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October 16, 2012

World Food Day: Co-Operatives Feed People Around Globe

by Selah Hennessy

Agricultural co-operatives are an important tool in the global fight against hunger, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. It's a point being underscored on World Food Day.

The Food and Agriculture Organization's Eve Crowley said agricultural co-operatives are important because they have social objectives, mobilize resources locally, and focus on sustainability. What is more, she said, they turn a good profit.

“When you add up the economic turnover of the 300 largest co-operatives alone, it's equivalent to 1.1 trillion U.S. dollars per year, which is roughly the same as the 10th-largest economy in the world, Canada.”

Co-operatives are associations of people who voluntarily form jointly-owned and democratically-run enterprises. Crowley said co-operatives have one billion members globally, and they create at least 100,000 jobs.

“The point is when you put them all together they are having an enormous impact on global finances, on global agricultural production, and on the availability and quality of food that people eat,” said Crowley.

According to the United Nations, nearly one-in-seven people suffer from undernourishment. It says small-holder farmers will provide much of the extra food needed as the global population grows to an estimated 9 billion by the year 2050.   

Crowley said co-operatives are good at withstanding turbulent economic times, and that was demonstrated during the recent financial crisis when food prices soared and many businesses struggled to survive. Co-operatives weathered the economic storm well, she pointed out.

“They were interested in the long-term security of their members, so they tended to be less speculative in the way that they ran themselves.  And in addition, when crisis hit, and if there was a shortfall in funding, in many cases members themselves chipped in to make the co-operative work,” she said.

Africa Advocacy Coordinator for the campaign group Action Aid, Henry Malumo, spoke to VOA from South Africa. He said co-operatives are key to giving small-holder farmers a stronger voice.

“It is the small-holder farmers that actually produce most of the food that is consumed, especially in poor and rural communities that business and private sector cannot reach," said Malumo. "So bringing back co-operatives and emphasizing the need to support small-holder farmers is a welcome decision and one that has been needed for so long.”

His agency, Action Aid, said that land grabs - when large chunks of land in developing countries are bought or leased by governments and big businesses - are a major problem for many small-holder farmers in developing nations. He said by working together in co-operatives, however, workers can protect themselves.

“As a united voice, they will be able to challenge and be able to confront businesses, illegal government dues, and ensuring that the land for communities remains for communities. And that people are actually given access and ownership to land,” he said.

Malumo said co-operatives have helped lift living standards in the developing world, but in many countries women have not played an equal role in co-operatives. He said if co-operatives are to grow to their full potential, more needs to be done to boost the role of women in the co-operative movement around the world.