The Food Commons in Europe

Food, a life enabler and a cultural cornerstone with multiple meanings, is governed as a mere commodity by the neoliberal food policies that prevail in Europe. These meanings so relevant to human are reduced to the one of tradeable good and the value of food is mixed with its price in the market.


The Food Commons in Europe

A  proposal by Jose Luis Vivero-Pol for the European Commons Assembly. Read the full proposal here.

Considering any good as a commons is a political arrangement to govern a particular resource in a situated place and time. Along those lines, the consideration of food as a commons rests upon its essentialness to human life and the revalorisation of the different food dimensions (see figure 1) that are relevant to people (value-in use) and thus reducing the tradable dimension (value-in exchange) that has rendered it a mere commodity. A regime based on food commons would inform an essentially democratic food system (food democracy) based on sustainable agricultural practices (agro-ecology) and open-source knowledge (creative commons licenses) using non-material (cuisine recipes, agrarian practices, public research) and material items (seeds, fish stocks, land, forests, water) as commons to reach a global commons (food and nutrition security for all).

Fig 1: The six food dimensions relevant to humans: multi-dimensional food as commons VS mono-dimensional food as commodity

Source: Vivero-Pol (in press).


Food shall be re-constructed as a commons based on its essentialness and the commoning practices that different peoples are maintaining (customary) or inventing (contemporary) to produce food for all, based on a rationale and ethos different from the for-profit capitalistic one.

Customary Food-producing Commons (territorial[1], many of them being ICCAs) are located in rural Europe, associated to cultural heritage, landscape preservation and biodiversity stewardship, being mostly owned in collective proprietary regimes, and still resisting the privatisation and enclosing waves triggered by capitalism. Despite centuries of encroachments, misappropriations and legal privatizations, more than 12 Million hectares of customary common lands have survived up to now in Europe (9% of France, 10% in Switzerland, 4.2% in Spain or 8.4% in Wales, UK). Their utility to human societies and efficiency in terms of resource management enabled them to survive up to present day. Despite this abundance, its relevance is hardly noticed by general media and neglected by the EU and national authorities and the mainstream scientific research.

Anyone can forage wild mushrooms and berries in the Scandinavian countries, thousands of surviving community-owned forests and pasturelands in Europe where livestock are raised in free-range, namely Baldios in Portugal, Crofts in Scotland or Montes Vecinales en Mano Comun in Spain. Additional examples can be provided by the irrigation system in the Huertas of Valencia, the emphiteusis proprietary regimes in Italy, the management of oyster beds in the Arcachon bay, the pastoral traditions of Sami people in the Scandinavian countries, the hunting licences in Switzerland and so on, so forth. In Spain, more than 6600 farming households depend entirely on them for earning their living, are grounded on legal principles that ensure the preservation of the communal condition of such property, as they cannot be sold (unalienable), split into smaller units (indivisible), donated or seized (non-impoundable) and cannot be converted into private property just because of their continued occupation (non-expiring legal consideration). In Galicia (Spain), common lands represents 22.7% of total surface and they are owned and managed by resident neighbours inhabiting visigothic-based parishes, a legal figure recognized in the 1968, 1989 and 2012 laws. Finally, in the medieval village of Sacrofano (Roma province, Italy), a particular and ancient University still functions for the local residents: the Università Agraria di Sacrofano holds 330 ha of fields, pastures, forests and abandoned lands where the citizens residing in the municipality can exercise the so-called rights of civic use (customary rights to use the common lands).

Contemporary Food-producing Commons (community-based, mostly urban, innovating practices). These social innovations re-invent traditional methods of governing commons (sharing home-made meals, community gardens) or design new commons that did not exist before, using internet, communication technologies and hyper-connectivity. European examples are mushrooming, such as Ecovillages (human-scale settlements consciously designed through participatory processes to secure long-term sustainability), Transition Towns (a placed-based movement to live with less reliance on fossil fuels and capitalistic markets) or Community Supported Agriculture (initiatives to re-connect small producers and consumers in local, organic, fair networks). They can be complemented with food buying groups, solidarity purchasing groups or food policy councils enrooted in alternative narratives of transition such as food sovereignty and agroecology such as Xarxa de Economia Solidária de Catalunya (Spain), Genuino Clandestino (Italy) or Cork Food Policy Council (Ireland).

Harvesting clams in Galicia. Photo by Jose Luis Vivero-Pol under CC-BY-NC-SA license


Food is treated as a mere commodity in European policies, legal frameworks and normative views. Actually, food is not even considered as a human right in EU charters, constitutions and legal frameworks, nor a public good subject to public policies and universal access (such as health, education or water) and least to say a commons, although many commons and community-owned resources are producing food for Europeans.

The impacts of EU policies on agriculture, fisheries, natural resources, biodiversity (including seeds) and traditional knowledge are generally detrimental to the common lands, the material and immaterial commons and the commoning practices of governance. The European industrial food system with its many externalities (climate change, disappearance of small-farming, unhealthy ultra-processed food, food waste, unfair prices to producers, the absence of the right to food, subsidies diverted to corporations and bigger farmers, water and soil pollution, biodiversity reduction, etc) is driven by the valuation of food as a commodity and the ethos of profit maximisation. As a token, a recent foresight report on the global food security by 2030 considers food as “an opportunity for trade, innovation, health, wealth & geopolitics” (p.34) with no single mention to food as vital need, a human right or a cultural determinant for Europeans. The Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), what represents 40% of EU budget (52 billion Euro in 2014), deals with food as a for-profit commodity, subsidising the industrial food system and denying the food-producing commons. None of the five relevant regulations that conform the legal/political corpus of the reformed CAP include any mention to “commons”, “common resources” or the “right to food”.

The commodification of food ended up in the dominant industrial system that fully controls international food trade and, although it does not even feed half of the European population, has given rise to the corporate control of life-supporting industries, from land and water-grabbing to agricultural fuel-based inputs. This industrial food system did not even achieve the goal of feeding adequately, in quantity and quality, the European eaters. Food Insecurity (understood as the inability to eat meat every second day) is rising in Europe, already affecting 13.5 M people (10.9%) with a 2.7% increase since austerity measures were implemented; there are 50 M people with severe material deprivation including food and water and 30-40% children in 6 EU countries are below poverty line.

At present, there is a consultation on the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR). Out of the ten topics that are considered relevant to the domain “Adequate and sustainable social protection”, none refer to the basic protection of two vital human rights, the right to food and the right to water, because they are considered as commodities (to be provided through markets and accessed through purchasing power) instead of public goods, rights or commons (to be provided through a polycentric governing system formed by public provision, market access and collective actions). Needless to say, the right to land or the right to have breathable air are also absent from this debate.

The next Common Agricultural Policy has to include food commons and the right to food. Perhaps also to be renamed as “Commons Food Policy”?


A myriad of local transitions towards local, sustainable, agro-ecological food production and consumption are taking place today across Europe. Drawing from Elinor Ostrom’s polycentric governance, food is being produced, consumed and distributed by agreements and initiatives formed by state institutions, private producers and self-organised groups under self-negotiated rules. Those food commons tend to have a commoning function through a multiplicity of open structures and peer-to-peer practices aimed at sharing and co-producing food-related knowledge and items. The combined failure of state fundamentalism (in 1989) and so-called ‘free market’ ideology (in 2008), coupled with the emergence of these practices of the commons, has put this tricentric mode of governance (see Figure 2) back on the agenda.

Fig 2: Scheme of a tri-centric governance and transition pathway for food systems in EU

Vivero-Pol (forthcoming, 2017).

Over the last 20 years there have been two streams of civic collective actions for food growing in parallel but disconnected ways, divided by geographical and social boundaries: (a) the challenging innovations taking place in rural areas, led by small-scale, close-to-nature food producers, increasingly brought together under the food sovereignty umbrella, and (b) the Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) exploding in urban and peri-urban areas, led by concerned food consumers who want to reduce their food footprint, improve the quality of their diets and produce part of their own food. Their maturity, however, have paved the way for a convergence of interests, goals and struggles. Large-scale societal change requires broad, cross-sector coordination. It is to be expected that the food sovereignty movement and the AFNs will continue (and need) to grow together, beyond individual organisations, to knit a new (more finely meshed and wider) food commons capable of confronting the industrial food system for the common good.

The transition towards a food commons regime will need a different kind of state (national states and EU authorities), with different duties and skills to steer that transition. The desirable functions of this Partner State are shaped by partnering and innovation rather than the Leviathan paradigm of top-down enforcement (command-and-control via policies, subsidies or regulations. This enabling state would be in line with Karl Polanyi’s theory of its role as shaper and creator of markets and facilitator for civic collective actions to flourish. Amongst the duties of the partner state are the prevention of enclosures, triggering new commons, co-management of complex resource systems, oversight of rules and charts, care for the commons (as mediator or judge) and provider of incentives and enabling legal frameworks for commoners governing their commons.

The private sector presents a wide array of entrepreneurial institutions, encompassing family farming with just a few employees, for-profit social enterprises engaged in commercial activities for the common good with limited dividend distribution and transnational, ‘too-big-to-fail’ corporations that exert near-monopolistic hegemony on large segments of the global food supply chain (van der Ploeg, 2010). The challenge for the private sector is to be driven by a different ethos while making profit, focusing also much more on social aims and satisfying needs. Thus, this food commons transition does not rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribution, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies. In plain words, governments will support private initiatives whose driving force is not shareholder value maximization (e.g. family farming, food co-operatives, producer-consumer associations), while citizen/consumers will exert their consumer sovereignty by prioritising food with a meaning (local, organic, fair, healthy) beyond the purely financial (not just the cheapest). The private may also rent commonly-owned natural resources to produce food for the market.

The transition period for this paradigm shift should be expected to last for several decades, a period where we will witness a range of evolving hybrid management systems for food similar to those already working for universal health/education systems. The Big Food corporations will not allow their power to be quietly diminished, and they will fight back by keep on doing what has enabled them to reach such a dominant position today: legally (and illegally) lobbying governments to lower corporate tax rates and raise business subsidies or mitigate restrictive legal frameworks (related to GMO labelling, TV food advertising, local seed landraces, etc.) among other things.


If food is valued and governed as a commons in Europe, the following food policy options could be considered, to be then materialised in concrete political, legal and financial measures.

1.- A Declaration of the European Parliament to consider food no longer as a commodity but a commons, public good and human right to be included in national legal frames & public policies.

2.- Set EU targets for food provisioning in 2030: 60% private sector, 25% self-production (collective actions), 15% state-provisioning through Universal Food Coverage (see point 12).

3.- European Citizen Initiative to consider food as a human right, a public good and a commons in European policy and legal frameworks. Policy priorities should be geared towards safeguarding farmer’s livelihood and eater’s rights to adequate and healthy food.

4.- Food commons and right to food in the CAP reform with specific references and a recognition of the importance of the food-producing commons in Europe.

5.- Local, organic, freshly-made Schools Meals as universal entitlements, governed by parents and school staff

6.- Promote Food Policy Councils at all levels through participatory democracies, financial seed capital and enabling laws. Once enough numbers are achieved, an EU Food Policy Council could be established to monitor the reform yet-to-be Commons Food Policy.

7.- Farmers and fishermen as public servants. Food producers to be employed by the State to provide food regularly to satisfy the State needs (i.e. for hospitals, schools, army, ministries, etc).

8.- Guaranteed daily bread for all. Establishing public bakeries where every citizen can get access to a bread loaf every day (if needed or willing to).

9.- Universal Food Coverage to guarantee a minimum amount of food to every EU citizen, similar to universal health coverage and universal primary education.

10.- Patenting living organisms should be banned as an ethical minimum standard.

11.- Food speculation should be banned, because it does not contribute to improving the food system.

12.- Stricter and innovative rules to avoid food waste (binding regulations)

13.- All agricultural research funded with public funds to be in the public domain.

14.- Food-related subsidies to support innovative civic actions for food such as Territories of Commons, community-supported agriculture, food buying groups, open agricultural knowledge, etc.

15.- European Parliament to elaborate a communication to call for an EU food bank network that is universal, accountable, compulsory and not voluntary, random and targeted, shifting from charitable food to food as a right.


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  • Maggio, A., T. Van Criekinge and J.P. Malingreau (2015). Global Food Security 2030. Assessing Trends in View of Guiding Future EU Policies. Joint Research Centre Science and Policy Reports. Foresight Series.
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  • Ostrom, E. (2009). A polycentric approach to climate change. Policy Research working paper WPS 5095. Washington, DC: World Bank.
  • Polanyi, K. (1944). The great transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Reprinted in 2001. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • UNICEF (2014). Children of the Recession: The impact of the economic crisis on child well-being in rich countries. Innocenti Report Card 12, UNICEF.
  • Vivero-Pol, J.L. (accepted, in press). Food as Commons or Commodity? Exploring the Links between Normative Valuations and Agency in Food Transition.
  • Vivero-Pol, J.L. (forthcoming, 2017). The food commons transition: collective actions for food and nutrition security. In: Ruivenkamp, G. & A. Hilton (eds.). Autonomism and Perspectives on Commoning. Zed Books. Pp. 185-221.
  • Vivero Pol, J.L. & C. Schuftan (2016). No right to food and nutrition in the SDGs: mistake or success? BMJ Global Health 1(1) e000040;



Handbook of Food as a Commons. Routledge, London. Edited by Vivero-Pol, J.L., T. Ferrando, O. De Schutter & U. Mattei (due in 2017, 28 chapters and 38 authors).

Transition towards a food commons regime: re-commoning food to crowd-feed the world. In: Ruivenkamp, G. & A. Hilton (eds.). Perspectives on Commoning: Autonomist Principles and Practices. Zed Books. Pp. 185-221. (forthcoming, 2017).

Food as Commons or Commodity? Exploring the Links between Normative Valuations and Agency in Food Transition (accepted in Sustainability)

The Value-Based Narrative of Food as a Commons. A Content Analysis of Academic Papers with Historical Insights (under review in Journal of Rural Studies). Available at SSRN:

No right to food and nutrition in the SDGs: mistake or success? BMJ Global Health 1(1) e000040; DOI: 10.1136/bmjgh-2016-000040 (2016).


How to reclaim our food commons? Meaningful food to crowd-feed Europe

Food is not a right in the SDGs: the EU position analysed


Staying alive shouldn’t depend on your purchasing power. The Conversation (2013).

Why isn’t food a public good? Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (2014)

Food as a commons: A shift we need to disrupt the neoliberal food paradigm. Heathwood Institute (2015)


Soberanía alimentaria y alimentos como un bien común. En: Seguridad Alimentaria: derecho y necesidad. Dossier 10 (Julio): pp 11-15. Economistas Sin Fronteras, Spain. (2013)


Peut-on éradiquer la faim à l’horizon post-2015 en continuant à traiter l’alimentation comme une marchandise ? CTA Knowledge for Development Blog.  February 2016.

[1] During the European Assembly of Commons, there was a policy proposal presented at the European Parliament session on “Territories of the Commons”. See here for text:  And here for presentation:

[2] Indigenous peoples’ and Conserved Community territories and Areas: natural areas, resources, species and habitats conserved in a voluntary, common and self-directed way by local communities and indigenous peoples throughout the world

[3] This figure is downsized since it includes only 13 countries and only refers to Utilised Agriculture Area, so forested or coastal areas are not included.

[4] Legislation in Finland ( )

[5] Those who have “an open house and a burning fireplace” what means they regularly inhabit that house, either owned or rented. Therefore, commonality is not inherited but granted by living in the community.

[6]There are 2800 Montes Vecinales de Mano Comun (Collectively-Owned Community Forests) legally protected, representing a third of total forest area. They produce wood, food, pasturelands, income by selling wood or renting land for wind-power turbines. They are an example of direct assembly democracy that can be replicated on other settings applying the EU’s principle of subsidiarity in decision-making. More info at:

[7] Law 13/1989 (10 October) de Montes Vecinales en Man Común (DOG nº 202, 20-10-1989) and Law 7/2012 (28 June) de montes de Galicia.

[8] The term “Università” derives from the ancient roman term “Universitas Rerum” (Plurality of goods) while the term “Agraria” refers to the rural area.

[9] ECOLISE and Global Eco-village Network Europe

[10] Transition Network





[15] Country studies have been done for England, Italy, Croatia and Spain



  • Jose Luis Vivero Pol is an engaged scholar, food commoner. Click here to read more of Jose Luis’ writing on this blog. Universite catholique of Louvain, Belgium Email: [email protected]
  • The P2P Foundation is serializing videos from the European Commons Assembly. See all videos here.
  • Lead image: Conviviality in Central Africa Flickr CC Luca Gargano

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