The Value-Based Narrative of Food as a Commons. A Content Analysis of Academic Papers with Historical Insights

57 Pages Posted: 13 Nov 2016  

Jose Luis Vivero Pol

Catholic University of Louvain (UCL)

Date Written: November 7, 2016


Food systems primary goal is to nourish human beings. And yet, the current industrial food system, with its profit-maximising ethos, is not achieving that goal despite producing food in excess. On the contrary, this system is the main driver of Earth transformation. Actually, the way we produce, eat and value food as a commodity is changing the planet in ways that threatened our very existence. Nonetheless, food systems also play a double role as Nature’s steward. Deciding which role we want food systems play will very much depend on the idea we have about food. What is food for humans? A vital resource, human right, cultural pillar, natural resource, commodity, commons, public good? The dominant narrative of the industrial food system undeniably considers food as a tradeable commodity whose value is mostly determined by its price. This narrative was crafted and disseminated initially by academics and interested politicians, who largely favoured one option (commodification of food) over the others (food as commons or public good). In this research, the author aims to understand how the academia has explored the value-based considerations of food as commodity and private good (hegemonic narratives) compared to alternative considerations of food as commons and public good (alternative narratives). Two different research tools have been used to explore the diversity, relative presence and relevance of food valuations: a systematic literature review of academic papers since 1900 with Google ScholarTM, and a time-series visualization with Google Ngram ViewerTM of key words in written English texts present in the Google Books corpus since 1800. Different search terms related to “food commons,” “food commodity,” “food public good” and “food private good” have been used in the analysis. Results provided by both tools clearly show that “food commons” or “food public good” topics are very marginal subjects in the academic milieu (only 179 results since 1900) but with sharp increase in the eight years that followed the 2008 food crisis. On the contrary, “food commodity” presents almost 50,000 references since 1900, with peaks coincident with both world wars and the 1973 global food crisis. Another interesting element is that the phenomenological approach to food (epitomised in the “food as” searching term) largely prevails over the ontological approach to food (“food is”) except when food is linked to the “private good” dimension. This result points to the ontological approach to food by the economic school of thought compared to a phenomenological approach by other epistemological schools such as legal, political or historical scholars. In a world where the industrial food systems has clearly proven its unfitness to feed us adequately in a sustainable way, the need for the academia to explore other food valuations seems more urgent than ever. Scholars need to approach other narratives of food (as commons or public good) that go beyond the hegemonic and permitted ideas, unlocking unexplored food policy options to guarantee universal access to food for all humans, regardless their purchasing power and without mortgaging the viability of our planet.

Keywords: food, commons, commodity, academic papers, systematic review, history of commodification, transition narratives

JEL Classification: A11, A12, A13, B1, H1, H41, H42, H44, I23, N3, N4, N5, Q1

Suggested Citation

Vivero Pol, Jose Luis, The Value-Based Narrative of Food as a Commons. A Content Analysis of Academic Papers with Historical Insights (November 7, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Jose Luis Vivero Pol (Contact Author)

Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) ( email )

Place Montesquieu, 3
Louvain-la-Neuve, 1348
32 10474646 (Phone)


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