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The role of agri-cooperatives as social economy enterprises in ensuring the sustainable development of the EU’s rural communities

By Lennart Nilsson, president of Cogeca

Cogeca (the General Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives) is the voice of agricultural cooperatives in the agri-food, forestry and fisheries sectors in Europe. Representing 39 member organisations, its mission is to ensure that the EU’s agriculture and agri-food sector is competitive, innovative and viable, ensuring food security for 500 million people across Europe.

At Cogeca, our primary objective is to promote the views of farmers and agricultural cooperatives in Europe in order to influence EU decision-making. Since 1962, Cogeca has worked hand in hand with Copa (the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations), the organisation representing 23 million European farmers and their families. The two organisations share a common Secretariat in Brussels, whose work is structured in almost 50 working groups dealing with both sectoral policies and cross-cutting issues relevant to our sector.

As agri-cooperatives, deeply rooted in our rural communities and focused on the long term, we understand the importance of good management of our land to ensure future food production and that rural areas are able to maintain their communities. This long-term approach is what sets us apart from other companies and is also one of our key strengths. This includes actions to prevent and mitigate the effects of climate change, but also to ensure that our use of natural resources and treatment of farmland is sustainable.

While environmental sustainability is a key priority of our cooperatives, we must remember that sustainability has 3 interdependent pillars and the role of agri-cooperatives as actors in the social economy must be acknowledged. Rural communities across the EU face a serious threat of depopulation and it is only by being able to sustain livelihoods and a good quality of life that we can stem this tide. Across the EU, there are over 22,000 agri-cooperatives, with over 7 million farmer members. Together these cooperatives employ over 600,000 people. Therefore, agri-cooperatives are essential to ensuring social sustainability throughout the EU’s rural communities.

As social economy actors, agri-cooperatives are not only committed to good working conditions for their employees, but also to ensuring that their products contribute to a healthy diet for consumers, to food security and to the cultural fabric of rural areas. In this sense, agro-cooperatives are essential actors for the social sustainability and the soul of the areas in which they exist. Our agri-cooperative enterprises are also engaged in fighting rural poverty that is linked to the specific disadvantages of rural areas. Through their activity, agri-cooperatives offer farmers and their families the opportunity to increase standards of living, education, participation in cultural activities, well-being and happiness.

Cooperation between farmers means strength through shared risk, but is at the same time a tool to add value to their produce and strengthen farmers’ position in value chains, thereby helping to address fundamental imbalances in bargaining power.  Agri-cooperatives also create positive externalities that also benefit their commercial partners and the rural communities they operate in. Beyond food security, as agri-cooperatives, other social externalties we can attribute to include good labour rights and working conditions, welfare provisions for local communities and strong consumer rights.

Agricultural and forestry cooperatives are acutely aware of their social responsibilities regarding their farmer-members, employees and society as a whole. European agri-cooperative efforts are driven indeed by a common goal: to build sustainable communities. Beyond working to increase standards of living in rural areas through negotiating better prices for their farmer-members, they care deeply about ensuring good working conditions, and they support the communities in which they operate.

Designing a long-term vision for rural areas has become a key political priority of the European Commission since the adoption of the European Green Deal initiatives, and sustainable rural development is an integral to the second pillar of the CAP. For Cogeca, it is clear that agri-cooperatives are essential to the delivery of these goals, and that social sustainability must be treated as integral. Indeed, following the explicit reference to agri-cooperatives by the Commission in its 2021 communication on the Long-term Vision for Rural Areas, we welcomed the European Parliament’s recognition of agri-cooperatives as essential tools for sustainable rural development in its December 2022 Resolution, and the Council’s recognition in its November 2023 Conclusions on this theme.

Cogeca further recognises the role of agri-cooperatives in promoting generational renewal and empowerment of young people as key to ensure the long-term social sustainability of family agriculture. Cogeca members are committed to promoting policies, strategies and interventions that enable young people to develop their entrepreneurial and managerial skills in order to create new economic opportunities for their agri-cooperatives and rural communities.

Demonstrating our committment to generational renewal, in November 2023, Cogeca’s members agreed to a manifesto of 23 aspirational objectives of agri-food and forestry cooperatives in support of young farmers and cooperators in their participation in cooperative enterprises. These objectives include the development of training programmes for new entrants in cooperatives,  consolidating technical skills and filling the skills gap in sustainability, digitalisation and the bio and circular economy, promoting access to decision-making roles in cooperatives, and facilitating access to land for young people.

Cogeca is also committed to development of skills in rural areas as a key driver of social sustainability. Since 2022, Cogeca and its cooperative members have actively participated in the Pact for Skills, and are committed to to upskilling and reskilling efforts in the agri-food sector which are necessary for the social sustainability and continued competitiveness of our sectors.

Overall, the cooperative enterprise model is a critical player in the social economy and cooperation is essential for us to achieve social sustainability in rural areas and should lead the way towards sustainability. Only through cooperation, can workable and rational solutions be found to achieve a socially sustainable agriculture.

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