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Agricultural cooperatives: promoting or hindering fairer and more sustainable food systems? The case of Spain and the UK

Ajates Gonzalez, R. (2016). Agricultural cooperatives: promoting or hindering fairer and more sustainable food systems? The case of Spain and the UK. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


Agricultural cooperatives (ACs) are major players in the European Union, where they account for 40-60% of agricultural trade and thus are key actors in articulating rural realities and in shaping the sustainability credentials of European food and farming. Cooperatives, regardless of the sector they operate in, are expected to work for the benefit of their members, show concern for their communities (including sustainable development) and promote cooperative economies. This research analyses to what extent this is happening in the case of ACs. Evidence of how unsustainable and unequal farming in Europe is despite such a strong AC presence raises questions on the role and practices of these cooperatives. Despite their grassroots origins, concerns from civil society and a handful of scholars suggest there is an increase in top-down approaches and corporatisation trends in the sector. This research examines ACs in Spain and the UK (in the context of the EU/CAP framework), examining how the sector has evolved in both countries since its beginnings and analysing trends and factors shaping their current development. Using case study methodology, data from document analysis and 41 interviews with AC members, academics, policy makers and industry and civil society representatives are presented. The findings reveal the two countries have very different farming cooperative sectors, but their largest ACs are adapting to the EU policy context and the increasing concentration of power in the food system by following similar growth and corporatisation strategies. A reaction from social movements is however taking place both in Spain and the UK, where new innovative cooperative models are emerging. Thus, ACs can be placed in a continuum of alterity depending on the degree of embeddedness in industrial or more sustainable food practices. ACs can become disjointed and have their least political components co-opted by the dominant food system (as they fit its logistics model, trade requirements and help concentrate produce). Going beyond the economic perspective that dominates the study of ACs, this research also places a focus on emerging innovative multi-stakeholder governance models. The strategies used to protect their alterity as well as the diverse understandings of food sustainability that different types of cooperatives have and how they reproduce these through their practices are analysed. Given the insufficient explanatory potential of existing theories to accommodate a wide range of realities labelled as cooperatives in food and farming, a new theoretical framework was developed based on the findings of this research. The multilevel framework unravels the different dimensions that constitute cooperatives and their degree of alterity and commitment to sustainable food practices and the wider cooperative movement.

Key words: agricultural cooperatives, multi-stakeholder cooperatives, cooperative movement, Spain, UK, alterity, co-optation, producer organisations

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
S Agriculture > S Agriculture (General)
Departments: Doctoral Theses
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Healthcare Services Research & Management > Food Policy
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > School of Health & Psychological Sciences Doctoral Theses
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