Markets dominate the world’s food systems. Today’s food systems fail to realize the normative foundations of ecological economics: justice, sustainability, efficiency, and value pluralism. Drawing on empirical and theoretical literature from diverse intellectual traditions, I argue that markets, as an institution for governing food systems, hinder the realization of these objectives. Markets allocate food toward money, not hunger. They encourage shifting costs on others, including nonhuman nature. They rarely signal unsustainability, and in many ways cause it. They do not resemble the efficient markets of economic theory. They organize food systems according to exchange value at the expense of all other social, cultural, spiritual, moral, and environmental values. I argue that food systems can approach the objectives of ecological economics roughly to the degree that they subordinate market mechanisms to social institutions that embody those values. But such “embedding” processes, whether through creating state policy or alternative markets, face steep barriers and can only partially remedy food markets’ inherent shortcomings. Thus, ecological economists should also study, promote, and theorize non-market food systems.
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