Food as a commons has been an emerging issue over the past decade. As the UN Food Systems Summit takes place, will the future of food be able to incorporate systems thinking and continue building stronger institutions? Hans van Willenswaard reviews the history of this movement and current steps in the direction of awareness, responsibility and the middle ground in taking up ‘food citizenship’.
The commons: a fundamental exchange
Two indigenous communities in Thailand decided to engage in barter trade. A delegation of Moken (also known as Sea Gypsies) brought fish from the Andaman coast to their Karen partners in the mountainous area of Northern Thailand and brought back a load of rice. It turned out to be not only a practical solution for an immediate problem prompted by the COVID-19 crisis, but the barter became a revitalization of a quality both groups still cultivate almost as a phenomenon from the past: sharing the commons.
The story of the rice–fish barter trade was passionately told during a focus group meeting convened by the Connecting the Commons (CTC) project in December 2020 at Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute (CUSRI) in central Bangkok. CUSRI is the home base for local and international social innovation exchanges over many years. The CTC project had just started identifying and connecting 30 commons initiatives in Thailand, with the help of resources and specialists in the fields including Prof. Emeritus Anan Ganjanapan at Chiang Mai University. The CTC project is organized by Innovation Network International (INI) with the support of Heinrich Böll Foundation Southeast Asia and initially guided by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich’s book Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons. We try to understand the realities in three case studies of commons-inspired projects through the lens of this book: urban farming in Bangkok, the Hug Muang Nan ecosystem restoration project in Nan province, and the barter trade between indigenous Moken and Karen as mentioned above.
Interest in the commons movement, also in Southeast Asia, is not new. In 2011 the School for Wellbeing Studies and Research, one of the partners of the CTC project, organized an international symposium Re-thinking Property with a diversity of speakers and participants including Silke Helfrich, Michel Bauwens, Founder of P2P Foundation, members of the Commons Strategies Group, (then) UNDP legal expert Ramaswamy Sudarshan, and keynote speaker Right Livelihood Laureate Nicanor Perlas. Right Livelihood Laureate Sulak Sivaraksa closed the symposium in Bangkok with his views on ‘commoning’ as a founder of Wongsanit Ashram, a self-organizing alternative learning center 40 km outside the city. The Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin took it on further and organized, after a first conference in 2010, the groundbreaking Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) in 2013.
Food as a commons
What emerged as a new leading issue since the global conference in Berlin is food as a commons. It was identified as the focal point of the CTC project in its second phase. To mark this era of ‘a new understanding of food systems’ the Routledge Handbook of Food as a Commons was published in 2018. Earlier, Right Livelihood Laureate Dr. Vandana Shiva from India had emphasized the importance of ‘seed freedom’. Seeds of course are the utmost foundation of our food sovereignty, biodiversity and the variety of our diets.
Among the editorial team of the Food as a Commons book are Olivier de Schutter, the former UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and Ugo Mattei, an Italian Professor of Law who received the Elinor Ostrom Award in 2017.
Food as a Commons contains 22 articles by a variety of authors, and declares it is:
…A reaction to the massive abuses visited upon nature and community by the imperatives of reproduction of the dominant structure of power that the commons have re-emerged. This notion has the ambition to ground a counter-narrative and a political and institutional organization capable of shifting our pattern of development from an extractive and individual into a generative and collective mode.
Shifts needed to realize this counter-narrative are many: from food treated as a commodity to food as a commons; a change of perception from a profit-seeking ‘food supply chain’ to multi-stakeholder collaboration as ‘food citizens’; the transition from agribusiness practices considerably contributing to climate crisis, toward regenerative agriculture as a participatory environmental healing force in the framework of ecosystem restoration. As well as a transformation of the economy from a system which allows the well-off to buy the best, with a majority dependent on less healthy food or chemically contaminated bulk food, to an economy of common care with access to ‘affordable healthy food for all’ in a circular system where unavoidable food waste is turned into fertile compost.
Above all, what is required for this “OntoShift” in the words of Bollier and Helfrich is “freedom-in-connectedness – a social space in which we can rediscover and remake ourselves as whole human beings and enjoy some serious measure of self-determination”. Bollier and Helfrich articulate this as a process of “commoning”.
UN Food Systems Summit
The focus on Food as a Commons has become even more essential recently as a unique new phenomenon arose in the international arena: the initiative for a UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) to be held on 23 September 2021 with the UN General Assembly in New York, US.
Navdanya International, an organization of eco-activist and scholar Dr. Vandana Shiva, places it in a critical light. It says “UNFSS: where multinationals continue to design our food systems and control our diets.” The UN works hand-in-hand with the big food corporations associated with the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. The Food Summit risks bringing historic divisions in the world of food to light once more, and exacerbate them. Or will this unique opportunity to forge collaboration among opposing forces materialize in the decade towards Agenda 2030? Can we guarantee healthy food for all if we do not collaborate but dominate?
Two key notions: systems thinking and institution building
For a proper understanding of the opportunities and obstacles implicit in the UN Food Summit, two important factors arise: systems thinking as a window to ‘theories of change’ and actual social innovation, and the dynamics of participatory institutional development in the tense world of food.
An important step from the perspective of systems thinking was the recognition of economist Elinor Ostrom (1933–2012) with the Nobel Prize, the first female economist recipient. By means of very well-grounded research she de-bunked the ‘tragedy of the commons’ theory and proved that management of natural resources in commons mode often was successful. Her famous message was that governance “beyond states and the market” was real and implies enormous transformative potential. Nicanor Perlas identified ‘civil society’ as this ‘third force’. Fritjof Capra authored a series of books – including The Web of Life – in which he stipulated the need for humanity to redefine its relationship to nature. Ultimately, he became the international chair of the Earth Charter which was launched in 2000 at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, igniting focus on the “community of life”. Later the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth followed in Bolivia, and the Rights of Nature were proclaimed, as well as ecocide as a crime against humanity.
Moreover, in line with the insights of former Vice President of the International Court of Justice G.C. Weeramantry (1926–2017), ‘Earth Trusteeship’ is being researched as an overarching principle of international environmental law. Weeramantry articulated trusteeship as a transformative development paradigm based on traditional irrigation practices of Sri Lankan farmers. In addition, Dr Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer in management theory at MIT Sloan School of Management, applied general principles of systems thinking to the realities of the world of food. In his book The Fifth Discipline he identified the capacity of ‘seeing the system’ as essential for necessary systems leadership. He started the Sustainable Food Lab to put this into practice. The famous dialogue and joint comparative research of food giant Unilever with non-governmental organization Oxfam was embedded in the Food Lab framework of ‘safe’ critical dialogue and collaboration between adversaries. In Italy the ‘Slow Food’ movement emerged and Professor of Industrial Design Ezio Manzini initiated new approaches to ‘design for social innovation’.
In terms of institution building, enormous contradictions exist between a coalition of the pharmaceutical industry (Big Pharma) and giant food corporations (Big Food) on one hand – both prominently represented in the World Economic Forum (WEF) – and the comparatively small but vibrant minority of the practitioners of organic agriculture on the other. Organic agriculture here stands for a diversity of practices including agroecology, permaculture, biodynamic agriculture and other approaches to sustainable agriculture. In 1972 the first UN conference on the ‘human environment’ was organized in Stockholm, Sweden. In a historic parallel in Versailles, France, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was founded in the same year. IFOAM just concluded its 20th Organic World Congress in Rennes (OWC 2021), France and is one of the best examples of an independent civil society organization which unites a great diversity of stakeholders. A decade later, La Via Campesina, an organization for peasants, small-scale and family farmers, was founded.
Social innovation movements with a high degree of commons quality and still growing are Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) with its global association URGENCI, and the IFOAM network around Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). More recent is the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) which promotes true cost accounting (TCA, also known as EFCA: environmental full-cost accounting) as a way to provide evidence of the hidden costs of conventional, industrial, agriculture based on ultra-processed, mass-marketed, extractive and exploitative practices with huge impact on soil fertility, occurrence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – making cheap food expensive – and decline of community culture resulting in social displacement. IPES-Food is particularly worried about an intensified corporate lobby in the scientific world as a likely result of the UNFFS.
Moreover, evidence is increasingly provided on the impact of industrial agribusiness on climate change. The good news is that in contrast with industrial practices, sustainable agriculture manifests regenerative capacities. In the framework of IFOAM OWC2021, Johan Rockström, Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, stated: “Organic farming continues to be the best path towards a radical shift to enable decarbonization. Agriculture has to be turned from a carbon emitter to a carbon sink. Organic is enabling this!”
In this context, INI (Innovation Network International) and partners promote food citizenship with three dimensions: individual awareness and responsibility in local food systems; food citizens’ engagement at the regional levels; as well as global citizenship addressing the need for governance effectively mitigating climate change.
Connecting the commons
CTC partners in Thailand include the Sustainable Agriculture Foundation (SAF) guiding the Urban Farming Project. INI and SAF participate in the food program of ThaiHealth, the Thai Health Promotion Fund. In addition to nutrition- and food production-based solutions, INI and partners promote ‘green procurement’ for collaboration between local farmers’ community-enterprises and hospitals as well as schools for the provision of healthy meals. This strategic step toward integration of food as a commons principle into local food systems, by means of empowerment of food citizenship, is explored in dialogue with stakeholders. The strategy involves adoption and adjustment of commons principles inherent in Community Supported Agriculture and Participatory Guarantee Systems. As well as multi-stakeholder collaboration, including exploratory partnerships with the corporate world, as experimented in CTC case study the Nan Sandbox and by CTC partner Big Tree, in a broad perspective of ecosystem restoration.
Indigenous commons and agriculture as the middle ground
Ecosystem restoration implies both greening the complexity of urban habitat and rural food production. In present national policies, enormous provisions are made for special economic zones on one hand and national parks at the other extreme. Policies of strict ‘rewilding’ and mass tourism threaten livelihoods and cultures of indigenous peoples who have peacefully lived for centuries in ancestral forests or coastal areas. A new vision on agricultural zones as the middle ground between urban development and rewilding is needed. Urban development should be constricted within clear enforceable boundaries with maximum greening of open urban areas. In contrast, forestry should be extended beyond the constricts of the natural parks so that it can integrate with agriculture and landscaping. This should also include an important role in ecosystem restoration for indigenous peoples, based on their cultural heritage, involving a deep understanding of the commons.
The food future: a caring scenario of trusteeship
A commons-driven economy “beyond state and the market,” as Elinor Ostrom phrased it, is one based on care, collaboration and solidarity, as well as a responsible sense of trusteeship. This social innovation may imply a female-led or ‘feminine’ future food scenario, against the more ‘masculine’ characters of communist or neo-liberal economies. But at the center of it, all global citizens are equal trustees of the Earth. We are all food citizens.
This future scenario could be facilitated by experimentation by the networking of food citizens in Southeast Asia, the whole Asia to the global level. Therefore, I would like also to use this opportunity to invite you to join our upcoming online exchanges on 19 and 20 October 2021, starting from 16.00 Bangkok time, co-organised by the CTC project team, the Students Council of Chulalongkorn University and partners. For more details, please download this program brochure and visit <www.schoolforwellbeing.org>
Hans van Willenswaard is co-founder of Innovation Network International (INI), Thailand/the Netherlands, Coordinator of Right Livelihood College Bangkok, and Advisor to the School for Wellbeing Studies and Research.
To learn more on Commons, please visit our web-dossier: https://www.boell.de/en/commons.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
 Jose Luis Vivero-Pol et. al., eds. Routledge Handbook of Food as a Commons (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 1.
 David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2019), 29–50. - Click here to download