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“Too much power in too few hands: Food giants take over the industry”.

This was one of the headlines a national newspaper was using on Sunday to capture its readers attention. The feature the headline was preceeding was dealing with the conclusions of a new report that warns control over food markets worldwide is concentrated in the hands of a few multinationals, which has a dramatic impact on consumers and food producers across the world.

Of course, there was nothing new on the message, but the text could not have been more timely. After having spent the whole weekend in Solihull at the National Retail Consumer Conference, I could not avoid thinking of one of the sessions I had attended: on Sunday morning, president of the ICA Dame Pauline Green had talked about food crisis in Africa as an example of the global challenges co-operatives can help to tackle.

According to the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade -whose final version the ICA has just approved-, a Stanford University study has found that new technologies can improve agricultural sustainability in developing countries, but only with the engagement of local farmers and the social and economic networks they depend on. That is, innovation needs the support of participatory institutions to work and technogy is therefore useless without the people who are behind it.

The message Dame Pauline Green sent on Sunday was based on that idea. In front on an audience of eager co-operators, the President of the ICA was demanding a redefinition of the concept of sustainability. She claimed sustainability should not be understood just in terms of economic efficiency only but must include its environmental and social dimensions. “The co-operative model has not been acknowledged as an efficient model”, she pointed out. However, what would happened if we were to look at social cohesion and the responsible use of natural resources?

People-centred organisations are more resilient and contribute to economic and social stability; co-operatives improve levels of trust and democratic participation; they look after the world around them and work to minimise the impact of their activity on the environment. That’s sustainability., The co-operative  movement has follow these principles since it was founded in 1844 and therefore it cannot be measured against old-fashioned standards of efficiency and growth. Co-operatives are builders of sustainability, in the widest sense of the word, and they are key to ensure we sort out our own mess. After all, as Dame Pauline Green said to start her presentation: “we are not the largest movement in the world, but we have a disproportionate influence on what happens around the globe”.

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