Democratising the global food chain

From corporatisation to cooperatives

By Chandra Bhushan
Published: Tuesday 16 October 2012

From corporatisation to cooperatives

On September 9, Verghese Kurien, India’s father of the White Revolution—the world’s largest cooperative movement which helped India emerge as the largest milk producer in the world—passed away. Call it a coincidence, the year 2012 has been designated the “International Year of Cooperatives” by the United Nations General Assembly. On top of it, the theme of this year’s World Food Day is "Agricultural cooperatives—key to feeding the world".

Cooperatives are not the most dominant form of business in the world. In agriculture business they are a relatively small player. In India, too, the cooperative movement has not been able to replicate the success of the Amul model. In such a case, why is the world suddenly interested in cooperatives? 

To understand this, let’s look at certain facts and figures:

  • The FAO food price index, which measures international prices of a basket of food commodities, was 228 in 2011—the highest since FAO started measuring this index in the year 2000. In 2000, the index was just 90. 2011 was also the year when the world produced the maximum amount of cereal since the dawn of humanity. 

  • In 2011-12, the world’s production of cereals was 2.347 billion tonnes. The annual per capita cereal production stood at 350 kg. This means that the world had produced enough cereals to give everyone of us about 1 kg of cereals every day. Still, in 2011-12, some 870 million people in the world—about 15 per cent of the world’s population—were hungry and more than 2.5 million children died because of malnutrition.

  • In the year 2011-12, of the 56 million people who died, about 60 per cent died because of the non-communicable diseases (NCDs)—diseases like cardiovascular ailments, cancer and diabetes. NCDs are linked to lifestyle, food and environmental toxins. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers NCDs as the new global epidemic. One of the chief causes of NCDs is unhealthy diet, including overeating and eating of food high in fats, carbohydrates, sugar and salt. In 2011-12, about three million people died because they were overweight or obese.

Food paradox
The above three narratives illustrate the multitude of problems related to food production, consumption, scarcity, abundance and quality that the world faces today. On one hand, people are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food, and on the other, people are dying early because they have too much to eat. One of the central reasons for this malady is the failure of the present system of food production and supply.


Post World War II, the world, especially the major food producers like the US and some major Latin American countries, promoted big farms and big companies to feed us all. Today, large multinational agro and food companies control a large part of the global food chain—from selling seed and chemicals to growing food on big farms to processing and producing food in factories to selling them in big supermarkets and controlling international trade in food commodities. These companies today decide the global food prices and quality. They are also responsible for the food and health crisis.

There is a broad agreement today that if the world has to address climate change on one hand (hence, reduce emissions from agricultural sector) and provide safe and adequate food to more than nine billion people by 2050 on the other, then it needs a radically different model of food production and consumption. This is where the 500 million small farming families come into the picture.

Extensive research across the world shows that small landholders are more productive and produce safer food than large-scale industrial farms. In India, for example, small landholders’ (having less than 2 ha land) contribution to the total farm output exceeds 50 per cent although they cultivate only 44 per cent land. As they use less fossil fuel, they are also more climate-friendly. Also, as three-quarters of the world's poor are small farmers, investing in them addresses the dual challenge of poverty and hunger.

However, small landholders currently face major challenges. They lack institutional support, technical knowhow, market information and access. Individually, they cannot move out of the poverty trap. Accumulated research and experience, however, show that small farmers acting collectively in strong producer organisations and cooperatives are better able to take advantage of institutional support and market opportunities. Strong cooperatives support their members through a variety of services and improve their productivity and competitiveness.  Most importantly, they democratise our food system and break the monopoly of giant corporations.

But all this will happen only when the governments of the world empower and support the cooperative movement. They must put in place right policies, transparent legislation, incentives and opportunities for cooperatives to develop and grow.

India’s milkman showed the way
When presented with the criticism that the cooperative movement has not been successful in India, Kurien was reported to have said: “Is the democratic form of government successful in all parts of India? But the solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy. There can be no democracy in India unless you erect a plurality of democratic structures to underpin democracy, like the village cooperative which is a people’s institution.” For Kurien, cooperatives were the key to strengthening democracy in the country.

I am sure that Kurien, who at one point of time even advocated running of power plants based on the cooperative model to solve the electricity woes of the country, must be deeply satisfied with the recognition the world is giving to the cooperative model of agriculture and food production and, in many ways, his vision of society and democracy. The only sad part is that the FAO website which is promoting this year’s World Food Day doesn’t even mention his name or celebrate his work. At least the Government of India should do so on World Food Day.

— Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

World Food Day


Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.