Co-operating co-ops - a weekend of jornadas in Andalucia

So on the 23/24th Oct I got to go to an event (Jornadas) organised by FACPE (the Andalucian Federation of Consumers and Organic Producers), for consumers and producers co-ops in the region. Over hearing conversations while we waited for the start, about the price of potatoes and how to get commitment from buyers made me feel at home and like I'd come to practical and producer led event and I wasn't disappointed. It was an inspirational weekend involving a range of co-op models, scarey facts mixed with viable and radical initiatives, and great food and company.

The weekend consisted of three presentations: 1) 'Alternative channels of food trading for food sovereignty' - Dr Marta Soler Montiel (University of Sevilla, Economist and my room mate), (2) 'Pesticides, detergents, plastics and other hormones'Dr Nicolas Olea Serrano (Head of Department of the Faculty of Medicine at UGR and Co-ordinator of research at the 'Hosital Clinico S. Cecilio de Granada' (3) 'Nekasarea: creating networks towards food sovereignty', Mikel Kormenzana; Workshops - I attended the one on Participatory Guarentee Systems, and then a round table of brief presentations from 4 of the co-ops.

I'll do a little summary of the presentations, then of the Participatory Guarentee System, then finally the round table of various different co-op models and a bit about FACPE - so feel free to skip about and find the bit that interests you.

Presentations

1) Dr Marta Soler Montiel's talk highlighted the many contradictions involved in the search for an alternative food trading system, and the importance of naming them and put them in the open so that we can work together towards solving them. Some of the examples given included:

The basic needs of the consumer is access to healthy food; the basic need of the producer is a dignified salary. Easy to state in theory but the practice is harder - if people haven't got enough money they can't pay the real price.

Different elements are involved in making a supply chain shorter - the distance (between where the food is produced and consumed), the number of people (and agents) involved, the distribution of profit/benefits - the relations of power in the system. The fact that systems will only be alternative if everyone is implicated - the producers, the consumers etc., and that until we talk about money (who gets it and real prices) it will stay powerful and dirty.

The need for a greater volume than small producers can often supply. For example Pueblo Blanco have never managed to grow the volume of produce needed to supply everything, so they mix their own produce with produce that they source from further afield.

Diversification of diet - what do we do with all the surplus aubergines and what do we do if we want to eat tomatoes for more than a few weeks a year?

Logistics and distribution - cutting out the intermediary reduces costs but means loads of work for either the consumer or the producer or brings costs to pay someone to do it.

Co-operation/self management - sounds great and we all want it but it's not as simple as that - we need to work at it (communication and information flow = power).
We need to negotiate quantity not just price - it is crucial for growers to get a stable market - know they will sell all their produce consistently and in the quantities they are producing – as important as price.

How do you generate trust? We have to be clear about our motivations - we are not going to bring about social and political change if we focus on individual motivations (our own health etc.).

We have to start where we are - not always talk about the ideal and what we want, but look at the current situation and acknowledge the contradictions in order to look at how we can change to work towards our ideal.

2) Pesticides, detergents and other hormones can be heard here but in Spanish - if you understand it, it's well worth a listen - because Dr Nicolas Olea Serrano is very entertaining in his delivery of the very depressing results of his research! Here's a few highlights (the final speaker was really inspirational – so hold out for that - or skip straight to it if you're feeling low already!).

This talk was about research into the levels of chemicals in pesticides (and plastics in general) that have been found in the human body. The biggest source of these chemicals for children isn't cows milk, it's the accumulated chemicals that build up and are passed on through the placenta and breast feeding. He's not saying don't breast feed, as there are so many benefits from breast feeding for babies, but he is saying there is a warning to be had about what we consume and where that goes.

Other long term consequences of pesticides is for the farmers who use them – they have a higher chance of getting certain cancers (Cancer en Agricultores is a good book on this).

Research in Granada found that over 90% of women and children are urinating plastic or rather xenoestrogens – which are released from the plastic coatings inside food tins, plastic water bottles, cosmetics (it's everywhere!). He posed the question why this should matter to us (though personally I'm not sure I need a reason to be horrified by the thought of peeing plastic), and explained that xenoestrogens have been shown to lead to endocrine disruption (i.e. changing sex) and that 100% of the carp in the river Erbo have been found to have suffered from endocrine disruption, and it doesn't stop with the fish.

They are going to send out the slides from his presentation, and it had loads more to it that I didn't get down and the sources of information etc., so if you are interested in finding out more about this email me once I'm back and I'll pass that on to you.

On a more uplifting note in the questions he was asked how he lives with knowing all this. He laughed and said he uses alternatives to plastic where ever possible and held up his metal water bottle. He finished by saying the system is clearly sick - there is no one monitoring the amount of plastics produced for example - and that what we have to do is demand the model that we want. We have to get together and take to the streets and demand a better system.

3) So after a really interesting but pretty full on talk about pesticides and plastics, Mikel lifted our spirits with a truely inspiring tale of revolutionising the food system in the Basque Country. Mikel is the chair of the Bizkiai branch of EHNE, the biggest agricultural trade union in the Basque Country - though he told me that he's standing down after 10 years and they've decided not to replace him and to make it a flat structure (so not your typical trade union!). I've just written this up and it's a story all on it's own - so I'm going to create another blog entry for it (so you don't skip it because there's too much here!).

Workshop on SPG - particpatory systems of guarentee.

So this is an interesting idea. It's a bit like Jenny and Clmiate Friendly Foods farmer to farmer low carbon farming certification - but involves the consumers as well as the farmers. The idea is that the visits are carried out by members of the co-op (at least one producer, one consumer and one technical person. They have soil samples analysised every year (so that is the same as 3rd party certification), but the rest is done by the members.

The members sign up to a set of criteria (using organic production methods, levels of participation, no exploitation/dignified working conditions etc., although at the moment there isn't a standard set of criteria that each group using SPG has to agree to (although they all agree on 90% of them).

Three co-ops started by talking about why they had started to use SPG. It is more than a certification system it is about participation - about building trust and relationships between the consumers and farmers, the consumers getting to see and understand more about farming (and increase their skills), the farmers getting direct feedback. It is a system of certification that is independent (the certification process is state owned here and expensive for small farmers) as the current system is very institutionalised and no one trusts them. It makes you do it better as you are more directly accountable to more people.

It's really in it's early stages here, but it's a really interesting idea in terms of trust building and increasing access to sustainable food. Also a number of issues came up that are relevant to MVP in terms of setting up and running a co-op (even though we aren't using SPG).

Some of the common problems faced are that it is lots of work and few people, the producers have a lot on and then this adds the meetings on top of that (especially difficult if the producers are further away/apart). It would be loads easier if you could pay someone to do the co-ordinating work etc. - but that would put the costs up (though it wouldn't cost as much as 3rd party certification.

Some interesting suggestions came up as solutions to the problems:

  • It takes time to set up SPG - it is a neccessary investment and is time gained not lost!
  • Encourage/favour those members who put more time into the process (rather than punishing those who don't)
  • Give more importance to the participation and strengthening of relationships - construction of another model of prouction and consumption (and less emphasis on the trading element and more on the social and ecological benefits - we are trying to change the system and the process is more important than the SPG - that is just a tool for creating change.
  • Develop tools and processes for involving new people
  • Make sure that visits to the farms are useful to us (not just about certification) - use them to do something much more useful to us - e.g. a training
  • A basic set of criteria that all SPG groups should sign up to was discussed so that if you have to buy something outside your co-op you can buy it from another SPG co-op and know that they share the same values as you (the autonomy of individual co-ops came up as important to people in this discussion).

Round table - great examples of consumers and producers co-ops

Finally the round table presentations were great. There was a real mix of co-op models:

Ecovalle - a group of producers who started off with a market stall and went on to supply families direct. Other producers are not approaching them and realise that they are not just a bunch of hippies! They are also playing the role of dynamizing other little initiatives - someone has started to make bread, someone else cheese and they were also a support/inspiration for Hortigas.

Hortigas - started with 1 producer 2000 sq meters and 15 consumers, has now grown to 3 producers 15,000 sq meters and 77 regular households (though normally do 90 boxes a week). The producers live in the village near the land (they moved there), where some of the consumers are - there are also drop off points in Granada ( the consumers divide the produce into boxes). Every 15 days there is an asemblea of representatives (or the consumer groups and producers), and there is also collective work that they consumers take part in (harvesting, bottling tomatoes etc.). The consumers pay 48 Euros a month and it is really good value - often more than they need. People are participating who have never participated in asembleas before - it is more than just food supply it is transformative education (the members have training re how to participate in the asembleas). Other local producers come and help them out e.g. with a donkey.

Casa Azul - are a group of 7 who started up a cafe in Cordoba, using organic produce from local producers. They then also became a drop off point for veg and fruit boxes and have now started to grow some produce themselves on a little bit of land. They hold discussions there and workshops about preserving food and cooking and the neighbours use it to hold their residents meetings.

Another model that a number of the co-ops use is that they have a shop and producers bring their produce to the shop and consumers have to be a member to shop their. Some people felt this was a difficult model at the moment because of the overheads of running a shop (Las Ortigas was mentioned as having economic problems), and others felt that this model took away the contact between the producers and consumers. However the people I talked to from Granada felt that although some people just shopped there without being very aware of the fact that they were part of a co-op, there were opportunities for participation and visiting the farms if the consumer members wanted to.

Someone asked if any of the co-ops had tried supplying restaurants. Ecovalle did try but found that the volumes that they wanted weren't enough to make the distribution worthwhile. The restaurants had different delivery needs. Another co-op said that they supply some restaurants. They were asked how they involve them and what the benefits are for them. They get a brand to use that is a visual way of saying they support local organic farmers. They also hold tastings at the restaurants - this is free publicitiy for the restaurant. An interesting idea for MVP perhaps....

FACPE - started in 1995, they are a network of consumers co-ops who work very closely with their producers. FACPE was set up for the groups to share problems and solutions. They developed some common criteria for membership (organic, ways of working as a group etc.), and set up a website to share lessons, and are a platform againts GM. They also participated in the development of the strategic plan for Andalucia - which was a recognition of their role and meant that they got some resources. The problems that they currently face is the distance between members can make it hard and that things are pretty bad for some of their members economically. Their future is about looking at how to keep working with no public funds, how to promote and support SPG and how to make the role of FACPE more visible.

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