrality of food and farming; recent works recovering Marxist thought about human nature in a possible transition to a society of abundance and collaboration also ignore food and farming. Connecting with literatures outside the frame of food regimes and agrarian questions offers a way forward for those literatures and for ours.
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A Companion to Environmental Geography is the first book to comprehensively and systematically map the research frontier of 'human-environment geography' in an accessible and comprehensive way. Cross-cuts several areas of a discipline which has traditionally been seen as divided; presenting work by human and physical geographers in the same volume. Presents both the current 'state of the art' research and charts future possibilities for the discipline. Extends the term 'environmental geography' beyond its 'traditional' meanings to include new work on nature and environment by human and physical geographers - not just hazards, resources, and conservation geographers. Contains essays from an outstanding group of international contributors from among established scholars and rising stars in geography.