Local Food Supply in a Global Context

Roy H W Johnston

(Paper arising from the Friends World Conference August 2007 in Dublin.)

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)


The author outlines some thoughts, mostly relating to development economics, arising from discussions with Friends working in Africa, Asia and Latin America.


The experience of Ireland in the period 1890 to 1914 is perhaps relevant to where there is a dense population of subsistence farmers in a political situation which is in transition from being part of an imperial system. A land reform had taken place, and there were many individual farmers, who had become owners of land, but who lacked capital to develop production, and who were dependent on predatory merchants for the sale of their produce surplus to their subsistence needs. In their capacity as individuals with produce which needed to be sold at a particular time, they had little bargaining power.

In this situation, there emerged a producer co-operative movement, which enabled farmers to organise into groups, and employ a specialist who was in a position to add value to their produce, and market it directly to the main urban market system. The history of this was written up by Patrick Bolger(1)), and is worth study, along with the experience of other countries where this process occurred, much of this being available via the Plunkett Foundation(2)), in Oxford, England.

Possible Development Paths

There are a variety of contrasting development paths for subsistence agricultural producers, depending on the extent to which they organise co-operatively, and on the availability of technology such as to enable produce to be made available to urban markets at high quality throughout the year, using processing, storage, preservation and information technologies. Ideally all these should come under producer co-operative control, and in this case jobs can be generated locally and the need for surplus labour to migrate to the cities is reduced.

In the Irish experience, the co-operative movement was hampered in its development by the environment of the 1914-18 war, the national independence movement 1916-1921, and civil war 1922-23. In the resulting post-war situation it was seriously weakened, by Partition among other factors, and tended to concentrate on the market for milk, leaving the meat, grain, fruit and vegetable markets largely at the mercy of established trade channels. Nor did it make any links with the consumer co-operative market; this in Ireland never achieved any real strength, except to some extent in the North.

The result of this has been the development of a relatively small number of successful specialist commercial dairy farmers, each on a relatively large scale, supplying a handful of successful milk processing co-operatives, some of which have even abandoned the co-operative principle and become privately-owned global businesses.

What might have happened had the co-operative movement encouraged production and marketing of all agricultural produce, and linked with a thriving urban consumer co-operative movement, is a matter for conjecture. There is perhaps an opportunity for activists engaged in enterprise development among subsistence farmers to explore this option, drawing on experience from elsewhere, making use of the Intenet to this end. It is possible that co-operative production of all products, in a managed multi-farm system(3)), would enable more value to be added than where all farmers are competing in an open market. Effective production of livestock, food crops, fodder crops, fibre crops and energy crops depends on managed rotation, and needs to be supported by the recycling of waste products, including urban sewage, if dependence on artificial fertilisers is the be reduced (the latter being highly energy-dependent, and needing to be phased out).

Concluding Remarks

I am not suggesting that the foregoing is a sure-fire recipe for success, but I would be interested in feedback from development workers in various parts of the world who have positive experiences to report. Perhaps these experiences can be made available globally, with the aid of the Internet, and if this begins to happen, perhaps as a result of Quaker initiatives, I would like to be able to facilitate it.

I am also interested to know why the International Co-operative Alliance has so little African support: is it perhaps because the European and US experience is considered irrelevant, or just because it is not known? There is however some evidence of African interest in co-operative organisation, contactable via the International Labour Organisation.

Roy H W Johnston August 19 2007.

Notes and References

1. See my notes on the Bolger book which are accessible from Appendix 4 of my 'Century of Endeavour' book (Tyndall/Lilliput 2006).

2. The Plunkett Foundation web-site is a contact point for accessing European experience of agricultural co-operation. There is perhaps scope for adapting this to the requirements of post-colonial economic development, and the initiative for this should come from local activists.

3. See my Sustainability paper which makes an attempt to develop a development agenda.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999