Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Management of The Commons Means More Sustainable Food

Everyone knows that Obama won a Nobel Peace prize in 2009, but it was one of the Nobel laureates for Economic Sciences that really caught my attention. Elinor Ostrom, the first female recipient of the prize, was awarded based on her “analysis of economic governance, especially of the commons.” I know this may sound a bit far removed from the topic of sustainable food, but bear with me. As Ostrom discovered, the management of the commons is actually quite relevant when talking about sustainable food sources, and local food systems.

You may remember the idea of “the commons” from a high school science class, which is where I first bumped into it. Garrett Hardin’s essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons” has become a classic, describing the fate of common natural resources. Inevitably, common property resources, like grazing land, fisheries, forests, etc. are prone to overexploitation and eventual collapse if poorly managed. Ostrom’s research concludes that the best way to manage such resources is not to rely on government management regulations but for local stakeholders to create their own management systems, since they are the very ones who are so invested in the health of the resource.

So how does this apply to sustainable food? The easiest example, but certainly not the only one, is to look at this in the case of the world’s fisheries. Fish are a common resource; they are not privately owned (unless they are farmed.) Fish are also an important food source for about 20% of the world’s population, who rely on fish for high quality animal-based protein as part of their diet. The high demand for fish throughout time has led to the complete overexploitation of many, if not most, fish species and stocks. So far, the efforts of international coalitions, country and regional governments have shown little success in managing fish stocks in a sustainable way. Ostrom’s research uses a few select examples, such as the Maine lobster fishery in the 1920s, to show how small groups of stakeholders come together and create systems to manage a common resource effectively and ensure its sustainability. This takes the control out of the hands of the official experts and government, and transfers it to people who are intimately connected to a particular common resource.

Much of our food is linked to common property resources, be it fish, grazing livestock, or anything else. In order to create truly sustainable food systems we must take a cue from Ostrom’s findings and create better, more localized ways to manage the commons and sustain vital resources.

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