Biome Trade or Onka’s Big Moka

The UK retail market in groceries was over 200 billion in 2020. Of that over 96% of groceries were delivered by supermarkets of somekind. Of that around 7.5% was fresh food, whilst just over half of the food consumed in the UK is locally produced (fresh and non-fresh).

On the other hand there is a disparate movement of people seeking to grow and supply local fresh food that does not reach consumers via the formal market. This exchange of foodstuffs may or may not be captured by such statistics. In addition these statistics focus on market value rather than social, ecological, and nutritional value.

There are interventions that try to partially address the ethics of imported food and drinkstuffs, such as fair trade bananas. But they are still part of the (economic growth) market and their ethical standards are more dubious than they sound.

However, there are also initial ventures in the importing food/drinkstuff sector seeking to cut out the supermarket, establish fair social and ecological relations with producers and import via low carbon means. For example, the Sail Company Alliance and Open Food Networks UK are pioneering this space.

But what about dry goods, spices, and staple herbs? What about foodstuffs, foraged and agricultural produce that do not make sense to grow/forage in the UK but are staples? Well the SCA and OFN are sort of working this space, but there is plenty of room to add more efforts.

Most importantly though, what about stepping outside the formal market itself and removing not just the profit but the transactionalisation of forage-agri-produce. This is the main aim of Biome Trade. To go back to some of the early roots of the colonization of the Global South by the Global North in the form of the Portuguese spice trade. And rebuild differently what this socio-nutritional exchange might look like, based on the principles of open rather than closed reciprocity and nurture rather than mechanistic relations.

To do this Biome Trade is an action research project, meaning it has not predefined a solution to the question. It is seeking, but will iteratively update and upgrade itself as it goes along. However, it is not just about doing research on decolonization, degrowth or another concept, but an active attempt to work out what such a postgrowth and postcolonial trade route might look like through attempting to build it.

In its first instance it aims to be a platform cooperative that can mediate this trade route. This platform will perform all the bells and whistles of ethical consumption, carbon sequestration and the litany of other ‘ethical measurements’. In other words the value chain will be considered to a higher degree than is currently done by many questionable ethical trademarks. But this will merely be a side effort in order to generate value in the eyes of potential ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ that have yet to decapitalize and decolonize their thinking.

Biome Trade, then, is about re-engineering the supply chain and removing supermarkets and other actors along it that abstract value. In doing so more market value will technically be available to producers and consumers, increasing the price producers charge and decreasing the relative cost to consumers. In particular for foodstuffs that really matter and are not simply an excess.

The platform will facilitate participants (producers, consumers, and everyone necessary in between) to educate each other and nurture relations based on warm data not big data, so they can actually measure in a warm data sense, not an ethical consumption sense, what the impact of their trade is.

The platform will focus not on individual actors per se, especially not in order to relieve their ‘white-man’s-burden’. Instead it will focus on self-organized unions, coops and communities who are let down by the legislation of the nation-states they find themselves in, and join them up through food. Where food is the original story of sharing, hospitality, and nurturing community bonds and a freedom/care-based civilization.

The platform will focus on a pay-what-you-can meets patron/subscriber model to yield a subscriber-gift mode of trading. One that ‘pays’ value into the earth and its communities (rather than abstracted as economic growth), in the form of the agroecological and regenerative benefits that producers make, alongside moving surplus food and drinkstuffs to people that need them.

In anthropology there is the story of Onka’s big Moka. This platform will in many senses is inspired by the model of relations told in that story.

The work to do this is currently in the phase of creating a seed team of people motivated to steward it to the next phase.

Please contact if you are interested.

This short video and text were completed as coursework for the Mondragon course in Platform Cooperatives 2020-21

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