Food production uses about 40 percent of the land on earth, releases a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and irrigates with nine-tenths of the world’s water consumption [1
]. It drives deforestation, toxification, eutrophication, freshwater scarcity, species extinctions, and climate change, all of which threaten humanity’s collective ability to feed ourselves in the future [4
]. Worse yet, global food systems do not even adequately feed humanity today. An estimated 821 million humans suffer from chronic food deprivation and at least a billion more experience hunger because of unequal distribution within households, high-activity livelihoods, seasonal food insecurity, micronutrient deficiencies, or intestinal parasites that inhibit absorption [7
]. Meanwhile, 9 percent of global crop calories feed biofuel refineries and other industrial processes instead of humans. Another 36 percent feed livestock capable of digesting wild foods that humans cannot, who return fewer than one-tenth of those crop calories back to humans in the form of meat, eggs, and dairy [10
]. And around one-quarter of global edible food calories, or one-third of the mass of food production, ends up wasted [11
]. One-eighth of the world’s adults are obese while more than one-fifth of children under five suffer from stunted growth as a result of undernourishment [7
]. Hunger exists amid plenty, want amid waste. Food systems ransack ecosystems and fail to meet a basic human need. They are rightly already a priority for ecological economics research.
Markets govern much of global food systems. Moral philosopher Michael Sandel [13
] calls for a public debate about where markets serve the public good and where they do not. He argues that we need moral reasoning, not just economics, to decide which social interactions and practices should be governed by market mechanisms. This debate has dealt with whether markets should govern immigration, friendship, queues, medical treatment, university admissions, and the distribution of human organs, wombs, and blood [15
]. Within ecological economics, lively disputes deliberate the ethics and effectiveness of using markets and market-based instruments to address environmental issues, with particular attention to monetary valuation of ecosystem services [18
]. Jean-David and Julien-François Gerber [22
] have argued that immunizing society from market dependence in general—decommodification—should be a foundation of ecological economics. Yet, whether markets for food serve the public good is a question that has been absent from ecological economics’ research agenda. This article aims to spark this line of inquiry by decisively taking the negative position.
Non-market food systems, similarly, have received little systematic attention as an alternative from ecological economists. A meticulous online search using Web of Science and Google Scholar yielded just 19 articles about non-market food systems published in the journal Ecological Economics
]. (Colleagues and I are preparing a manuscript for publication in that journal in which we enumerate the methods of this literature review in detail.) Other disciplines—anthropology in particular [42
]—have studied non-market food systems, mostly in traditional societies, somewhat disconnectedly from the critique of markets. Yet people everywhere and at all times garden, hunt, fish, forage, and glean food that is not for sale. Food sharing is a universal human trait [43
]. Humans share food within families more than any other mammal and between unrelated individuals in complex patterns unique among all organisms [44
]. Even in the cores of neoliberal capitalism, where markets mediate most economic activity, people produce food to share, gift, and consume within the household. While the emerging body of research on urban farming and local food has focused mainly on commercial production and exchange [45
], food systems based on reciprocity, redistribution, and self-production are nearly always local. Some of these non-market food systems may serve the public good better than markets, or as a complement to markets. Others may not. Non-market food systems deserve careful study to learn, together with their participants, about how they might promote the public good. This article, then, also makes the case for studying non-market food systems.
I begin by offering a definition of markets and reviewing some typologies of markets. Ecological economists, I speculate, have neglected to question markets for food or study non-market food systems because food is inherently rivalrous, made excludable by coercive institutions, and produced for sale in global, complex, path-dependent, power-laden systems. Yet these reasons do not suffice to make market food systems desirable; nor do they warrant omitting non-market food systems from the research agenda of ecological economics. I draw on diverse literatures to argue that markets inhibit progress toward justice, sustainability, efficiency, and pluralism—the normative ends of ecological economics—in food systems. Next, I critically examine common proposals to remedy the shortcomings of food markets: regulating or supplementing markets through the state and constructing alternative, “ethical” food markets. I argue that food systems can approach the objectives of ecological economics roughly to the degree that they subordinate market mechanisms to social institutions with other logics and values. Therefore, food systems entirely without markets are, at the very least, worthy of consideration. By way of conclusion, I propose some preliminary, imprecise outlines of a program for empirical investigation, practical action, and theory building in the realm of non-market food systems.
2. On Markets
A market is an institution that enables buying and selling with prices. This institution can be a physical space, a shared ritual, a set of norms, or any combination thereof. The preceding definition combines all three ways that theorists have defined what a market is [48
]: based on what it looks like (prices, in this case), what it does (enables buying and selling), and what institutions or assemblages underlie it (a physical space, shared ritual, and/or set of norms). Myriad other definitions based on different observational, functional, and structural factors exist (many market theorists, however, somehow neglect to define the thing they study [48
]). There is no “correct” definition of a market. Any delineation is valuable only insofar as it is useful for the purpose at hand. Mine will work well to distinguish market from non-market food systems because prices imply specified, generally repeatable terms of trade. This excludes communal sharing, many centralized redistribution systems, non-simultaneous reciprocal gift exchange, and, I suspect, most barter.
There are many types of markets. Many typologies of markets, in fact. Neoclassical economics treats markets as relatively homogenous institutions. Economics textbooks tend to distinguish between types of markets based only on how they deviate from the theoretical ideal of perfect competition in a self-regulating market system generating socially optimal equilibria. Markets are “distorted” in the case of natural monopolies, common-pool resources, public goods, and the ubiquitous benefits and harms to others not involved in the transaction. Heterodox economists and other social scientists have proposed further market typologies based on completeness of contracts, the roles of participants, and other aspects that make real markets differ from market theory [50
]. By contrast, classical political economists such as Adam Smith [52
], David Ricardo [53
], and Karl Marx [54
] differentiated their theorizing about markets based on what was being bought and sold: goods, land, labor, and credit have different characteristics and different people buy and sell them in much different contexts and through different institutions. Echoing these thinkers’ concerns, Karl Polanyi [55
] argued that labor and land could never be governed entirely by markets because real people and ecosystems are not produced for sale and have needs that markets cannot meet or account for. But this arrangement is exactly what was desired by early 19th
-century capitalists, who needed steady access to workers and inputs, and by economists, who urged the establishment of these markets for factors of production in order to discipline the poor and organize society in service of industry [53
]. Classical economists theorized and promoted an all-encompassing self-regulating market system even as they admitted that land, labor, and money differed in important ways from other commodities. Polanyi called these fictitious commodities. He and other scholars of economic anthropology also conceptually separated external markets for trading between
communities from internal markets for trading within
them; societies without all-encompassing market systems rarely have the latter, internal type of markets, but instead rely on systems of reciprocity, redistribution, and self-production to meet needs and desires within communities [58
] saw a fundamental distinction between markets embedded in social institutions and the disembedded markets of an all-encompassing market economy that can only work properly—that is, self-regulate according to economic theory—when all other cultural and political governance mechanisms are subordinated to rules that facilitate competitive buying and selling in pursuit of gain, such that the market forces of supply and demand can determine prices and outcomes. That is, the market system requires disembedding markets from non-market social institutions. Market mechanisms then provide the set of rules guiding economic behavior and decision making. This is not to suggest that disembeddedness is the natural state of markets (if such a think were to exist). States disembed markets by forcibly creating markets for labor, land, and most everything else. This means eradicating social safety nets and establishing private property over land, among other reforms. Yet people and other beings fight back against full subjection to the whims of the market. Fully disembedded markets would destroy society and nature, Polanyi argues. So societies regulate, constrain, modify, and escape markets to retain the influence of non-market norms and values. This re-embedding counter-movement thus subordinates markets to other social institutions. One could inexactly place all markets on a spectrum between embedded and disembedded. Since markets can be thought of as patterns of behavior that follow institutionalized rules, markets embedded in non-market social institutions are extremely diverse, while increasingly disembedded markets more and more closely resemble the ultimately unrealizable theoretical ideal of the self-regulating market system. This suggests that the disembedded—really less
-embedded—markets of a market economy represent a purer form of market, freer from the muddying influences of particular cultures, places, and non-market institutions.
Markets for foods are in many ways their own type [60
]. Food is a human physiological necessity, without which we do not exist. Foods are organisms that comprise the ecosystems of which we form part. Food is the basis of rituals in every culture. Markets for other things that are essential, ecological, or culturally important share some of the characteristics of food markets I describe below. Some aspects of food markets apply to virtually all markets. Therefore, many of the hypotheses and contentions I make below can inform a research agenda questioning whether markets serve the public good in the case of not just food but any chosen good or service, especially other essential, ecological, and culturally important resources such as housing, water, or medicines.
Food markets are also quite diverse [60
]. Again, diversity corresponds with embeddedness: local, weekly (embedded) marketplaces each have their own norms and quirks, while (disembedded) markets for agricultural commodities like wheat are global and rather homogenous. But even market food exchange that is highly embedded in social relations—farmers selling raw milk at negotiated prices to their neighbors, for example—cannot necessarily be considered a spontaneous or fully autonomous phenomenon because internal markets for things like food exist only where states have turned land and labor into commodities by enclosing commons and destroying social institutions of reciprocity and redistribution [55
]. Yet ecological economists have tended to treat food markets as essentially inevitable. Why have food markets hardly been questioned? How have non-market food systems escaped careful consideration?
3. Food Markets Seem Inevitable
Ecological economists have neglected to systematically evaluate the desirability of food markets or develop any coherent body of knowledge on non-market food systems for sets of reasons that overlap considerably. Therefore, I combine my conjectured motives for omitting these two areas of inquiry—or lacks of motives for studying them, as it were—into a single list.
First, food is a private good according to economic theory [61
]. This is because food is rival and excludable. It is rival because you cannot eat food I eat. It is excludable because legal institutions backed by the threat of violence can prevent you from taking food that is my property. A systematic review of English-language academic texts since 1900 found nearly 50,000 references to food as a commodity or private good and just 179 to food as a commons or public good [62
]. Authors overwhelmingly referred to “food as
” a commodity, commons, or public good but wrote that “food is
” a private good, suggesting that scholarly understandings of food have been dominated by neoclassical economic thinking. According to economists, private goods should
be traded in markets. Supposedly costly non-market governance mechanisms should be “saved” for things are non-rival, non-excludable, or both. Moreover, the study of economics in general has confined itself to the study of markets [49
Second, food is actually produced for market, unlike labor, land, money, and most ecosystem services [55
]. Fellow ecological economists write, “Following Polanyi’s scheme, some commodities are not fictitious; they are produced for sale and exchange. There is no problem with valuing tomatoes with money” [18
]. Food itself and most factors required to produce it can be and have been private property [63
]. Yet history suggests that the fictitious commodification of land and labor (which are not produced for sale) triggered the widespread development of food markets. Thus, food itself is produced for market at least in part because of the creation of markets for things that are not.
Third, ecological economists may believe that markets are the least bad of all options for governing food systems. Food systems are complex, and markets simplify exchange and obviate continual deliberations. Coordinating production and distribution across space and time is difficult without markets [18
]. Markets have existed before and outside of capitalism [55
]. This all contributes to the seemingly pervasive belief that markets and central planning are the only two options for coordinating economic activity in large-scale societies [64
]. Maybe scholars are unable to imagine widespread, desirable, non-market, non-state food systems, and thus discount existing examples as uninteresting or not useful for thinking about systemic alternatives. Or maybe they can envision such systems but consider them unrealistic or bound to fail.
Fourth, the omission may be pragmatic. The hunger and ecological destruction in the food system are urgent and economic institutions exhibit considerable path dependence [65
]. Authors may feel compelled to propose remedies that can be implemented in today’s capitalist world. More to the point, researchers may be trying to come up with solutions that are attractive to actors in positions to enact sweeping changes; they may be pandering to people in power with politically palatable reforms. Ecological economists tend to carry out research that is relevant to designing government policies and programs. Findings about non-market food systems will often seem relevant only to their participants.
Finally, the beneficiaries and proponents of market food systems have political power in the academy and in society. Some parts of this phenomenon feel rather innocent. Market exchange of food eludes examination perhaps because buying and selling food feels natural; most people trade money for food in the marketplace almost daily in the urban areas where universities are located. Similarly, non-market food systems might be cast as hobbies or marginal sources of nutrition because this is how prominent scholars experience them. Research tends to reflect the worldviews researchers have been trained to accept and adopt, both in their academic formation and through life experience [66
]. Ignoring non-market food systems, for example, reinforces the marginalization of unpaid, reproductive work in capitalism. I explain below how market food systems serve and reinforce the dominant systems of power, which play an outsize role in determining research agendas—and, indirectly, findings—through state and philanthropic disbursement of funds as well as via the institutions that assign academic prestige. Social facts cannot be separated from values [67
], and interrogating market food systems or exploring non-market ones may well uncover facts that threaten the values of those in power.
To sum up, food is a rival good that political institutions make excludable. It is produced intentionally for sale in markets that would be quite difficult to abolish or replace. These are necessary but not sufficient criteria for justifying the ecological–economic desirability of market food systems. They in no way refute the call to systematically analyze, encourage, and theorize non-market food systems. Indeed, the role of uneven power relations in setting research agendas suggests that ecological economics’ purported normative orientation toward justice might by itself motivate studying food systems without markets.
proposes a rubric for determining the goods, services, and resources for which markets can serve the public good. This scheme loosely draws on the criteria for deciding whether to accept monetary valuations of resources or ecosystem services proposed by Kallis and colleagues [18
]. Ecological economists to date have concentrated on the first four criteria—rivalry, excludability, non-fictitiousness, and complexity. They have also frequently supposed, often without stating so, that the corruptness criterion is met, by assuming that governments are the only available non-market institution for managing economic systems and that they would generally do so less desirably than decentralized market coordination. The desirability criterion is novel; it adapts Sandel’s conception of serving the public good to the normative foundations of ecological economics. In the remainder of this article, I will argue first that disembedded food markets do not meet this desirability criterion, and then that ecological economists should study non-market food systems to reflect on when and where they can, or do, perform more desirably than market food systems.
In what follows, I assess the desirability of market-based food systems according to a set of objectives derived from Daly and Farley’s [68
] three goals for ecological economics—justice, sustainability, and efficiency—plus another foundation of the discipline: the weak comparability of values [67
]. For the latter, I examine markets’ effect on the plurality of values in food systems; since values are incommensurable, governance must take each into account separately. I occasionally use the term “desirable” in this article as a shorthand for just, sustainable, efficient, and value-plural. In the spirit of pluralism, I do not contain my arguments to single definitions of justice, sustainability, efficiency, or pluralism itself, but instead explore how market mechanisms interact with multiple conceptions of each of these foundations.
My argument is decidedly one-sided. The reader interested in reviewing the theoretical advantages and well-rehearsed defenses of markets should consult any elementary economics textbook, or marketing materials from food-related firms like grocery stores or packaged snack manufacturers. My purpose is to synthesize theory and evidence from diverse disciplines to call food markets’ desirability into question. Some of the arguments to come refer to characteristics and consequences specific to the disembedded markets of a market system. If we suppose that markets have some generalizable properties, functions, or at least regularities beyond the content of the definition I have proposed, then it follows that markets would exhibit these characteristics in proportion to the extent that a society subordinates other institutions to the rules of markets. The disembeddedness of markets vaguely corresponds to the “marketness” of food systems, or of society [70
]. We see evidence for the generalizability of markets in the fact that capitalist markets in the neoliberal era, when seemingly everything is for sale, display far less variability than those of traditional societies, where markets are limited to special purposes and are subject to strict norms regarding what can be traded, when, where, how, between whom, how much, and at what terms of trade. Thus, this assessment refers mainly to the generalities of the former.
However, since no market fully realizes the impossible ideal of disembeddedness, my contentions capture tendencies in the disembedding process.
That is, as non-market social institutions are increasingly subordinated to market rules, those markets increasingly resemble the markets I describe in the next four sections (on justice, sustainability, efficiency, and value pluralism). Because neoclassical economic theory portrays imaginary, perfectly disembedded markets, my assessment draws several insights from it. Yet I rely more on the critical conceptions of markets from heterodox schools of thought and other social sciences. In actually existing market economies, unlike in theory, markets have money and they include not just producers and consumers but participants whose sole aim is to increase their initial stock of money through buying and selling—merchants, capitalists, and speculators, namely [71
]. Because markets are political and cultural institutions involving interactions between real human beings, I incorporate understandings of markets from political economy, history, anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, and behavioral sciences. Market food systems, like all food systems, necessarily involve human–ecosystem interactions; so the following sections also employ findings from agroecology, earth systems science, political ecology, conservation biology, and other environmental sciences.
My approach is one of critical realism. This meta-theoretical position in the social sciences calls for identifying and illuminating the structures and mechanisms—those of markets, in this case—that play a part in producing phenomena of interest, such as the injustice and unsustainability of the world’s food systems [72
]. The responsibility of markets for creating, or at least facilitating the creation of, the undesirable state of today’s food systems has been severely underestimated, or at a minimum underexplored. As a preanalytic vision, critical realism posits an objective reality that humans can know, but never with full accuracy or certainty [67
]. This assessment of food markets is transdisciplinary because molecules, cells, brains, organisms, societies, ecosystems, earth systems, and so on are ontologically different, and so must be studied by a plurality of sciences. Moreover, different, at times incompatible, ways of knowing, approaches to inquiry, and even beliefs about reality can each be useful for forming tentatively reliable understandings of diverse facets of a world that is ultimately unknowable. They can challenge or substantiate each other’s truth claims, or create new knowledge together. The research agenda I propose thus encompasses plural philosophical perspectives. Multiple methodologies are needed to study if, when, where, why, and how market and non-market food systems serve the public good.
6. Food Markets Are Difficult to Fix
As markets approach the disembedded ideal of economic theory and neoliberal practice, they also tend to approach the unjust, unsustainable, inefficient, instrumentalist archetype described in the previous subsections. I have shown that proposals to remedy some of these problems can worsen others. Incorporating ecological costs into prices to improve sustainability, for example, reinforces instrumental environmental values [182
] and intensifies the injustices of markets [21
]. Increasing incomes until everyone can afford sufficient market food, in the name of justice, would in turn accelerate the surpassing of planetary sustainability boundaries [186
]. Ecolabels and alternative “ethical” markets—organic, fair-trade, and the like—seek to value plural values like justice and sustainability, typically through price premiums, yet in so doing restrict virtuous choices to affluent people seeking green status [187
]. At worst, they enable consumers to reproduce unjust social relations while believing that they are undermining them [188
Yet some of the justice- and efficiency-related problems of markets could be unambiguously assuaged by radically reducing economic inequality through the redistribution of existing income and wealth, including land. As a society approaches perfect wealth and income equality, “one dollar, one vote” comes to resemble an equitable economic democracy. More-equal societies outperform less-equal ones on all sorts of indicators of social, psychological, and physiological health [189
]. But reducing inequality is unlikely. Stanford historian Walter Scheidel [190
] finds that established inequalities have been flattened in the past only by mass-mobilization wars, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. French economist Thomas Piketty [77
] has partially replicated these findings in wealthy countries over the past several centuries. He also showed, as mentioned, that market economies tend to exacerbate inequality over time. Even where better-intentioned states have attempted to redistribute land and enact other progressive reforms, more-powerful foreign interests have often forcibly imposed capitalist development, providing ideological justifications for intervention through departments of economics in universities and government. The MIT Center for International Studies in 1957 proposed “deeper military involvement in rural development so that peasants would be less inclined to support ‘internal insurrections’” [163
]. Those whom inequality favors control the distribution of wealth. They did not ascend to their elite positions through generosity. To be sure, reducing inequality is a worthwhile perennial effort not just as a means to make food systems and markets more desirable but for its own sake—that is, to achieve distributive justice and egalitarian societies. I leave it aside here as a separate struggle that is on its own insufficient to resolve the undesirable qualities of market food systems described above. Note, however, that subordinating markets to egalitarian social institutions can make societies more equal even in the absence of income or wealth redistribution. In societies whose markets are more embedded in institutions that treat individuals as equals, a given level of economic
inequality will correspond to less social
Societies can make their food systems generally more desirable by embedding markets in desirable social institutions. My argument, in other words, is that societies limit the injustice, unsustainability, inefficiency, and value monism their food markets perpetrate and facilitate by intentionally subordinating market mechanisms to alternative, non-market logics, values, customs, and rules. This embedding strategy, of course, works to the extent that the non-market institutions within which markets are embedded embody values of justice, sustainability, efficiency, and pluralism. In traditional and tribal societies, embedding is ubiquitous; all markets are rooted in the institutions that comprise the general fabric of social life. In market societies, this subordination of the market manifests in counter-movements to protect people and the rest of the web of life from its devastating encroachment [55
]. This counter-movement can take several forms. I will describe each of these forms—reforms through the state, alternative markets, and non-market systems—and the barriers to achieving them. I argue that each of these counter-movements is an important but insufficient piece of efforts to align food systems with the normative objectives of ecological economics.
First, counter-movements can be reforms enacted through the state. These reforms change the rules of markets in ways that deviate from the self-regulating market system of economic theory, such as by constraining certain types of transactions or manipulating prices such that they are not entirely determined endogenously through supply and demand. This might include, for example, laws that limit or forbid speculating on agricultural commodities, to lessen the magnitude of food price shocks during times of shortage. Or it could consist of anti-hunger government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) in the United States, which provides limited-purpose money to low-income people with which they can purchase market food. Policies and programs that improve wages and working and living conditions for farmworkers or other food-system laborers also constitute a counter-movement against the disembedding of markets. Social movements for sustainable agriculture are part of the Polanyian counter-movement, too, to the extent that they push policies and food systems toward embodying non-market values [192
Yet the realities of political economy limit the likelihood of achieving desirable food systems through such measures alone. Once markets exist, it is quite challenging to prevent indexes, derivatives, futures markets, and other speculative instruments from materializing [193
], including illegally. Even the recent global financial crash did not lead to regulatory limits on finance. More troublingly, states use hunger for social control and as a rhetorical justification for their own interventions; thus, they do not want to fully eradicate its threat [163
]. The SNAP program provides too little to afford a healthy diet [194
], does not vary benefits with food prices, and exists as part of the U.S. farm bill, whose subsidies favor large-scale industrial agriculture [196
] and reduce the price of foods whose consumption is associated with greater cardiometabolic health risks like obesity and high cholesterol [197
]. Powerful corporate interests spend massive resources opposing effective regulations to protect labor and the environment [198
]. Even well-intentioned policies often perpetuate injustice and unsustainability, especially in their effects beyond national borders. Any social and environmental protections achieved must be defended in perpetuity. Plus, changing rules and incentives constrains rather than transforms the fundamental logic of markets; it is hard to imagine how policy for market food systems could curtail instrumental values like selfishness or the drive to shift costs on others. The counter-movement to subordinate food markets to other social institutions and values through the state, like the drive to reduce inequality, is necessary but not sufficient and faces steep odds. Below, I elaborate further on the fundamental barriers to achieving desirable food systems through state action.
A second type of counter-movement involves constructing self-contained embedded markets, separate from the dominant commodity food system. These “alternative food networks” include farmers markets, consumer cooperatives, and direct sales from producers to institutions or local businesses [199
]. They also encompass standards-based certification schemes like labels of origin [201
], organic, and fair trade [202
]. Alternative embedded markets can provide effective protections against certain undesirable features of food markets through formal and informal rules. Relational values related to justice and sustainability motivate many participants [203
]. In alternative local markets, producers set prices with regard for more than market forces [205
]. Local and urban food production tends to support justice and sustainability better than conventional agriculture for commodity markets [47
Yet alternative food markets’ contribution to creating more desirable food systems is complicated. Many scholars question whether the values and structures underlying alternative markets actually correspond with improved outcomes in terms of justice and sustainability [46
]. Alternative-market producers must still prioritize financial viability and enact instrumental values, after all [45
]. Price premiums instrumentalize relational ethical values. Moreover, alternative markets are marginal: just 1.2 percent of the world’s farmland is certified organic [212
]; the global fair-trade market is one-tenth the size of organic [213
]; and direct markets to consumers, institutions, or local businesses account for just over two percent of food sales in the United States [214
]. Scaling up alternative food markets often means compromising their embeddedness in local social institutions or non-instrumental values [204
]. Corporations have watered down certification standards and followed their regulations but not their principles, leading to contradictions like “industrial organic” farming [216
]. On the other hand, alternative food networks provoke change in part through their relation to the dominant market food system, such as by pressuring major corporations to change their practices. Alternative food markets are one aspect of comprehensive movements, such as food sovereignty and agroecology, that seek to transform global food systems.
Protective policies and alternative markets make progress toward justice, sustainability, efficiency, and pluralism by constraining the market mechanisms’ power over food systems. Another type of counter-movement is not regulating or embedding markets but creating non-market food systems. This can be done through the state or self-organization. I will treat each in turn. States, for their part, can centrally plan and organize food systems. In theory, they can govern all production and exchange of food above the level of the household without markets, as in the ideal of state communism, or they can administer small food systems or subsystems separately from the market, such as organizing food production and distribution for the military. In practice, neither of these examples tend to be fully non-market food systems according to my definition, since buying, selling, and prices are typically present. The Soviet Union and communist China, for example, both purchased the output of farms—whose operations were partly governed by the central planner—at prices set by the state, and then sold these products in state stores at another set of predetermined consumer prices [220
]. Social programs to feed the poor or the military often involve the state purchasing food either at commodity prices or from contracted producers, and then either gifting that food or selling it at preset subsidized prices. Thus, actually existing state-run food systems are best characterized as markets that are highly embedded in authoritarian or bureaucratic social institutions. Whether by replacing markets or embedding them, state food systems can prioritize desirable values. Food rationing can contribute to justice by giving precedence to needs over wants, and to sustainability by limiting consumption [221
]. State contracts that pay price premiums for agroecological farming can contribute to sustainability too [223
]. Centrally planned economies, unlike those based on the private accumulation of capital, need not grow, at least in principle [224
]. Centrally planned price schemes can make food markets stable, and also enable, by subsidy, the simultaneous realization of adequate remuneration for producers and affordable food for consumers.
But centrally organized state food systems have not performed desirably and may not be able to. China’s horrific famine during the Great Leap Forward illustrates the worst possible injustices of state-planned food systems. From 1958 to 1961, 16–30 million people died prematurely—the greatest loss of human life to hunger in recorded history—mostly because of systemic failures in central planning: expecting implausible increases in productivity, China’s government diverted resources from agriculture and procured too much food to send to cities, leaving farmworkers famished and unable to produce enough to feed their rural communities [226
]. For achieving not just food security but also sustainability and efficiency, state bureaucracies’ centralized knowledge is far less useful than the local ecological knowledge of food system participants spread across the landscape [63
]. Productivist centrally planned economies in the Cold War years dedicated more resources to agriculture than market economies yet output remained less than desired [220
]. In Cuba, the farms with the most autonomy over production decisions tend to fare better agroecologically—producing greater output from fewer inputs—than those subjected to central planning [224
]. Moreover, the movement for food sovereignty is based on the premise that communities have the right to govern their own food systems [229
]. Without mechanisms like the market that enable participants to express and respond to needs and offers in a decentralized fashion, large-scale food exchange networks become woefully inefficient at allocating resources and nourishment to those who most need it.
There is reason to doubt that state-run food systems would ever be just even if planners were to have perfect information. Political elites tend to attend and respond to the desires of other elites, not ordinary people [230
]. Those in positions of power leverage their status to personally benefit, consolidate their privilege, and extend it to those in their empathic circle [231
]. They are hardwired to ignore risks that threaten less-privileged others or their own individualistic worldview, including their self-serving belief in meritocracy [232
]. Regardless technical advances or political-economic system, elites eat first, even as marginalized people live on the edge of starvation [163
]. States are history’s only strict, fixed, extractive, bureaucratic social hierarchies [233
]. When states produce or procure food to give away or sell at subsidized prices, even in market economies, it is the bread of “bread and circuses,” provided to the hungry populace to quell unrest and manufacture consent. Food remains frequently used as a weapon of war in foreign policy [234
]; it is an incredibly effective tool of coercion in a world of hungry humans. State grasps for power over domestic food systems should be seen in this context. What is more, markets are themselves a social institution like any other. Since states institute all markets, even market food systems are to a great extent planned [236
]. Therefore, governments are largely responsible for the injustice, unsustainability, inefficiency, and value monism of real-world market food systems, too. States did not have to create market systems that approach the disembedded ideal of economic theory. But this is what they have tried to do, despite undesirable outcomes.
To be sure, state policies and programs are
potentially effective means for working toward desirable food (and economic) systems, precisely because state governments have so much power. Historically, pressuring states to feed the hungry and generally improve social and environmental conditions has worked, especially when such pressure has organized itself in disobedient, leaderless mass movements with ambiguous demands [237
]. Moreover, many policymakers, bureaucrats, and others in government truly do have good intentions; they care about justice, sustainability, efficiency, and honoring the plural values of constituents. What is remarkable is that in spite of
declared noble intentions, hunger and poverty have never before been greater relative to the world’s collective capacity to eradicate them [240
]. They persist mainly because powerful elites have, deliberately or not, instituted economic systems that channel resources to themselves. International governance institutions like the United Nations continually tweak measurement methods and retroactively fabricate baselines to make it appear as if poverty and hunger are decreasing when they are not [9
]. As ecological economists, devising policies to modify markets or programs to supplement them is an important part of our work; policymakers pick from available ideas. Striving for better
markets and better
states is striving for a better world. But what if there are actions that common people and marginalized communities can take to make food systems—and economies—more just, sustainable, efficient, and plural? What if they can avoid the pitfalls of markets and the state entirely? This is my argument for serious inquiry into the nature and potential of food systems without markets or states.
The call for regulated or embedded food markets misses grander opportunities for a more desirable world. Food is rarely traded in markets at all in contemporary and historical societies whose markets are embedded—that is, societies that do not subordinate social life and institutions to the market [42
]. Internal (within-community) food markets arise when land and labor become commodities [55
]. If, following Gerber and Gerber [22
], ecological economics founds itself partly on freeing life from full determination by markets, we might do well to focus on freeing food—an essential, ecological, cultural good with unique characteristics that undermine many of the benefits of markets [242
]. Think of food like health care. Economists have long struggled to reconcile market theory with the fact that general equilibrium cannot be reached if participants’ survival is not guaranteed by some initial endowment [71
]. A Nobel prize-winning economist, unable to find a satisfactory specification that did not assume death by starvation for those whose resources were insufficient, once conceded that the market model “would be found best suited for describing a society of self-sufficient farmers who do a little trading on the side” [243
]—or any society whose nourishment is assured by non-market food systems, I would add. In addition to alternative markets, food activists and scientists should consider alternatives to
But the fact that markets mostly fail to produce justice, sustainability, efficiency, and value pluralism does not automatically entail that other economic arrangements for food systems can or will. Whether, and how
, non-market food systems can succeed where markets fail is the key question around which to organize a research agenda on the topic for ecological economics. This is the final criterion of my rubric for assessing whether markets serve the public good, which I called “corruptness” in Table 1
. Disembedded food markets fail the desirability criterion, I have argued, and embedded markets can approach desirability only partially and with great difficulty. Ecological economists must study how non-market food systems perform with respect to the normative foundations of our discipline. Figure 1
visually summarizes my argument.
Of course, directly comparing market and non-market food systems, or different types of non-market food systems with each other, is tricky because all else is never equal. Yet learning about how non-market food systems function can point the way toward an understanding of their role in transformation toward more desirable food regimes. Through empirical analysis, ecological economists can determine what sorts of non-market food systems to promote based on their performance or potential with relation to justice, sustainability, efficiency, pluralism, or the values that participants themselves hold. Theoretical work can then contemplate how such systems might replicate themselves or come together in desirable assemblages of coexisting food systems. A subsequent article will review research on non-market food systems and suggest an agenda for ecological economists studying them. My purpose is not to propose a blueprint for desirable non-market food systems, but to suggest that ecological economists examine those that already exist in every society on earth. Moreover, since non-market food systems are created spontaneously and autonomously by communities, not planned or instituted by governments, it is unclear to whom a scholar would propose how to create a desirable one. Here, I will conclude by reviewing the broad outlines of the research agendas I have proposed for critically assessing the desirability of food system institutions and plans to transform them.
Overall, today’s global food systems are unjust, unsustainable, inefficient, and value-monist. Yet the primary institution for governing them, markets, has hardly been questioned as such. I have argued that markets bear much responsibility for the undesirable nature of food systems. In so doing, I have proposed a rubric of sorts for assessing the ecological–economic desirability of markets for food, and I put forth several contentions and hypotheses intended to initiate research and incite debate around this question. Researchers can and should adapt this agenda for considering consistency with the normative foundations of ecological economics to any economic institution, not just markets, and any good or service. I focused on markets because of their ubiquity and acceptance, and on food because of its status as an essential, ecological, and culturally important resource.
To evaluate the desirability of markets as such, I argue that one should pay attention to markets that are disembedded from other social institutions. To sum up, markets allocate food to its most lucrative uses, not the hungriest humans. People act selfishly and accept injustice in market settings. Market pressures force food producers to shift costs onto the public and ecosystems. Market prices rarely signal environmental degradation. Market competition in food systems drives the economic growth that has pushed resource use and waste generation past planetary thresholds of sustainability. Markets for food are unstable and unlike the efficient markets of economic theory. They revolve around monetary value, neglecting food systems’ cultural, spiritual, and ecological attributes.
Despite our compelling economy-in-society-in-nature diagrams, ecological economists’ most typical methods are well suited for studying economic systems as separate spheres, divorced from but interacting with their social, cultural, political, and biophysical milieus. But to study embedded markets and non-market systems, where no separate economic institutions exist, one must understand the economy as just one aspect of an integrated whole made of nature, culture, social organizations, and supernatural meta-persons. This requires developing what Clovis Cavalcanti has tentatively called ethnoecological economics [244
]. This transdisciplinary literature review, like the synthesizing work of social ecological economics [67
], coevolutionary ecological economics [245
], or political ecological economics [121
], works toward fulfilling our field’s holistic intentions. With a broader set of quantitative and qualitative tools, as well as more diverse theoretical frameworks to draw on, researchers are better equipped to critically consider the feasibility and desirability of different options for embedding food markets through policy or alternative food networks, or for maintaining and creating non-market food systems—an astoundingly underdeveloped area of inquiry.
Thinking about how the evolution of economic institutions interacts with justice, sustainability, efficiency, and values will not end with a convincing set of answers. Nor is it meant to. This research agenda’s purpose is to deepen and sharpen our understandings of the ways in which communities work toward and at times achieve these goals (or not), in service of transforming societies toward them. This research is meant to inform action. If my argument holds any kernel of truth, if market food systems are undesirable and all strategies for resolving their shortcomings are partial and extremely challenging, then this in itself warrants substantial promotion and propagation of non-market food systems. Research is part of action; ecological economists should also analyze, experiment with, and theorize about non-market food systems. We should learn from those who produce food that is not for sale and exchange food without money. We should assess diverse non-market food systems’ desirability according to the rubric presented in this article.
Research is action in a more fundamental sense, too. Researchers create reality as they study it [246
]. Data is generated, described, modified, analyzed, and interpreted; it is not simply out there waiting to be discovered or harvested. By drawing academic attention to non-market food systems, researchers bring them into being in the minds of their participants and give them legitimacy in society. I cannot explain my research to an interviewee without familiarizing them with the critiques of food markets or the concept of non-market food systems. Research is political, not only in its philosophical orientation but in the subjects we decide to study [247
]. Theories of food systems, similarly, not only reflect reality but shape it [60
]. Because social facts and values are inseparable, this article unavoidably criticizes not just market-based food systems but also the idea
that markets are compatible with desirable food systems. May the ensuing debate bear fruit.