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Food and Water: A Common Stake

Food and Water: A Common Stake

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When an essential resource from nature becomes privatized, access to it becomes market-driven, and decisions about how that resource is used are made by private interests that may lie thousands of miles beyond a community’s borders. Furthermore, when water or food is treated as a market commodity, it can become concentrated in the hands of a few powerful private interests. They can assert pressure on policymakers to achieve favorable rules for their shareholders—often to the detriment of consumers, producers and communities. The importance of keeping the global commons under public control is an issue at the heart of democracy.
When an essential resource from nature becomes privatized, access to it becomes market-driven, and decisions about how that resource is used are made by private interests that may lie thousands of miles beyond a community’s borders. Furthermore, when water or food is treated as a market commodity, it can become concentrated in the hands of a few powerful private interests. They can assert pressure on policymakers to achieve favorable rules for their shareholders—often to the detriment of consumers, producers and communities. The importance of keeping the global commons under public control is an issue at the heart of democracy.

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Published by: Food and Water Watch on Oct 17, 2011
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12/28/2012

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Protecting the Commons Safeguardsour Food System and Water Resources
Water is bottled from the groundwater that feeds acommunity’s spring or a municipality’s tap and soldto consumers around the country. Fish is farmedin Hawai’i, using feed from Canada, then shippedovernight to Japan. Eggs produced in a handful of 
massive factory farms in the Midwest nd their way
into supermarkets around the country and processedfoods around the world.These activities take place everyday in our globalizedworld where industrial food and water products aretraded on a massive scale, and it’s possible thanks tothe privatization of our natural resources. Resourcesthat once belonged to us all—land, water, forests andnow, even, the oceans—have effectively been priva-tized. Our public resources, collectively known asthe commons, are routinely given to corporations—sometimes for free.When an essential resource from nature becomesprivatized, access to it becomes market-driven, anddecisions about how that resource is used are madeby private interests that may lie thousands of milesbeyond a community’s borders. Furthermore, whenwater or food is treated as a market commodity,it can become concentrated in the hands of a fewpowerful private interests. They can assert pressureon policymakers to achieve favorable rules for theirshareholders—often to the detriment of consum-ers, producers and communities. The importance of keeping the global commons under public control isan issue at the heart of democracy.
What is the Commons?
American journalist Jonathan Rowe captured theessence of the concept: “The commons is the vastrealm that lies outside of both the economic marketand the institutional state, and that all of us typi-cally use without toll or price. The atmosphere andoceans, languages and culture, the stores of humanknowledge and wisdom, the informal support sys-tems of community, the peace and quiet we crave,the genetic building blocks of life—these are allaspects of the commons.”
www.foodandwaterwatch.org • 1616 P St. NW, Washington, DC 20036 • info@fwwatch.org
Food and Water:Food and Water:
A Common Stake
 
The commons as an idea was most popularized ina 1968 essay by biologist Garret Hardin, “The Trag-edy of the Commons”. Hardin argued that if no oneowned the commons, it would be plundered, sinceno entity was responsible for its stewardship. It gave
ideological re to those who sought to privatizethe commons, but it had one major aw: Hardin’s
tragedy was of an “unmanaged” commons. Manyresearchers have denounced Hardin for ignoringexamples of common property management systemsthat have been proven to manage resources sustain-ably. Economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prizein 2009 for her research questioning conventionalwisdom that commons property is best managed inthe private sphere.To ensure access to high-quality, wholesome and safefood, maintain our clean water standards, and pro-vide healthy water to communities around the world,the commons must be managed collaboratively bythose who use it, not corporations. A corporation’s
mandate is to turn a prot for shareholders, not sus
-tainably manage resources.
The Use and Abuse of our WaterCommons
Whether it’s water shipped “virtually” from Kenya inthe form of roses for export or water that is bottledin one community and sold worldwide, one of ourmost essential resources is being increasingly com-
modied. The commodication of water—including
market-based mechanisms to manage it—threatensa resource that is central to not only industry, but tolife itself.Many economists, market-oriented environmentalistsand think tanks believe water markets are the bestway to promote water conservation and balance thetension between dwindling supplies and growingdemand. But market-based schemes for water man-agement are dangerous and often lead to speculation.They can promote water plundering to the detrimentof ecosystems and communities and have the poten-tial to price out those who cannot afford to pay.Similarly dangerous is corporate exploitation of pol-lution and scarcity problems to promote expensivenew water-related technologies like large-scaledesalination and high technology wastewater treat-ment. Desalination removes salt from salty water tomake drinking water, but it is a highly polluting andexpensive process. As with water markets, there isless incentive at every level to emphasize source pro-
tection and conservation, and the true benet comes
to those that own the technology.Industrial agriculture is one of the greatest threats toour water commons. It is the largest user of wateras well as a major polluter. Pesticide, fertilizer andmanure run-off from large-scale industrialized farmscan taint waterways both near and far.Another user and abuser of water is the energy indus-try. For example, natural gas fracking uses millions of gallons of freshwater in the process of extracting gas,and imperils groundwater, rivers and streams throughthe chemicals used during the process as well asthrough its waste.As freshwater is increasingly scarce thanks to pollu-tion, population growth, and climate change, manag-ing it under a commons framework — in the publicinterest — is critical. This means that the resource is
 
managed locally, transparently and democratically,not by corporations. Ensuring that water is viewed asa human right and not a commodity will go a longway toward creating an atmosphere where increas-ingly scarce freshwater is managed in the publicinterest around the world.
Privatizing Access to Good Food?
Increasingly, policymakers are inuenced by agri
-cultural interests to turn to technologies like geneticengineering, irradiation, growth hormones, and evencloning, but the technologies themselves do not comewithout risk — and they drive policies that privatizeaccess to safe food. Like water technologies thatcommodify water, food technologies afford no incen-tive to protect the environment, build equitable foodsystems or maintain safety standards for consumers.Genetically engineered (GE) foods are a good exam-ple. First, there is no way to guarantee that GE seedsor animals can be restricted to a certain parcel of landor sea, since seeds naturally travel through pollina-tion, and GE animals can escape into natural environ-ments. A farmer’s livelihood could be destroyed byan unwanted invasion of GE seed onto his property,ruining his ability to sell GE-free or organic products— and farmers have even been sued by the creatorsof GE crops for contamination found on their farmsfrom someone else’s crops. Likewise, geneticallyengineered salmon that escape from the nets of open
ocean sh farms could be detrimental to wild salmon
populations.Secondly, GE organisms literally privatize naturethrough the patenting of DNA, and concentrate theminto the hands of a few players. The U.S. industry
for genetically modied seeds and genetic traits isextremely consolidated: In 2007, two rms sold 58percent of the corn seeds, and in 2005, two rms sold
60 percent of the soybean seeds. What’s worse, de-velopment regimes push expensive GE seeds on poorfarmers around the world instead of supporting moresustainable, low-input and local means of feedingthemselves.A vibrant commons, including options for farmersto sell their product for a fair price and a diversity of seeds and breeds to plant, is necessary for vital foodproducing communities, which are in turn vital tohealthy food systems.
Our Ocean Commons
Like our land-based commons, our ocean commonsare under threat from our food system. Two bad prac-tices that are being promoted in the U.S. that threat-en the ocean commons are open ocean aquaculture(OOA) and catch and trade schemes. Also known
as ocean sh farming, OOA is the highly pollutingmass-production of sh using oating cages or net
pens in open ocean waters. In the U.S., we export
70 percent of sh caught or farmed here. If current
seafood trends continue, with OOA, we’ll export the
sh, but keep the pollution. It’s essentially the freeuse of our ocean commons for the biggest shinginterests to pollute and prot.
Another scheme that is privatizing our ocean com-mons is catch shares, or catch and trade. At itsessence, catch and trade is a means to allow almost
complete control of our sheries by bigger businessinterests. It often forces smaller historic shermenout of the industry, skews sheries toward industrial
production, and decreases job opportunities andwages for crew, leading to widespread devastation in
coastal and shing communities.
The unsafe practice of drilling off of deep water alsoimperils the ocean commons and the communities
that benet from it, as the Deepwater Horizon disas
-ter in April 2010 illustrated.
How Trade Deals Can Be Bad For TheCommons and the Communities
Corporations use political inuence to lobby for
trade deals that put global commerce ahead of thecommons. Trade deals essentially open up the com-mons for global business and erode environmentaland consumer safeguards. Governments can evenlose the ability to manage their own natural resourc-es under international trade regimes like the WorldTrade Organization (WTO).Trade deals are often promoted as vehicles for jobcreation, but too often the jobs created are low-wage jobs producing low-priced goods for consumers

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