Are Cooperatives the Answer? World Food Day and the Year of the Cooperative
October 16th is World Food Day 2012, the international holiday established by the Food and Agricultural Administration of the UN. It is a day set aside to celebrate the global fight to end hunger and to be thankful for the food in our bellies.
The theme for this year’s World Food Day celebrations is “Agricultural Cooperatives: Key to Feeding the World.” In a world in which multi-national corporations dominate the food system, it is imperative that we begin to think about alternative ways to organize ourselves and structure the system that brings food from the fields into our homes. The FAO sees cooperatives as one important alternative. It writes that cooperatives are a way to organize agricultural production that is economically sustainable and socially responsible. Agricultural cooperatives organize smallholding farmers into collaborative groups that train and education their members, build economies of scale so that members can purchase agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizer, machinery, etc.) at affordable rates, and help farmers to access national and international markets by compiling farmers’ harvest. Of course, these goals can be met in a number of ways. The idea of a “Cooperative” incorporates an incredible diversity of organizational forms, but to be considered a cooperative an organization must generally follow the 7 Cooperative Principles.
Reading through the pamphlet produced by the FAO for World Food Day, we are struck by how little mention (none, in fact) it gives to environmental sustainability. Cooperatives may be a form of organization that puts people over profits, but without separating those that are truly sustainable from those that consist of farmers practicing methods that are environmentally harmful, the FAO is missing a key link between farmers and the land. The land provides the resources of survival for small farmers, and we will destroy both the land and those who farm it if we do not support agricultural practices that protect the environment. Cooperatives in and of themselves do not necessarily provide this. Taking a look at agricultural cooperatives in the United States such as Land-O-Lakes shows us that cooperatives can just as easily support environmentally disastrous industrial forms of agriculture as they can farmers using other methods.
On World Food Day 2012, let’s think deeply and imagine the type of food system we want, one that supports small famers, ensures their maintenance, and is environmentally sustainable. Cooperatives show promise as a possible way to organize our vision, but let’s not celebrate them as an end in itself. Let’s celebrate our vision of what a just and sustainable food system would be, and ask ourselves how cooperatives can help us make that vision a reality.