Cooperatives: a sustainable model propelling agriculture into the future

Cooperatives: a sustainable model propelling agriculture into the future

Far from a quaint, outdated concept, agricultural cooperatives are a vital part of the French agri-food industry and have proven to be competitive and effective innovators all over the world.

Agricultural cooperatives were first piloted by the French in the 13th century and adapted to modern conditions throughout post-war Europe. By the 19th century, increased industrialisation and sweeping social change put smaller farmers under threat, and forming larger cooperatives allowed them to pool their efforts to access equipment, supplies or other resources that none could efficiently access alone.Today, cooperatives are still fully relevant, innovative structures, enabling thousands of small producers across the globe to keep up with the agrifood market.

France is the European leader of the cooperative model

“French agricultural cooperatives see more than €85,4 billion in sales (subsidiaries included) every year, representing 40% of French agrifood revenue.”

Some ¾ of French farmers belong to at least one cooperative, accounting for more than 190,000 employees across some 2 300 companies. Cooperative farming exists in all of the nation’s regions. It is present in every sector of the agricultural industry, from microbusinesses to organisations which conduct millions of euros in international trade every year. Overall, French agricultural cooperatives see more than €85,4 billion in sales (subsidiaries included) every year. 

The main thing that sets a cooperative apart from an investor-owned firm (IOF), is that whilst IOFs seek to maximise profits for shareholders and other investors, cooperatives generally operate on a zero-profit basis in order to maximise benefits – financial and otherwise – for their members.

Perhaps most importantly, each farm maintains separate ownership and governance. This is how the cooperative model allows much greater food diversity than the monolithic corporate farms the cooperatives compete with throughout the world.

It is this diversity which makes French agriculture less vulnerable to changes in weather or pest patterns, but also allows it to cater to more discerning market segments all over the world.

“The cooperative model’s ability to unite many small producers is directly responsible for its ability to MAKE innovative products and processes economically feasible.”

As you might expect from the country where the concept of the agricultural cooperative was born, France is home to many of the start-ups and established industry leaders who are setting the tone for cooperatives in the 21st century. A few examples include:

  • Cooperative Tutiac have committed to a 0% pesticide residue presence in all of their products and have become the first AOC wine producer to have eliminates all carcinogenic sunstances from their entire supply chain.
  • Cereal producer Axereal if offering its members incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon footprints of their sunflower seed and rapeseed production.
  • Isigny Ste Mère is opening a powdered milk analysis laboratory in just a few months’ time. They can also boast a 10% increase in turnover, following a record year of milk production.
  • Cristal union, the alcohol, biofuel and sugar cooperative, has been a leader in lowering the carbon footprint of their products for more than a decade. They are committed to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions by a further 35% in the next nine years through increased reliance on solar-electric power, biomass boilers and C02 recovery systems.
  • Euroden (formed from the merger of d’aucy foodservice and Triskalia) just raised more than half a billion euro to fund their ecological transitioning and sustainability efforts. These will include raising more of their own feed crops, and outdoor hen breeding facilities.
  • Evel’Up has devoted more than €20 million to resturcutiring their farms to be more ecologically sustainable and have created a whole new R&D department to spearhead positive human and societal change.

In essence, it is the cooperative’s ability to support and incubate independent agricultural producers which has led to France’s incredible food product diversity, as well as its market dominance for high end artistinal produce.

The Ministry of Agriculture tells us that there are some 3,500 individual cheese producing organisations in France, each offering something truly unique to the domestic and export markets. But this is not specific to cheeses. All of France’s agricultural cooperatives specialise in a different kind of produce or agrifood product, and each individual producer has their own unique vision of what their consumers demand. This is what is responsible for the incredible diversity and quality of France’s food exports, and its strong position in organic, ethical, and sustainable food markets worldwide.

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