My own co-op experience began 20 years ago when I took over the tenancy of Leckerstone Farm, near Dunfermline, from my father. It’s an arable farm and I got involved in the collaborative marketing of our harvest. We were just a simple group, but it really showed the value of working together: we were able to guarantee supply and get a good price.
Business cooperation models are translating well into climate-friendly models, and farmers are serious about making the necessary changes. However, some are understandably overwhelmed by the process, which may not be clear. The next generation is much more aware of climate change and the environment; indeed, my own son is doing a PhD in sustainable farming systems and regenerative agriculture.
Things have changed so much in just a few generations. In my grandfather’s time, agriculture was much more sustainable and much less dependent on external inputs such as fertilizer and fuel. But then the food policy changed, emphasizing increased production with a high cost to the land and a low cost to the consumer.
We are still learning to measure everything that happens on the farm and design standard benchmarks. SAOS is working on a program that will cover all agricultural sectors, flexible enough to be updated as new research emerges, and can be used easily on farms. It is essential that we also need a single carbon insurance system that consumers can trust.
Farmers must also be financially viable; you can adopt good environmental practices, but if you can’t also make a profit, you simply can’t survive in business. This is another area where cooperation can be useful, for example by using machine circles, we can leverage the purchasing power of cooperatives and increase efficiency.
Agricultural businesses must also work together to counter certain market forces; if we give free rein to the market, we will end up with large companies that exploit vast areas; the family farm would disappear and this would completely change the fabric of rural society.
All of society has a role to play. No government wants to see food become more expensive, but the cost of production is likely to increase and the true cost of producing food is not taken into account. The public is aware of the environmental and monetary cost of food, but they often receive grossly inaccurate information from the media. An easy win for carbon reduction would be to reduce the 30% of food we throw away.
Agriculture will always create emissions, but it is also uniquely positioned to mitigate those emissions. The government, market and consumers must accept that regenerative agricultural systems cannot produce food at low prices. If we collaborate and cooperate, agriculture can accomplish a lot; but other actors in the supply chain must also play their part if our efforts are not to be wasted.
John Hutcheson, Chairman of SAOS, Scotland’s experts on agricultural co-operatives and working with the food industry