As part of our Reframing Food Futures project, we are publishing a series of blogs on themes around food and how they interact. In this blog, Olivia Oldham provides us with an understanding of how property and private ownership play a role within food systems change and how it directly connects to the three themes that the Future Narratives Lab explored during our workshop in Bristol in September.
The workshop and ensuing online summit that we held focused on the key themes of reconnecting health, accessing abundance and commoning tomorrow in food systems change. Both were successful in bringing together a community of learning around these topics and initiating conversations around power, opportunities for change, gaps in the space and dominant narratives. A brief blog with findings from the workshop can be found here and information on the summit can be found here.
I was excited to see the Reframing Food Futures workshop facilitated by Future Narratives Lab in collaboration with the Landworkers’ Alliance and Stir to Action. One of the many topics that arose during the workshop was that of land; I think it’s worth considering land — and particularly the property regimes that underpin how we govern, access and use it — in more detail. Property is at the heart of food systems change, and shapes all three focus areas discussed at the workshop in different ways.
The prevailing narrative of property in the UK is one that largely centres the private ownership of land as the only desirable — or at least the only realistic — property relation in a modern society. Of course, this centrality is not only narrative; private land ownership materially dominates the British landscape, too.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, private ownership figures centrally in narratives of food system change, wherein solutions to difficulties with access to land tend to be focused on gaining entry into the system of ownership — through purchase or otherwise. Yet there are some issues with this approach, which I have sketched out in a previous piece (and see also for example here, here and here), and I believe it is important to unpick these property narratives and build new ones to enable a “unified vision of a better food system…that’s healthy, just and sustainable” as this workshop aimed to do.
Reconnecting Health: Beyond Atomised Consumerism
The theme of ‘Reconnecting Health’ was chosen because food is intimately connected with health, whether of individuals, our society or our environment. But the way we think about this connection is dominated by a consumer choice framing, putting responsibility on the individual over government and business. Focus on this theme centred on how can we overcome this, and find ways of foregrounding framings that encourage systemic understanding of health, nutrition and climate.
One reason that the connection between food and health is understood in terms of individual consumer choice is thanks to the way privately owned property encourages us to see ourselves as autonomous economic actors isolated from the collective. Private ownership centres the idea of boundaries in our social consciousness: decisions made in one sphere (for instance, on a farm) are not seen to be related to decisions made in another sphere (for instance, in the doctor’s office), except insofar as they can be linked through purchase (that is, buying and eating the right food). The negative consequences of food production choices — such as malnutrition — are perceived as ‘externalities’ (that is, problems external to or beyond the boundaries of the food system), rather than as bound up with those very choices and the incentives which drive them.
The property lens is also useful for understanding the relationship between food and health is the way it highlights the property owner’s right to make (relatively) unilateral decisions. When it comes to land, the owner is able to make autonomous choices about what and how to produce on her land. Even if, collectively, those choices have negative effects on personal or ecological health, there is little meaningful action that individuals and communities can take in order to affect them. Other forms of property beyond private ownership, however, could enable much more democratic control over such production decisions, allowing for the prioritisation, for instance, of human and other-than-human health as key outcomes of the food system.
Accessing Abundance: Waste, Poverty and Power
The theme of ‘Accessing Abundance’ was chosen because the absurdity of our current system is shown clearly by how the UK no longer grows enough food for itself and millions every week struggle to afford the healthy food they need — but tonnes of edible produce still goes to waste. So focus on this theme centred on how can we best articulate the common roots of these crises, and show the direct benefits of alternatives.
One way of understanding the entanglement of food waste and food poverty is through the lens of property. Various forms of common, or collectively managed, lands and waters have historically ensured that everyone had access to the basic necessities of life, including adequate food. However, the advent of private ownership has in many cases ended such modes of life, because private ownership is premised upon the right to exclude others. This shift forced people instead to labour in exchange for wages — now the only way to access food for most people (at least in the Global North), yet often inadequate even for meeting this basic need.
At the same time, private ownership under capitalism continuously ratchets up the price of land, based on historical production capacity and speculations over future value. This in turn increases the amount that must be paid by producers to work the land, whether as mortgage repayments or rent. This dynamic contributes to the tendency for farms to overproduce, leading to the dramatic food waste figures we are all familiar with.
So, at the same time as producing food poverty through exclusion, private ownership also contributes to the systematic production of waste.
Commoning Tomorrow: Heritage Against the Machine
The theme of ‘Commoning Tomorrow’ was chosen because our dominant visions of the past and future of food are vastly different, but both play a role in sustaining present injustices. History is depicted as insular, traditional and exclusive, while future visions are dominated by machine-led industrialisation. So the focus on this theme centred on: how might we bring a richer and more accurate view of the past into a more humane, diverse and progressive future of food and farming?
Property is also relevant to developing both a richer and more accurate view of the past and an understanding of how this might inform more progressive visions of the future of farming.
Commons are sometimes understood as historical artefact, outdated and unsuited to the present day. Yet this view takes a very limited, often Eurocentric view of the commons that ignores both geographical and temporal diversity of historical and existing commons around the world. It also ignores the substantial evidence base demonstrating the viability of the commons as a model for governing shared ‘resources’ — such as land or the food system. Thinking in terms of property can help to perceive the diverse rights and responsibilities modern commoning regimes might need to serve the needs of today’s communities.
A property lens can also help to perceive how modern systems of private property were founded, and continue to be premised, upon violence and dispossession. This is true in the UK (through the Enclosures and the Clearances) and also around the world where colonial land theft and associated violence against Indigenous peoples laid the foundation for the plantation form of agriculture that continues to form the basis of the global food system.
Thinking into the future, considering property can help us to understand how our visions might remain constrained by the limitations of a regime of private ownership. Centring both historical and contemporary non-private forms of ownership can open up the space for imagination of what an emancipatory food future might look like.
Olivia Oldham is a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh investigating how property relations affect food system transformations. She is also a journalist, and works with award-winning podcast Farmerama Radio.