Working co-operatively for sustainable and just food systems

By Poppy Nicol and Alice Taherzadeh

Getting a veg box can be great way to get fresh, locally produced organic food. There’s also a high chance that you will be supporting a co-operative business or co-operative ways of working. Many local and sustainable food businesses are based on principles of co-operation rather than the culture of competition that we see in much of the food system.

Take Cae Tan for example. They are a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project which distribute a weekly bag of vegetables every week to their members around Gower, Swansea via their veg hub. Being a member of the scheme, though, doesn’t just mean you get a weekly supply of fresh food. It is also about meeting people. There are opportunities to volunteer and an annual Harvest Supper where members can get to know each other and celebrate the harvest. As the head gardener of another CSA, Banc Organics in the Gwendraeth Valley explains, CSAs are all about cooperative principles, that is:

“owning our means of production and the workers having a stake in things, having democratic control over things and basing them on things other than the market.”

Co-operative ways of working in the food system

In our new report Working Co-operatively for Sustainable and Just Food Systems in Wales we investigate the scope for co-ops in Wales to help us move to food systems which are based on both sustainability and food justice. The work was commissioned by the Wales Co-operative Party and members of the Co-operative Group in the National Assembly for Wales because they believe that sustainability and food justice should, and can, go hand in hand.

We spoke to twelve people from projects all over Wales, including the Wales Co-operative Centre, fruit and veg CSAs, a bakers’ co-operative, dairy co-operatives and a red meat co-operative. We were inspired by their commitment to co-operative principles, particularly within the sustainable food movement, and their desire to promote social change and food justice through their projects.

We also found out that there used to be far more co-operatives across Wales which enabled small producers and business to work together to share resources and bring local food to people’s plates.

Opportunities for working co-operatively

Currently there are very few co-operatives in the Welsh food sector. However, there is great potential to encourage many more with the right support and infrastructure. We found that when businesses and individuals act together through co-operative ways of working, they have more collective bargaining power, better access to resources and potentially more resilience in the face of change. The co-operative values of equity, equality, solidarity, self-help, self-responsibility and democracy are also more likely to promote food justice as they place people at the centre of the food system.

The challenges facing co-operative ways of working

But we also discovered that cooperative projects face a lot of difficulties.

  • Education, training and advice: Currently, there isn’t enough support for co-operatives working within the Welsh food system. The opportunities for training in sustainable food production are also lacking or more difficult to access because of short-term funding. There is further identified need for improving public information on the co-operative economy.
  • Infrastructure for local food economies: In all sectors producers often have to transport food costly distances (often to England) to get it processed or to get it to retailers as there isn’t the infrastructure to support local food networks here in Wales.
  • The real cost of food: The challenge of competing in a food system dominated by industrial production of cheap food. In this system the real cost of food is not recognised and food is produced at the expense of future generations being able to feed themselves and fair livelihoods for those working in the food system.

What can we do?

There is a lot of potential for Wales to make the big policy changes needed to achieve a food system which is both sustainable and just. Based on what we found in the research we think there are four key areas to strengthen the role of co-operation in our food system:

  1. More co-ops! Support community-led food co-operatives to get set up at all levels and scales to increase the number of food co-operatives and size of the co-operative economy in Wales.
  2. Co-operative processing and distributing Promote co-operative approaches to food processing and distribution such as food hubs which would help smaller producers share resources and reduce the environmental impact of transportation by keeping things local.
  3. Networks of training and education Connect up the training landscape in Wales so that there are strong networks for training in sustainable food production as well as linking food and farming into schools and universities.
  4. More veg! Increase small-scale horticultural and arable production by providing better access to land and training for new entrants and business advice for producers in the meat and dairy sectors who want to diversify.

Bringing everyone together: Co-operative Roundtable

After the report was published in December 2019, we were invited to participate in an expert-led roundtable event on January 14th 2020 at the National Assembly hosted by the Wales Co-operative Party and the Assembly Members who funded the project. The event brought together growers, politicians, charities, community organisations, and researchers all working at different levels of the Welsh food system. This included the CSA Wales Network, Food Manifesto Wales, Food Sense Wales, Land Workers Alliance Cymru, Open Food Network, RSPB Cymru, Social Farms and Gardens Wales, Sustain, Trussell Trust, WWF Cymru.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for a more connected and co-operative food system in Wales that makes better links between food production, environmental sustainability, public health and the education system. After we presented our report, Tom O’Kane, grower at Cae Tan one of the largest CSAs in Wales spoke to everyone about the opportunities and challenges CSAs face – including training opportunities, planning constraints and access to land.  Nick Weir from Open Food Network also explained the potential for community food distribution online via platform co-operatives.

The Cardiff round table

Several attendees argued passionately for the importance of wildlife-friendly, regenerative and ecological farming and local food economies in achieving a more sustainable and just food future. They also highlighted the need to scale out (increasing in number as distributed networks) rather than scale up (increase in size). There were many people who emphasised the multiple barriers that are faced by those wanting to create a sustainable and just food system within the current unjust and unsustainable food system and they called for more ambitious and transformative change from government policy to challenge this. It was also pointed out that future meetings need to include the main farming unions as well as educational institutions and conservation groups, bringing the various sectors working within the food system into conversation with one another so that we can develop food policy which is good for people and the land at every level.

Conclusion:

The roundtable was a really valuable opportunity to bring together a range of people working across the food system and a much needed first step to create wider co-operation on the issue. However, there was also a strong sense that we need to move towards concrete action rather than just continued conversations. The roundtable presents the potential to launch a sustainable and just food network or another platform for co-operation across the food system to better inform policy. We are now in the next stages of this and exploring how we can bring together this network to achieve transformative policy action. We’ll keep you posted!

If you want further information or to get involved, then please get in touch.

Poppy Nicol: I am a research associate at the Sustainable Places Research Institute and a gardener. My research interests are in the connections between people and place. I am particularly interested in the relationships between biological and cultural diversity that come alive through agriculture. NicolP@cardiff.ac.uk

Alice Taherzadeh: I am a PhD researcher at the Sustainable Places Research Institute, an activist and a community organiser. My research interests lie in exploring how people learn in order to transform our food system. I am particularly interested in farmer to farmer models of learning and social movements. TaherzadehA@cardiff.ac.uk