• Marcelo Vieta

Episodic Food Insecurity: A Proposed Solution via Agricultural Cooperatives

Updated: Aug 3

By Ashish Krishna Pillai

Themes: Food Security, Enterprises, Policy, Economy

Are agricultural cooperatives a solution to the problem of persistent and episodic food insecurity in the developing world?

Can sustainable, regional development through agricultural cooperatives address chronic food insecurity issues faced by the global South? In this article I examine some of the causes of the COVID-19 driven food insecurity in countries in the global South and propose agricultural cooperatives as a means of achieving sustainable development of agriculture in developing countries.

On April 21, 2020 David Beasley, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme told the UN Security Council that by the end of the year, 265 million people were expected to face extreme hunger. Once again, a crisis had dismantled the food systems across the globe. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the fragility of the state of food security across the globe.

“Our food systems are failing and the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse.” - António Guterres, Secretary General, United Nations

As lockdowns erased incomes and shut down businesses, vulnerable sections of the population in both developing and developed countries faced acute food shortages. The global South was hit hard. Stories of starvation deaths from India (Elsa, 2020), stampedes for food in Kenya (Dahir, 2020), and clashes between starving workers and government troops in Bolivia reveal the severity of impact felt by the vulnerable groups in the world’s poorer regions. The so-called “developed” countries were not spared either. The lockdown sent large swathes of the population in the USA, UK and Europe into precarity. In USA, for instance, the pandemic doubled household food insecurity and increased childhood food insecurity by four times (Fadulu, 2020). In the United Kingdom, the pandemic highlighted an “unacceptably high vulnerability of food dependency” (Peterson, 2020). It is evident that the pandemic-induced erosion of food security did not discriminate between the rich countries and their poorer counterparts. People all over the world are going hungry and even as the world is struggling to make sense of the pandemic, the threat of a famine has emerged.

The Drivers of Food Insecurity

With all the noise about the COVID-19 pandemic triggering famines, it is easy to forget that global hunger had been rising since 2015 (FAO, 2019). It is also worth remembering that localized and episodic food shortages have been the norm for decades with all varieties of crises ranging from conflicts and economic crashes to climate change and political upheavals. The food crisis of 2007-2008 was a result of the coming together of several of these failures and had a devastating impact on the global South. Asia saw food prices increase by 20% and consequently the number of poor rose by almost 20 million. In Africa, food prices rose by 50% and that pushed an additional 4.4% of the population below the poverty line (FAO, 2019).

While the crisis of 2007-2008 had a global footprint, several bubbles of localized food shortages caused by conflicts still exist. A case in point is Yemen. According to one assessment, 76% of its population (about 20 million) is facing life-threatening shortages of food every day (Reliefweb, 2019). In addition to conflicts, climate change-induced natural disasters like hurricanes, forest fires and droughts have been creating localized and regional food shortages regularly. It is then evident that the current global food crisis is just another episode in the continuing story of hunger in this world. The difference this time seems to be the global scale of the crisis and its potential to turn into a global famine. Given the seriousness of this pandemic driven food crisis, Secretary General António Guterres’s observation that “the COVID-19 pandemic was not the primary driver of rising hunger in the world, and that it was merely making things worse” begs the question: what are then the primary drivers?

A search of “drivers of food insecurity” reveals a rich body of literature on the subject and the evidence points to a combination of nature agricultural markets, poverty and the lack of development in vulnerable countries and regions, a lack of public investment in research and development, erasure of local and indigenous food systems, conflict and climate change stressors (Fyles & Madramootoo, 2016; Mabiso & Cunguara, 2014; Misslehorn, 2005; Zavaleta et al., 2018). While armed conflicts and climate change are significant reasons, they too lead to underdeveloped geo-political regions with stunted agricultural sectors. All of these reasons lead to countries remaining dependent on food imports and aid. In the absence of other sources of income, arable land itself is commoditized and traded by these countries.

Import Dependence

The early 1990s saw a wave of economic reforms across the world that would afford corporations easy access to national markets. Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (LPG) are celebrated for their role in unlocking the growth potential of economies and allowing people easier access to goods and services from other countries. This ability to import foods was a boon for countries like Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Iraq and Syria (Cago, 2017) which were unable to achieve sustenance food production levels due to limited land and water resources, extreme weather patterns, regional conflicts, and political instability. This import dependence, however, means that in the event of any global emergency the vulnerable import dependent nations are at the mercy of the food exporting nations. As soon as something goes wrong, these food exporting nations cease exports and begin hoarding (Almeida & Sousa, 2020) causing severe food shortages in the import dependent nations.

Real and Virtual Commoditization of Arable Land

Rich countries have seized on this situation and couched the securing of global food chains as aid. Chinese “friendship farms,” for instance, grow cabbages in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and sesame seeds, cashews and peanuts in Mozambique. Saudi Arabian gourmet date firm, Bateel, has expanded operations into Africa. These are, in reality, examples of wealthy countries purchasing land in developing countries to meet food demands in domestic markets. This global trade in arable land led by China, U.S. and U.K. leads to local farming communities being dispossessed of their farming land, sometimes violently (Swanson, 2015). While peaceful in most cases, acquisition of agricultural land has become actual “land grabs” and a form of contemporary neoliberal enclosure, where poor farming communities are forced off their properties which are then sold off to foreign investors (Plumer, 2014). This, in actuality, is the real commoditization of arable land and its trade at the expense of local food needs and security.

Social Alienation and the Reclamation of Agriculture via Cooperatives

Food security in the countries of the global South and the most vulnerable regions in the world can be addressed by securing the local and sustainable development of agriculture in these countries and regions. Agricultural cooperatives are uniquely suited to deliver such inclusive, democratic and sustainable models of development.

An agricultural cooperative is a private business organization collectively owned and controlled by the people who use its products, supplies or services. A “user-owned” and “user-controlled” enterprise, agricultural cooperatives bring collective ownership and economic democracy to the practice of agriculture. The benefits of agricultural cooperatives to local communities are numerous, varied and well documented (Allahdadi, 2011; Ferguson & Kepe, 2011; Nembhard, 2014; Valentinov, 2007; Wollni & Zeller, 2007). Instead of restating the accepted benefits, I examine agricultural cooperatives as a social movement for the reclamation of development agenda for communities, regions and countries.

An examination of the drivers of episodic food insecurity shows that they are a result of the hijacking of development priorities and a separation of communities from the factors of agricultural production. I draw upon Seeman’s (1959) conceptualization of social alienation as a composite of powerlessness, meaninglessness, social isolation and self-estrangement. As individuals and communities socially alienated from the development agendas and decisions regarding resource allocation, people disconnect from the values, norms and practices of various economic activities including agriculture. Such disconnected individuals and communities are vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation by an economic model that privileges the profit maximization of shareholders over the social good of the direct and indirect stakeholders.

What is the Antonym of Disconnect?

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the antonyms of “disconnect” are “unite”, “join”, “associate” and “assemble”. Achieving agricultural development in the global South and breaking the cycle of episodic food insecurity will need farming communities and individual famers to unite, join forces and assemble an alternate mode of organizing agricultural production, processing and trade. This is another way of describing agricultural cooperatives.

Mobilizing into cooperatives will allow farmers to use arable land as an input rather than as a commodity itself and that will help them retain ownership of their land in the face of increasing trade in agricultural land. Once farmers are able to come together their combined voice will be greater than the sum of their individual voices and the powers situated against them. That unified voice will not only be heard by the market but also by the polity of their country and force a reorientation of policy and resource allocations towards development of cooperative agriculture locally. The resulting developments will allow communities, countries and regions to decide to grow foods that suit local topographic, climatological and social realities. Decisions privileging the common good and not the commercial bottom line will help communities arrive at a point of equilibrium between the use of agriculture to earn money and agriculture as a means of growing food. This equilibrium will help stave off periodic food insecurity associated with global emergencies like the one brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is Precedent

While agricultural cooperatives in developing countries remain stunted by inimical forces ranging from government apathy to dependence fostering foreign aid, rich experiences of cooperation demonstrate the potential of agricultural cooperatives to serve as forces of change and a source of economic, social and political power for the small farmer. I present two such stories of farmers mobilizing to form cooperatives, resisting unfavorable market forces, and integrating vertically both ways in the supply chain. In doing so, the farming communities are strengthened economically, socially and also politically.

Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (Amul)

The About Us section of the Amul website states that Amul was founded in 1946 “when milk became a symbol of protest” to “stop the exploitation of farmers by middlemen” and that the its birth was “inspired by the (Indian) freedom movement”. The birth of the cooperative, Amul, was the story of small farmers mobilizing to resist exploitative capitalism and in doing so establishing what is now the 9th largest milk processing company in the world. From its humble beginnings with 232 members and an output of 246 kg of milk, Amul now processes more than 6 million kg of milk every day and had an annual turnover of $ 3.4 billion in 2015 (Dash & Morais, 2015), while distributing collectively its profits among 3.6 million farmers.

Kibinge Coffee Farmers’ Co-operative Society

With a history of civil war and government failures, Uganda was a difficult setting for the success of a collectively owned enterprise. Established in 2009, the Kibinge Coffee Farmers’ Co-operative Society (KCFCS) was a collective action in response to local political chaos and lack of governance. A Rural Producer Organization, KCFCS become Fairtrade certified in 2011 and a registered coffee exporter in Uganda in 2012. In 2014, KCFCS was declared the Fairtrade Small Producer of the Year for Africa.

Along with re-invigorating coffee cultivation for small farmers in Uganda, KCFCS has contributed to strengthening local communities by creating a savings and credit union and setting up a farm supply shop. These two additions have meant that small farmers in the region now have access to cheap credit and cheap inputs for their farm operations. Recent KCFCS projects include bringing power to a local health center, building toilets for community schools, and improving the condition of roads in region.

It is Possible Then!

These are certainly not the only stories, but they serve amply to underline the fact that even the most difficult of circumstances can be overcome and that economically viable and periodic shock free farming is possible if farmers come together. It is easy to look at the success of Amul and KCFCS through a business lens, and doing so would not be wrong, but it would take away from the real contribution of these cooperatives – strengthening and enriching local communities and enabling them to withstand the episodic food insecurity that seems to be a regular phenomenon now.


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