By Esther Vivas
If we consider consumer groups as an instrument of political and social transformation, with the will to oppose a certain model of production and distribution in the hands of the agri-food industry, the perspective of collective political action is fundamental. In these, the criteria of proximity, labor rights, etc., are not far from those of large distribution.
Agroecological consumption groups and cooperatives are a reality that is increasingly present at the local level. Although these are experiences that, in total figures, add up to a small number of people, they show that it is possible to carry out another consumption model that takes into account social and environmental criteria.
These groups bring together people from the same territory (neighborhood, city ...) with the aim of carrying out an alternative, ecological consumption, in solidarity with the rural world, relocating food and establishing direct relationships between the consumer and the producer from short marketing circuits. These nuclei are mainly constituted in large cities where there is a greater distance between consumers and producers / farmers and their format is usually that of association or cooperative.
In this article we will call these groups: "agroecological consumer groups and cooperatives." Despite the fact that many of them define themselves in favor of the consumption of organic products, we consider that their daily practice is more part of the principles of agroecology, with a not only ecological but also social and political burden (1).
In Spain, we mainly find two large types of agroecological consumer groups and cooperatives: those that integrate consumers and producers and others that are only made up of consumers.
The first group would highlight experiences such as the production and consumption cooperative Bajo el Asfalto esta la Huerta! (BAH!) In Madrid, which is inspired by long-standing European models such as the French AMAP (Association pour le Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne) (2), or many of the Andalusian historical associations such as La Ortiga de Sevilla, La Breva from Malaga, El Encinar de Granada. These seek to integrate producers and consumers into the same framework, achieving a stable commitment of mutual solidarity, in which consumers guarantee the total purchase of the farmer's production in advance, showing solidarity both in profits and losses. In certain projects, its members work a few days a year on the farm supporting the producers.
In the second group we find the majority of Catalan experiences and other reference cooperatives such as Landare in Pamplona, Bio Alai in Vitoria, La Llavoreta in Valencia or Arbore in Vigo. In these, the consumer-farmer relationship is looser, based on a relationship of trust and mutual knowledge (with periodic visits to the farms) but where each one works in separate settings. Some groups and cooperatives maintain a closer relationship with the peasants with whom they work and others less so.
Despite sharing common ideological criteria, there is, as we can see, a great variety of organizational models, relationship with the producer / farmer, purchasing format, etc. For example, some groups and cooperatives over time have been increasing and adapting the offer to the consumption needs of their members. At present, many of these offer what are called "open baskets", where each consumer can order periodically (in general every week) the products he needs and pay for them, but there are also other formats of "closed baskets" in those that the consumer periodically receives a basket with products from the peasant with whom he works, always paying the same amount (with the aim of guaranteeing the purchase of the product that the peasant produces annually).
Another element that distinguishes some groups and cooperatives of agroecological consumption from others is the degree of professionalization of the same. Many of these experiences have hired people who carry out management tasks. This is the case of many of the historic initiatives in Andalusia, Valencia, some in Catalonia or newer ones in Galicia. Often these groups and cooperatives have a store open to the public, accessible to both members and non-members. Other experiences, on the other hand, claim or opt for a model without liberated people, as is the case of several Catalan initiatives.
Origins and evolution
The first groups in the Spanish State emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Andalusia, as a result of the constitution of the Institute of Sociology and Peasant Studies (ISEC) at the University of Córdoba, the principles of agroecology were introduced giving rise to experiences such as the Almocafre cooperative in Córdoba (1994). Other Andalusian initiatives were La Ortiga in Seville (1993), El Encinar in Granada (1993), La Breva in Malága (1995) or El Zoco in Jaén (1995). In Catalonia, El Brot in Reus (1987), El Rebost in Girona (1988) and Germinal in Barcelona (1993) were established. Landare (1992) was created in Pamplona, La Llavoreta (1993) in Valencia, Bio Alai (1993) in Euskadi, among others.
Most of these experiences arose from militant nuclei in social movements of the time, although there are different trajectories and motivations behind each of them. In Andalusia, for example, they developed by creating links with the Sindicato de Obreros del Campo (SOC) (3). In this first wave, several initiatives were formally constituted as a cooperative society while others opted for the association format. Although it is interesting to observe how, over time, several of the latter were legalized as a cooperative, considering that it was a more appropriate model for their principles.
A second wave occurred in the 2000s. In Catalonia, it went from less than ten cooperatives in 2000 to more than ninety today, adding today to a total of 2880 consumer units (4). Of these, 86% are in the province of Barcelona and 46% in the Catalan capital (5).
In Madrid, at the end of the 90s, the Konsumo Self-Managed Groups (GAKs) were promoted by several people who came from social movements and who sought to consume in another way based on the principles of food sovereignty and agroecology, and in a short time they added about six collectives. Shortly after, in 2000, Bajo el Asfalto esta la Huerta was created! (6) that gave rise to ten consumer groups in different Madrid neighborhoods, adding up to a total of 130 consumer units, and a production group (in charge of working the collective's land), and which inspired other Madrid initiatives such as Surco a Groove.
In other territories where there were no experiences of this type, as in Galicia, new ones arose. In Vigo, in 2001, the Arbore cooperative (7) was created, which today has 290 consumer units and which has multiplied its initial number of members tenfold, at the same time that it has accompanied the creation of other Galician initiatives such as the cooperative To Xoaninha in Ferrol.
Throughout the 2000s, those historic groups and cooperatives saw their members multiply and their members increase, while they were able to offer a greater variety of products. Germinal went from having one group to having five, mainly in Barcelona, with a total of 200 consumer units. Bio Alai in Vitoria has, according to 2008 data, 650 units. Landare in Pamplona saw the number of members multiply by forty in seventeen years and today it has 800 family units and estimates that some four thousand people eat products from its store (8). And in this period new groups have emerged in Madrid, Murcia, Catalunya, Euskadi, País Valencià, Andalusia, Illes Balears, among many other territories.
It is important to take into account how, in this period, fair trade organizations with a global and transformative vision of this practice (9) began to include agroecological products in their stores or to promote consumer groups in their local. This has been the case of many of the organizations of the Space for Fair Trade network (10), such as the Xarxa de Consum Solidari in Barcelona, which today has six agroecological consumption groups, Sodepaz in Madrid, A Cova da Terra in Lugo, Tour for Development in Santander, Picu Rabicu in Xixón, among others. Emphasizing the need to “update” the North-South fair trade concept with a more global perspective of “North-North” and “South-South” solidarity and commercial and peasant justice linked to the defense of food sovereignty.
We should also point out the initiative ARCO (Shared Responsibility Agriculture) of the peasant union COAG, presented publicly in 2009 but in which it had already been working since 2006, with the aim of promoting short marketing circuits (producer markets, consumer groups, boxes at home, sale in farms, collective dining rooms, etc.) and avoid intermediaries. The crisis in which the sector finds itself and the difficulties in directly accessing consumers has led farmers to seek alternatives. An experience that has been operating for some time in Andalusia, Murcia, Madrid ... adapting to the reality of each territory and putting farmers in contact with consumers.
Causes and whys
But, what have been the causes of this important increase after the year 2000 of the groups of agroecological consumption? Two great reasons could be pointed out. In the first place, the rise of the “anti-globalization” movement left a substrate of fertile relationships and complicities at the local level that facilitated the creation of these spaces, while it became evident for many activists the need to link the global struggle with the everyday practice. This would explain why a new militant generation, very active in the "anti-globalization" movement, participated a posteriori in these experiences of alternative consumption, either as users or as promoters.
A second element would be the growing awareness of the negative impact of the current agri-food model and its effects on health. The multiplication of cases such as mad cows, chickens with dioxins, avian flu ... has made more and more people worry about how it has been made or where what we eat comes from. In this way, even from an individual concern, more people choose to consume organic products.
This increase in consumer groups and cooperatives raised the need to establish coordination and mutual support frameworks. In Andalusia, the Andalusian Federation of Consumers and Ecological and Artisanal Producers (FACPE) was created in 1995, which brings together historical Andalusian agroecological associations and cooperatives (El Encinar, La Breva, La Ortiga, El Zoco, Almocafre) and some of younger (Serranía Ecológica in Ronda, La Borraja in Cádiz, etc) (11). FACPE has a board of directors, a technical team and several work commissions and its objective is to support member organizations, have its own distribution and production criteria, and carry out awareness-raising actions. It must be borne in mind that most of its members are associations or cooperatives made up of producers and consumers.
In Catalonia, in 2005 the Catalan Coordinator of Organizations of Consumers of Ecological Products Ecoconsum was legalized, which had already been working for years, and which currently groups some twenty groups, mainly those that have been operating for longer and with more structures. consolidated (12) while it is difficult to integrate those younger and smaller. It must be taken into account that there are about ninety groups in Catalonia. Ecoconsum does not have hired people but is based on the voluntary work of its members through commissions and only brings together consumers, since in Catalonia there are practically no associations that integrate consumption and production. Subsequently, a new space emerged, with the name of La Repera, which was intended to be a meeting place between consumer groups and producers. On its first day, in 2008, about 110 people participated, although over time the difficulty of maintaining this space as a stable mechanism of coordination between consumers and farmers has become evident, beyond annual meetings and a good systematization of data and experiences (13).
In Madrid, before 2005, there was the Coordinator of Agroecological Consumption Groups, which brought together a dozen groups, but internal tensions made this initiative fail. A posteriori, the Coordinator of Ecological Consumption Groups of Madrid was formed, made up of some of the most consolidated groups, about nine, with the aim of solving logistical issues and managing larger orders, although many do not participate in this space such as the GAKs, the BAH! or others that each have their own coordination frameworks for their member groups. Also in Madrid, recently, attempts have been made to promote meeting spaces between consumers and producers such as the La Rehuerta meetings.
Other coordination experiences have been carried out in Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Murcia ... At the state level, although there have been attempts to promote a network or a state coordinator, they have not finished prospering.
Limits and opportunities
The multiplication of agroecological consumer groups and cooperatives poses a number of opportunities, but the development carried out so far also highlights a number of limits.
a) "Eating well" versus political activism. In many of the consumer groups we find, broadly speaking, two sensitivities. On the one hand, sectors interested in "eating well" and with little activist trajectory and, on the other, people who come from social movements and who see consumer groups as political and militancy spaces. The balance between these two sensitivities is not always easy and involves in-depth discussions on the principles and objectives of the group, while the most activist sectors do not always share the same criteria, for example in relation to meat consumption.
But if we consider consumer groups as an instrument of political and social transformation, with the will to oppose a certain model of production and distribution in the hands of the agri-food industry, the perspective of collective political action is fundamental. In these, the criteria of proximity, labor rights, etc., are not far from those of large distribution.
The potential of this collective political action was revealed, in Catalonia, in the collection of more than one hundred thousand signatures in favor of a Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP) against transgenics promoted by the Som lo que Sembrem Platform. Although this was finally overthrown in the Catalan Parliament in July 2009. But it is essential to raise awareness among those less politicized sectors that if we want to "eat well" this necessarily implies political action. In the case of transgenics it is very clear. If its cultivation is not prohibited (in which the Spanish State is flagged in Europe, even cultivating varieties prohibited in other countries) there will be a day when all agriculture, both organic and conventional, will be transgenic, the result of the latter's contamination processes. . Either we stop transgenics, and to do so we have to go out, or we can say goodbye to organic consumption.
b) A management and participation that paralyzes us? But the day-to-day life of a large part of these consumer groups ends up focusing on daily management tasks: accounting, orders, cleaning, stock control ..., which take time and effort from an action and a political debate beyond consumption. Likewise, the availability of time they require causes, on the one hand, a high turnover among its members, which reduces their strength and capacity for consolidation (many people, not being able to keep up with the rhythm, leave the group), and, on the other hand, it makes people or activists, with little time availability, unable to participate.
In order to respond to these problems, some groups and cooperatives have chosen to become professional and have hired personnel to carry out certain management tasks, but this has often reduced the involvement of a significant part of their members. Although active participation in those groups that only have volunteers is not guaranteed or very high.
Another element to take into account in the operation of these experiences, mainly in those that do not have contracted personnel, is the large amount of time that decision-making processes require, with multiple work meetings and long assemblies, which can generate frustration and paralysis in the organization itself. While seeking the active participation of the majority of members is essential to have healthy and vibrant organizations, it is also key to distinguish between those issues that require deep and long-term discussions and those that are more technical in nature. Otherwise, "participation" may be relegated only to those who have more time and availability and end up excluding a significant part of the partners.
c) The cooperative as an end or as an instrument. It is also necessary to reflect on the strategic value that some of its members give to these groups as an instrument of transformation. Although these experiences have an important symbolic value, demonstrating that it is possible to carry out another model of consumption, they cannot be an end in themselves and we cannot consider that their mere generalization will lead us to a change of model and society. The reality in which we live requires profound changes in many areas.
Cooperatives and consumer groups are one more piece of a complex gear to transform the current political, economic and social model. They have to ally themselves with other social actors (peasants, workers, women, environmentalists, ranchers, fishermen ...) to change the current agri-food model, but at the same time they must go further and join other groups, participate in other spaces (forums social, counter-summits, campaigns against the crisis, broad platforms ...) to collectively achieve a political paradigm that puts people and the planet at its center.
The capitalist logic that prevails in the current agricultural and food model is the same that affects other areas of our lives: the privatization of public services, speculation with the territory and housing, business relocation, job insecurity, etc. Changing this agri-food system implies a radical change of paradigm and the multiple crisis of capitalism in which we are immersed (financial, climatic, social, political, food, energy) clearly shows this.
d) An egalitarian relationship between consumer and peasantry. It should also be noted what type of relationships are established between consumers and farmers / producers and what interests both have. In the same way that a purely commercial relationship between the two must be rejected, it is not positive either to fall into a mystification of peasant practice or of those who exercise it. Consumer groups and cooperatives have specific consumption needs (operating routines, wide offer, quality of products…) that sometimes may not match those of the peasantry (limited production, several clients, distribution routes…). We must consider these "tensions" as natural between actors who play different roles. Consumers have to be aware that consuming "in another way" implies adapting to the characteristics of a specific model of agroecological production and peasants have to accept organizational routines and practices. What is fundamental is that these relationships are established as equals, based on trust and mutual knowledge, breaking with a commercial practice and logic.
e) Grow, be viable and maintain some principles. One of the current challenges for consumer groups and cooperatives is how to reach more people while maintaining clear ideological principles. Several are the problems that arise. On the one hand, the considerable increase in these experiences, for example, in Catalonia has generated some supply problems. Demand is growing but the percentage of people working in the field, and from an agroecological perspective, does not do so at the same rate. The Spanish State is one of the countries with the most organic production in Europe, but most of it is destined for export. In addition, we are witnessing a growing de-peasantization of the rural world, the impoverishment of the peasantry is increasing, a situation that leaves our food needs in the hands of the industry. Without a living rural world, our food security is seriously threatened. A country-city solidarity perspective is essential.
On the other hand, how to reach more people while maintaining criteria for breaking with the current agri-food model? There are several groups and consumer cooperatives that say they do not want to grow and maintain a certain number of members that allows their viability. But, if we want to change the current order of things, it is essential to reach more people. How to do it? This is where options and debates arise such as hiring personnel to perform some logistical tasks. For some, this means not respecting the model, for others the only way to go further. What is important is that, in one way or another, certain political criteria linked to food sovereignty and agroecology are maintained. A consumer group that only works with volunteers is not immune to adopting totally lax purchasing criteria with regard to agroecological principles and a professional experience can work with very clear political criteria and also be inserted into the framework of the cooperative economy and solidarity, claiming that another economy and another commercial practice is possible, as is the case with experiences such as Arbore in Galicia or the Xarxa de Consum Solidari in Catalonia, to name a few.
Another element to take into account when analyzing the rise of these experiences is the ability to coordinate between them. In the territories with a greater number of consumer groups and cooperatives, coordinators and federations have been consolidated that fulfill this role, but that, for the most part, only bring together a part of these initiatives, while many others remain outside. The big challenge is to make these coordination tools really useful.
Likewise, we have to consider what frameworks to equip ourselves for greater coordination between consumer groups and other actors working in the same direction. Some cooperatives already include consumers and producers, but many others do not. To improve contact between the two, initiatives are being launched to coordinate those who consume with those who work the land. These are experiences like La Repera in Catalunya or La Rehuerta in Madrid.
In a broader sense, there is the Rural Platform (14), a space where peasant organizations, environmentalists, NGOs, grassroots Christians, consumers, fair trade meet ... with the aim of working for a living rural world and that in meetings held every two For years they agree on lines of work and actions in favor of food sovereignty, against transgenics, denouncing the Community Agricultural Policy (PAC), etc.
Precisely, in the last meeting, in the 6th Forum for a Living Rural World, in Andorra (Teruel) it was approved to launch a process of building networks in favor of food sovereignty from the local level, which has been called the Alliance for Sovereignty Food of the Peoples. And this is where farmers and consumers have a lot to say, along with other actors. This process is already underway in several territories (Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia, País Valencià, Euskadi, Catalunya, Castilla-La Mancha ...) and it can be a very good opportunity to strengthen alliances and go further in the defense of food sovereignty bringing together various groups and creating networks with other campaigns and platforms.
Food is something that concerns us all. But “eating well” implies changing the current industrial agri-food model and to do so there is an essential premise: changing the system.
Esther alive She is co-author of the books From the field to the plate (Icaria editorial, 2009) and Supermercados, no gracias (Icaria editorial, 2007), a militant of the Anticapitalista Left and a member of the editorial staff of VIENTO SUR.
Article published in the magazine Viento Sur, nº108. http://www.vientosur.info/
(1) For a more detailed analysis of the concept of agroecology see: Altieri, M. (1999) Agroecology. Scientific bases for a sustainable agriculture, Nordan-Comunidad, Montevideo.
(2) More information on AMAPs at: http://www.reseau-amap.org
(3) See: Daniel López García (2009) “Agroecology and food sovereignty: two concepts in motion” in Pueblos, nº 30, pp. 36-38.
(4) Consumption units are those groups of people who periodically purchase a basket of peasant products. Usually it is a family, people who share a flat, etc.
(5) According to data from Descombes, C. (2009) Identification and typology of possibilities of commerce in circuits curts in: http://www.biotacc-project.com (…); Vivas, E. (2009) Grups i cooperatives de consum agroecològic a Barcelona at: http://esthervivas.wordpress.com
(6) More information about the cooperative Bajo el Asfalto esta la Huerta! at: http://bah.ourproject.org
(7) More information about the Arbore cooperative at: http://www.arbore.org
(8) See Diario de Navarra, 06/14/09: http://www2.noticiasdenavarra.com (…)
(9) Vivas, E. (2006) "The who and what in the fair trade movement" in Montagut, X. and Vivas, E. Where is fair trade going? Icaria editorial, Barcelona.
(10) More information on the Fair Trade Space at: http://www.espaciocomerciojusto.org
(11) More information on the Andalusian Federation of Organic and Artisanal Consumers and Producers (FACPE) at: http://www.facpe.org
(12) The members of Ecoconsum are Cydonia, El Brot, El Rebost, Germinal, La Manduca, Xarxa de Consum Solidari, El Cabàs, El Garrofer, El Rostoll Verd, L'Almàixera, L'Estrella, Vallgorganics, CEPA, I un rave !, Tota Cuca Viu, Userda9, El Rec, El Teixit de la Terra, Verdneda. More information about Ecoconsum at: http://www.ecoconsum.org
(13) See La Repera website at: http://repera.wordpress.com
(14) More information on Plataforma Rural at: http://www.nodo50.org/plataformarural