MEPs explore the role of social co-operatives in agriculture

Mila Shamku from CECOP reports from a meeting at the European Parliament, which looked at ways to strengthen and promote the model

Social co-operatives play a key role in the agricultural sector in Italy. Their contribution was the topic of a meeting organised by members of the European parliament in Brussels last month. The event was hosted by MEPs Elena Gentile, Paolo De Castro and Roberto Gualtieri (S&D, Italy).

Social agriculture enterprises are co-operative or businesses with another legal form that operate in the agricultural sector, whose main aim is to foster social inclusion. Around 46% of all enterprises involved in social agriculture in Italy are co-operatives. They employ people from very vulnerable backgrounds such as ex-offenders, people with disabilities, refugees, and people struggling with addiction and mental health issues. Other co-ops provide jobs for people using territories that previously belonged to the mafia, offering them an alternative. The first such co-operative in Europe and in Italy was set up in 1972 – the Cooperativa Lavoratori Uniti.

Related: How Italian co-ops are fighting the mafia through sustainable agriculture

Elena Gentile said social agriculture and social enterprises in general represented an important economic model. She added that workers involved in social agriculture and farming were often healthier and capable of delivering high-quality products to the marketplace.

She highlighted the entrepreneurial nature of these social agricultural co-operatives. In order to be profitable and cost-effective, they need their products to be competitive and their workers to be competent and knowledgeable, she said. The aim of social co-ops is to help vulnerable people secure better livelihoods. They create a system involving co-operatives, suppliers, local governments and healthcare services, said the MEP.

Ilaria Signoriello from the Euro+Med Agri Network told the meeting that decision-makers should be made aware of the economic and entrepreneurial dimension of social co-ops in agriculture. She added that examples of social agriculture and farming similar to the Italian model were present in Portugal, Czech Republic and Hungary.

Paolo De Castro expressed concerns over the cuts to Common Agriculture Policy funding at European level, which affected social co-ops active in agriculture. The budget allocated to the CAP represents a share of 28.5% of the overall EU budget for the period 2021-2027, down 5% from the previous budget.

Roberto Gualtieri also called for a European legal framework for social agriculture. He said that in spite of some differences between social co-ops active in agriculture in various countries, all such co-ops had solidarity in common and generated positive externalities.

CECOP president Giuseppe Guerini, former president of Federsolidarietà, looked at importance of economic biodiversity, stating that in order to thrive, societies had to promote a variety of economic models. He concluded by calling for an alliance of social co-ops active in agriculture and public decision makers to promote this model.

Asked whether it was possible to transfer the Italian model of social agriculture to other contexts, he said: “Agriculture co-operatives are present all over the world and they represent a consolidated tool to foster development and support for farmers. So there is a lot of potential for inclusion.

“What is specific of the Italian model is that agriculture work is often carried out by social co-operatives. This model is being promoted in many other countries lately and it raises a lot of interest, as it does social enterprise in general.”

He added: “The big potential of social agriculture is clearly demonstrated in its therapeutic and socialising effects for disadvantaged people who get to work in constant contact with nature. Additionally, this kind of work, that we sometimes call ‘slow agriculture’ or ‘low intensity agriculture’, fits very well the methods and the needs of organic production. By producing high quality products (like organic food), we keep the economic value of the goods high and at the same time compensate for the slowness in the production process.

“The best way of disseminating these best practices is to tell people about them and have the relevant actors meet and exchange. On top of it, it is very important to call for a legal framework of recognition of social agriculture at least at European level. However, it is not the laws that make the enterprises, but rather the people and the economic and social objectives they put forward.”

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