Urban Food Commons and the UK

Food poverty in the UK is a political choice. In ostensibly the fifth largest economy in the world, an estimated 4.7 million people, roughly 7% of the population, were considered living in severely food insecure homes in 2016 (“Food Waste And Hunger In The UK” 2022). With the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food relief organisation, reporting a 128% increase in the number of emergency parcels distributed per year over the period from 2016-2021, this number can reasonably be suggested to have risen since.

Our modern industrialised food system is dominated by Just-In-Time models of logistics. Supermarkets are known to maintain stockpiles of only three days’ worth of food (Cockrall-King 2012). The weaknesses of this system were exposed during the pandemic; the reality of customer stockpiling was only a slight increase in purchasing, but increased buying of longer-lasting items, more commonly purchased on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, strained supermarket logistic chains that had been based on predicted consumption and led to rationing of certain items. (Lee 2020) A future breakdown of this system poses a threat to the general food security of the nation, which would respond to shortages with rising prices, further compounding the inequality at present with regards to food access.  Fuel strikes by farmers and transport truck drivers in the year 2000 caused massive interruptions to supermarket supply chains and prompted the Countryside Agency to commission a report on the security of food stocks in Britain. This report’s conclusion saw fit to echo the words of American Investigative Journalist Alfred Henry Lewis, stating we are only ever “nine meals from anarchy”. (Cockrall-King 2012)

What is a food commons?

Some form of political anarchy may provide a solution to this issue, in the form of a food commons. A commons is a cultural or natural resource available to all members of a society, maintained by those same members, the commoners. This differs from a public good, which is a resource provided and governed by the state, an altruistic benefactor, or charitable organisation.

Jose Luis Vivero Pol, an anti-hunger activist and food commons researcher, asserts that food-sharing, bartering, and food produced for self-consumption is still a huge proportion of total food consumed at a household level within the global south. Much of that, especially foods within indigenous food systems, is cultivated on common land. Pol claims that land administered as commons comprises half the land in Africa, and suggests this figure is likely matched within Asia. (Bollier 2022)

Historically, this has also been the case in Europe and North America. Food as a right was a foundation stone of the earliest theories of a universal human right and its position as a state’s duty to provide versus being a commons was the primary opposition before the growth and domination of the market.

The Cura Annonae was a system of importation and distribution of grain within ancient Rome and Constantinople that included the grain dole, a free or subsidized apportionment of grain or bread given to the poorest citizens of Rome. Such a system supported the million strong population of Rome by reducing the civil unrest associated with periods of economic uncertainty, that resulted in inequal distributions of crop resources.

Gleaning is the practice of collecting crops left over after a harvest, predominantly by the poor, and is still relatively common throughout the world today. The act is relatively ubiquitous within Abrahamic culture, being explicitly mentioned in the bible and only in the modern industrial farming context has the practice fallen out of favour.

The development and expansion of modern industrial agriculture in reaction to the Second World War dramatically altered our relationship with food throughout the 20th century, positioning food within the market system as simply another capitalist commodity. Pol intimates that the market ignores what he calls the multidimensionality of food, positioning commodities as unidimensional, as “Everything either has a monetary price in market terms, or doesn’t have a value”. This multidimensionality, he poses, is now being explored by people in search of a true accounting of food production, whereby the exploitation of cultural practices, or damage to the environment are costs borne by local communities and not compensated for by corporations. He asks how can one put value on the “essentialness” of food, or how can one value a human right, or in the example of sacred bread within Christianity, how much should that pope-blessed sacred bread cost? Simply because food can be traded, does not mean the market is the sole valid method of distributing it. (Bollier 2022)

A food commons would need to act in balance with the state and the market, to provide completely for a citizenry. The market does have a relevant role to play in incentivising food production and distributing the food, but in its current capacity is already heavily subsidised by the state, especially when this is applied to staple grains. Pol suggests that some of this subsidy could be split between self-governing commons and a state provided basic food ration. The imperative, he suggests, would be to create a network of such commons to challenge the mainstream industrial food markets in order to influence such a shift in state allocation of food budgets. (Bollier 2022)

Such a network of food commons would be best placed among the people, within the cities themselves, reducing the food miles, improving air quality, and social welfare in providing access to individuals who would contribute to or receive from the commons. In other words, by entertaining the possibilities of urban agriculture.

What is Urban Agriculture?

The world has a test kitchen for urban farming practices in the island of Cuba, developed in response to the fall of the Soviet Union and increased embargos enforced by the United States during the early 1990s. Cuba’s Organopónicos are a system of co-operatively owned farms within the island’s cities, that serve the population with 90% of their fruit and vegetables. (Cockrall-King 2012) These farms provide a quota of produce to local care and educational institutions before being free to sell the rest. This system rests alongside Cuba’s state administered food rationing system which serves the population with the majority of its rice and sugar at a low cost. This more decentralised network hints toward the efficacy of Pol’s triangular system of State-Market-Collective, with Cuban GDP(PPP)/capita at $12,300 (122nd in the world) (The World Factbook 2022) yet its average daily dietary energy consumption being 3,344 calories (31st in the world, level with the UK) (Roser and Ritchie 2022).

In The Conquest of Bread, Petr Kropotkin argues that “The large towns, as well as the villages, must undertake to till the soil. We must return to what biology calls “the integration of functions”—after the division of labour, the taking up of it as a whole” (Kropotkin 1907) – that we should universally engage in a labour of working our available spaces and growing produce de-industrially to regain political control of our food.

With a consequence of Brexit being less favourable trading conditions with our largest trading partner (the EU), the cost of staple goods is likely to rise as the UK currently only produces 55% of the food it needs (only 23% fruit and veg), importing the rest. This will be particularly noticeable for fresh fruit and vegetables, commonly imported from the sunnier areas of mainland Europe. With the growing expense of this supply line, the UK will either seek to look further abroad, resulting in a greater carbon emissions impact of its calories, or the UK shall have to look inward and increase its self-reliance within the global food supply.

This post-Brexit opportunity has been identified by Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University, who claims that if half the garden areas of Britain were used for the purpose of producing fresh fruit and vegetables, the nation’s entire 6.9million tonne consumption of fresh produce could be catered for. (Bawden 2019)

Vertical farming is a developing agricultural technology based on the premise of utilising not simply the flat plane of a field but also the three-dimensional space above it to grow plants in layers. Vertical farms further remove themselves from traditional farming environs by being indoors, using artificial light and often without using soil. The object is to provide optimum growing conditions for a given plant whilst sealing the crop off from externalities such as unfavourable weather or climate, pests, and diseases that may spread between surface level farms. Soil-less, hydroponic systems drastically reduce the water used, and without the need for pesticides, contribute far less to water pollution whilst yielding cleaner produce. The ultimate focus of vertical farming in short is the minimisation of all non-electrical inputs, not least of all, the farm’s geographic footprint. In other words, vertical farming is designed to integrate within urban environments where energy is abundant, but all other resources are more costly and scarce than rural areas.

How can Urban Agriculture Facilitate Social Change?

The marketized system of distribution has built the orthodoxy of top-down methods of organisation, leaving little room outside the corporate vs market dichotomy for organisations of any major political scale. However, Elinor Ostrom’s research into commons resource governance systems “shows from innumerable examples that individuals can and often do devise ingenious and eminently sensible collective ways to manage common property resources for individual and collective benefit”. (Harvey 2012) Such bottom-up associations, Pol suggests, take longer to proliferate, but are more resilient to changing political climates when formed, making them more suitable to localised resource management. Though it is important to note that Ostrom doesn’t supply a scaling model of self-organisation and in her examples of forestry management, the state plays a role in empowering the localised collectives.

Kropotkin, alternatively, argues the efficiency of anarchic systems to spontaneously organise a ready supply to those in need, when the space arises for them:

“Give the people a free hand, and in ten days the food service will be conducted with admirable regularity. Only those who have never seen the people hard at work, only those who have passed their lives buried among the documents, can doubt it.” (Kropotkin 1907)

It is only through a commons architecture that a system can be both fair and enable agent autonomy. A stakeholder within an agricultural system must be free to receive from the land without payment, and to decide independently how they would use their produce. Kropotkin suggests the likelihood of a system of National Kitchens before arguing against their being a compulsory or sole source of food. (Kropotkin 1907) The merits of a National Kitchen may be favourable economies of scale and reduction of waste, as with our current industrialised diet, but centralisation is less favourable for a distributed food commons. The benefits of urban farms rely precisely on their locality to their stakeholders, and a food commons is enriched by the democratic control of its resources; aside from the well documented positive physiological impacts of eating fresher produce, the mental impacts of being around greenery and knowing where food has come from, a local food commons permits the active participation in the choice of crops, enabling the expression of regional dietary diversity. Decentralised systems such as the Cuban Organopónicos don’t suffer the corporate desire for homogenisation of produce, keep prices lower and reduce the administrative bloat of larger conglomerated farming structures. (Cockrall-King 2012)

By utilising the efficiencies of vertical farming and the possible modes of automating much of the horticultural knowledge-based labour (e.g., sensing plant requirements), it may be possible to reduce the necessary participatory commons labour to predominantly low knowledge, low skill but high dexterity tasks (e.g., picking fruit/veg), making participation within the commons undaunting and easily accessible. The primary goal of any commons is to engage its commoners to invest in its socialised benefits above any personal gain. Neglected commons become vulnerable to encroachment and privatisation, an issue that any automation without careful management is particularly prey to. However, once a commons has been established, “the political recognition that the commons can be produced, protected, and used for social benefit becomes a framework for resisting capitalist power and rethinking the politics of an anti-capitalist transition.” (Harvey 2012)

Where do sensing practices intersect with Urban Agriculture?

Sensing practices can be grander than simply the application of technology (computational or otherwise) to collect data about the environment. Making biological markers computable is the first step to automating an agricultural practice with the intent of producing a dynamic, reactive system in symbiosis with the plants in question.

Within a traditional farming environment, discolouration of plant leaves, presence and condition of companion species, and identities of insect populations can all prove indicators of environmental conditions and hint at beneficial improvements. Indicators such as these can be made computable through camera-based recording and machine-learning based processing of data to provide diagnostic prognoses of plant condition and thus suggestions for further action if necessary.

A vertical farm offers a glut of opportunities to measure and control the growing environment. The model “plant in a box” system exists within a hermetically sealed atmosphere, using artificial lighting tailored to the metabolic cycle of the subject plant, at optimum heat for metabolic processes, providing tailored fertiliser-laced water, with waste to be harvested and recycled. This level of control exists to reduce reliance on the incidental indicators (companion species, insects) in favour of more directly computational sensors, (e.g., moisture sensors; nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium sensors; light sensors; humidity; air particulate and CO2 sensors) to build an efficient system to maximise yields. The costs of such sensors are lowering, along with the cost of computing power, lending greater opportunity to more applications and communities.

This wealth of “indicative measurements”, provided open access, forms an information commons as part of the urban farm. Commoners engaged in the farm system are more than the passive consumers of today’s supermarkets; taking an active role in the growth of their produce, commoners develop practices alongside and in conversation with the data obtained. This knowledge bank, available to all for investigation, affords the citizen scientist opportunity to attempt further development and optimisation of practices within the farm. In building these relationships with, “rather than merely accessing data, citizens generate distinct relations to types and uses of data, which can in turn be expressive of new data citizenships.” (Gabrys, Pritchard and Barratt 2016)

The intent of these low-cost computation-based sensors ultimately is surveillance, one that may primarily revolve around plants and their condition, but also carries the potential to surveil the commoners in their labour. Through surveillance, it is tempting to divvy up the farm yields based on labour input, but as Kropotkin points out, this is simply another form of wage-labour. Although it may seem fair to utilise micro-measurements to provide accurate summaries of the time given to each task within the farm, to do so and then to use such data to inform a compensation system creates a relationship between the procurement of food (a necessity for life) and labour. In doing so, certain assertations are made: One doesn’t deserve the right to the necessities of life simply by dint of being alive (Casting the vulnerable, infirm, and unproductive into social debt) and thus exploiting the threat of starvation to coerce citizens into reluctant labour becomes a virtue.

Is a Food Commons Reasonable?

A food commons as a network of managed urban farm systems would provide a localised and healthy reprieve for the food insecure. The caveats are numerous but not insurmountable; urban and vertical farms suggest a fantastic use of under-utilised urban areas or buildings, like with Chicago’s The Plant (Cockrall-King 2012), yet in a city like London, where space is at a premium, the capital investment or political will to secure land to develop any urban farm practice is a significant obstacle, and ever greater when considering the sheer volume required to make a dent into the food debt of the metropolis.

Due to this capital requirement for land (even more so for vertical farming equipment), it seems likely that any commons would begin as an altruistic public good on the part of the state or a particular benefactor, and performing that transition into a network of locally, democratically managed systems, presents a major challenge to overcome.

The management of any commons system would need to walk a tight line between laissez-faire engagement and a structured commonry without descending into ill-repair or a surveillance dominated labour-scrip economy.

It is clear that automating much of the plant care would lower the barrier to entry for participation in the stewardship of high yield crops, but if left solely to the market and in a privately-owned enterprise, an urban farm would more readily be operated for profit. Such activity would ignore the needs of its local communities and likely keep wages low. Co-operative systems may straddle the line between profit and local community, but without a state or commons backed rationing system, they would face barriers to growth and without developing a network of alternatives to industrial farming, would struggle to alleviate the issues of food poverty being addressed.  Ensuring food as a right necessitates the separation of sustenance and politics, and it is only through the grassroots cultivation of a localised food commons network that such a sentiment can germinate, grow, and flourish.


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