By Andy Bamber
Over the last century, multinational food corporations and agribusinesses have come to dominate the global food system at an astonishing rate. In a recent report, Oxfam International points out that for a world of 7 billion people, 500 companies control 70 percent of food choice, with the top 10 companies by annual revenue controlling nearly every grocery store brand we know (see infographic below).
Using cheap fossil fuels, these food behemoths race around the globe distributing their barely recognizable “food” everywhere from Costco to chain supermarkets and convenience stores (and yes, even the local, organic groceries of the world). This model works well if giant multinationals can easily shift funds across the globe and avoid paying taxes that help support local government needs, while at the same time reducing their costs and increasing their supply of unhealthy foods—all in the name of maximizing shareholder value. In the process, however, an untold amount of fossil fuels have been used up and converted into atmospheric carbon, natural aquifers have been depleted, human labor has been exploited, and obesity and diabetes are now at epidemic levels.
Raising the specter of a corporate-controlled world in which sustainably produced food is nowhere to be had, a dozen or so other multinationals, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Del Monte, Monsanto, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson Foods being the best known among them, now control everything from the global seed supply to agricultural inputs and entire markets for agricultural commodities supported by sophisticated supply chain distribution models. It is no accident that only 3 percent of food eaten by Americans today is grown within 100-200 miles of where people live.
While these and further disastrous outcomes of the global food system seem inevitable, they are not a foregone conclusion. As demonstrated by initiatives such as AOTM, the agriculture-of-the-middle movement to save and expand the number of small and mid-sized family farms, the popularity of farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s), and the burgeoning “new economy” movement, a more localized approach has begun to take root, albeit at a scale dwarfed by the global food system. Still in their early infancy, these initiatives are fueled not only by a desire for good and sustainably produced food but also by their goals to end chronic diseases and deteriorating environmental conditions, and by tapping into the growing realization that old economic paradigms are leading to an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power that is destabilizing to society as a whole.
One such approach that sits at the intersection of these trends and promises to deliver more sustainable and equitable outcomes when compared to the global industrial food system is the Food Commons, a California-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Now in its fourth year, the Food Commons envisions an interconnected food system consisting of regional food networks that integrate production, aggregation/processing, distribution, and retail functions. Using a “commons” approach—the idea that some forms of wealth (e.g., air, oceans, wildlife, timber, etc.) must be protected and managed for the good of all—the Food Commons seeks to put in place the necessary physical and organizational infrastructure to bring about wholesale change in the way healthy food is produced, bought, sold, and distributed, while ensuring living wages and benefits for all who are involved.
Based on the building block of the foodshed, the Food Commons aims to establish a diversified network of regional food systems designed to meet local needs through a non-profit trust, a community corporation, and a community investment fund. In this unique organizational structure, the Food Commons Trust will acquire and steward foodshed assets, the Food Commons Fund will raise capital for foodshed enterprises, and the Food Commons Community Corporation will build and manage foodshed-based infrastructure, facilitate the logistics of aggregation and processing, and engage in wholesale and retail distribution. Meanwhile, a cooperative federation of regional Food Commons, located throughout out the world, will support the regions through information sharing, training, fundraising, and technical assistance (see below for a graphic).
As explained in Food Commons 2.0, a 2011 concept/strategy paper of the project, the Food Commons will produce the following outcomes:
- Make healthy and sustainably produced food accessible and affordable to all.
- Enable food enterprises within and across foodsheds to efficiently produce and exchange goods and services that meet high common standards.
- Capture benefits of scale in infrastructure, asset management, financing, information systems, marketing, and learning, while preserving local identity, ownership, control, diversification, and accountability.
- Transparently and equitably distribute common benefits along the value chain from farmers, ranchers and fishers, to distributors, processors, retailers, workers, consumers, and communities.
- Harness underutilized foodshed assets, and protect and steward those assets for current and future generations.
- Foster and celebrate regional foodshed identities that generate widespread consumer awareness, participation, and buy-in.
- Create a wealth of new small businesses and jobs, and build a skilled and respected 21st-century food system workforce.
The projected cost of developing each Food Commons region will vary based on local conditions such as the availability of underutilized assets that can be redeployed, the availability of existing entities (e.g., farmers and distributors) ready to participate in the Food Commons value chain, and the scope and scale of the enterprises developed. Starting from scratch, the capital requirements for land, buildings, development fees, equipment, and start-up and working capital could approach $100-$250 million for each Food Commons region. With assets already in place, development costs would be considerably lower. The Food Commons predicts that it could reasonably capture 25% of the $100 billon market for regional food. Assuming a total domestic food economy of $1 trillion, this translates into 2.5% of the overall food economy, making the Food Commons a $25 billion enterprise that is fairly distributed to all connected to it.
There are currently Food Commons systems in various stages of development in Fresno, California; Atlanta, Georgia; and Auckland, New Zealand. The Food Commons will use Direct Public Offerings, or DPO’s, to raise capital from the communities in which it is creating regional food systems. DPO’s allow both wealthy and non-wealthy investors (so-called “accredited” and “unaccredited” investors by the SEC) to invest, advancing the egalitarian vision of the Food Commons model. This eliminates the need for the Food Commons to make difficult choices in order to meet the expectations of a few profit-driven shareholders, further laying the infrastructure for a new food system with a different set of governing and operating principles.
At the Food Commons Convocation in July of 2014, the participants expressed a keen interest in launching the first Food Commons DPO in Fresno. Fresno, a city and county beset by extreme poverty in the heart of the most productive farmland on earth (a problem created largely by the global food system), would be well-served by a large-scale fund raised from both wealthy and non-wealthy investors, dedicated solely to the vision of a healthy, just, and localized food system.
While the current “cheap and fast” global food system threatens our future as it churns away unsustainably on fossil fuel inputs, the Food Commons will usher in a new economic paradigm and a resilient food system by diversifying the number of individuals and businesses participating in food supply chains, providing communities with opportunities to invest in and control their own food security, and increasing consumer choice and access to foods produced in accordance with commonly shared principles of fairness, sustainability, and public accountability.
 According to Food Commons 2.0, this is defined as follows: “The area of land and sea within a region from which food is produced in order to deliver nutrition to a population base. A local or regional food system includes all the inputs, outputs, and processes involved in feeding the population within a foodshed. Note that the foodshed concept does not obviate the goal or need to export or import food outside of a region.”