Agricultural Cooperatives – Key to Feeding the World

“Agricultural Cooperatives – Key to Feeding the World” is the theme of World Food Day 2012. I spoke on the subject, earlier today, at an event organised by the Hyderabad Chapter of Association of Food Scientists & Technologists (India), South Zone of OilTechnologists Association of India and the National Institute of Nutrition.

This is a gist of what I spoke:

The challenge of ‘feeding the world’ has many dimensions:

Firstly, we need to produce more food. Per an FAO estimate, we need to produce 50% more cereals and 75% more meat by 2050, to feed the growing population and rising per capita consumption. We also need to more than double the fruits & vegetables production.

If it was only just this bit – i.e. produce more food – it wouldn’t probably be such a big challenge. We know that our current technologies are capable of getting us there. The six riders that come along make it severely complex!

Rider 1: We need to raise the farm yields to raise the total food production, because there isn’t much more land that we can bring under cultivation – a luxury we had enjoyed in the past.  

Rider 2: We need to add value to this food, aligned to the consumer demand. This means more variety, better quality, assured safety, enhanced convenience, and so on…

Rider 3: We need to transfer a “fair” share of this added value back to the producers, to incentivise production. Majority of the farmers are poor, and their income has to increase, in any case.

Rider 4: We need to protect bio-diversity while raising the farm productivity, because the productivity depends on soil micro-organisms, pollinators, predators of agricultural pests, and the genetic diversity.

Rider 5: We need to manage the natural resources (e.g. water and soil) judiciously, as the rate of depletion is already far exceeding the regeneration capacity of the earth.

Rider 6: We need to minimise the green house gas emissions from agriculture. With high emissions from fertiliser volatilisation, wetland rice cultivation and livestock digestion systems etc., agriculture accounts for a sixth of all global emissions.

There are, of course, solutions to deal with each one of these riders viz. improved crop varieties through plant breeding for better yields; supply chain management and processing for value addition; inclusive business models for fair trade; integrated crop management practices to conserve bio diversity; micro-irrigation, precision farming and other water management systems; good practices framework for soil & nutrient management; minimum tillage and other conservation agriculture techniques…

Implementing these solutions on the ground through hundreds of millions of small farmers is the tricky part!

This involves raising their awareness, transferring know-how, making sure the resources are available, and trigger income incentives to get them to act.

It is not easy to do all this because the bargaining power of small farmers is weak, limiting their resource base. Every input they buy is bought at retail prices at the end of a long chain, and the output they sell is sold at wholesale price at the beginning of another long chain! So, one challenge is to bring the ‘power of scale to the small’.

Also, because the ecology & natural resource challenges do not usually impact the individual in the short term, and because any investment to solve them benefits others who may not have invested, we also need to deal with the ‘tragedy of commons’. As is well known, people tend to overuse commons and eventually deplete them beyond repair, even though it is not in their best interest to do so; because no one has any incentive to do otherwise.

It is in this context that the cooperatives become important.

Any form of aggregation – conventional cooperatives, or the new-generation producer companies, or Self Help Groups or their Unions and Federations – improves the bargaining power of farmers while buying inputs and selling inputs. Aggregation also helps in transmission of information (market signals, weather forecasts) and accessing know-how more effectively at lower transaction costs. Pooling resources helps in building infrastructure (quality testing, storage, transport etc) that can be shared, or even forward integrate into processing, branding and marketing to capture more value for the producers. Collectives carry weight and help shape policies.

Self-regulation among the members of the cooperatives solves the ecology and common property issues more effectively. User members team up to cooperatively manage the commons resource; participatory monitoring facilitates more effective management. Conflicts between members, when they arise, get resolved quickly and inexpensively.

Thus, cooperatives offer effective solutions to both the scale and commons problems.         

In theory, any member owned enterprise, run on democratic principles should deliver these benefits. Indeed there are many successful cooperatives that prove this argument. At the same time, unfortunately, there are also several failed cooperative efforts. Quality of governance and management determine the success of cooperatives. So, while supporting cooperatives as a solution to feeding the world, one must recognise these limitations too.

To overcome these limitations, yet deliver similar beneficial outcomes to the farmers, a revolutionary new model, ITC eChoupal was conceived. Farmers are “virtually” aggregated by leveraging Internet technologies, and “freedom of choice” in transactions democratises the power. Isn’t that some new food for thought?