Why we need to rethink food as a commodity

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021 00:00 | By
Vegetable display at a market. Photo/Courtesy

Dr Elizabeth Kimani highlights why looking at food as a basic need will go a long way to end hunger and conserve the environment.

Milliam Murigi @millymur1

It has been estimated that almost 800 million people in the world don’t have enough food to eat. Out of this 14.5 million are Kenyans.

A 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) indicates the prevalence of food insecurity in Kenya is close to 60 per cent. This is quite a staggering figure despite government efforts to achieve food and nutrition security by 2022.

Since hunger is a worldwide challenge, evidence indicates that globally, more food than needed is produced, yet millions (a 10th) of the world population is hungry, with pockets of deeper vulnerability where a big proportion of the population is hungry.

Dr Elizabeth Kimani Murage, a  public health specialist and senior research scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) says as a country, we are in this situation because of food commodification.

Food commodification occurs when food is used and viewed as a commodity—primarily a private good—something that has to have a monetary value.

Food as a commodity cuts out a big section of the population that cannot afford it, farmers included.

Basic need, right

This is different from the original value of food, which is primarily something to feed people first, a basic human need that everyone needs whether they have money or not, a basic human right that everyone should be entitled to despite their economic status.

Dr Elizabeth Kimani.

 “If we want to end hunger in our country, we need to move from the notion of food as a commodity to food as a basic human need.

A common good that people can be supported to produce in the community wherever they are and share among themselves and a public good that the government provides for its citizens, especially the vulnerable,” says Kimani.

She adds that the commodification of food takes the basic human need and right and places it in the hands of a few individuals who can afford it, making it impossible for everyone to enjoy the right. Commodification leads to hunger in a world of abundance

Commodification also leads to harmful use of chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides to maximise yield. 

The current food systems, dominated by food commodification have resulted in massive environmental degradation, inequalities, and social injustice.

They contribute to massive deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, water, and biodiversity loss. 

 “Commodification can promote livelihoods and the country’s gross domestic product, but we need to do it right.

We need to have human-centred and agro ecological food systems that take care of people and the environment, reducing degradation, promoting access to healthy food for all, and promoting livelihoods for small holder farmers and other smallholder actors in the food system through responsible agribusiness,” she adds.

There  are many things that can be done to achieve this such as promoting universal food access through different ways, supporting smallholder farmers to produce food efficiently and effectively to feed themselves and the world, supporting farmers to be able to store and distribute their food efficiently and effectively to reduce food loss.

There is also a need for promoting food sharing in communities to ensure resilience thus protecting the most vulnerable.

Paradigm shift

Additionally,  there is need to consider universal school feeding programme, especially in poor communities, to ensure every child has access to healthy food at all times.

The government should set up food banks/reserves or other forms of safety nets to ensure the most vulnerable do not sleep hungry.

“Food does not always have to have a monetary value.  It can be produced for own use and the excess shared.

We need to promote the African culture of Ubuntu (I am because we are). Reconceptualising food as a common good will help deal with the evils of the current trend created by food commodification,” she adds.

And what will be the practical implications of a common food system? Kimani  says it will ensure food is returned to its place as a common good that can be governed in the community to ensure no one goes hungry.

This paradigm shift will have implications on food trade and food governance from over-dominance on global food trade and governance to community food governance and food sovereignty of local communities.

 This will have implications on power dynamics, empowering local communities to make decisions regarding production, distribution and consumption of their food.

It will also speed up the achievement of the zero-hunger sustainable development goal (SDG two), in the spirit of leaving no one behind.

More on Business