48 Cooperatives: Promoting inclusive rural-urban linkages for sustainable food systems

Organizers: Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC)


Agriculture and food systems are evolving in a context of accelerated urbanisation and increased strains on natural resources. While urban food insecurity and malnutrition grow, the majority of the world’s poor still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Meeting rural and urban demand for food will require dramatic changes in the food production and consumption patterns, and adoption of climate-smart practices. Transitioning towards more sustainable food systems would require strengthened linkages between rural and urban areas, involving the inclusion of small food producers. Cooperatives have a dedicated role to play on both the producer and consumer sides. Combining economic and social goals, cooperatives can boost food production, increase their members’ incomes, generate employment opportunities, help mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, and provide affordable opportunities to poor rural and urban consumers, including women and youth. However, the diversity of cooperatives, their capacity to innovate, and their intrinsic flexibility can often be overlooked, despite cooperatives being critical actors for sustainable food systems.

Key speakers

Marcela Villarreal, Director, OPC, FAO

Shigeshi Onishi, Executive Director, Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (JA-Zenchu)

Paulo Gouveia, Chief Policy Advisor, Copa-Cogeca

Waltteri Katajamäki, Cooperatives Unit, Enterprises Department, International Labour Organization

Judith Hitchman, President, The International Network for Community Supported Agriculture (URGENCI)

Jamie Morrison, Strategic Programme Leader of FAO Strategic Objective 4 “Enable more inclusive and efficient agricultural and food systems”

Maya Takagi, Deputy Strategic Programme Leader of FAO Strategic Objective 3 “Reduce rural poverty”


  • Main themes and issues discussed at the event included the following:
  • The challenges to meeting rural and urban demands for food in a context of changing food systems, accelerated urbanisation and increased strains on natural resources;
  • Concrete initiatives of agriculture cooperatives to build inclusive rural-urban linkages;
  • Community supported agriculture; and
  • Ways in which cooperatives can have greater impact.

Marcela Villarreal highlighted how cooperatives provide solutions for strengthened linkages between rural and urban areas that include small food producers. Cooperatives are well-suited to achieve the SDGs in all three dimensions (economic, social, environmental), based not only on their unique nature and multiple functions (economic, social, political), but also on their values of solidarity, self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equity. Cooperatives have a dedicated role to play on both the producer and consumer sides in rural and urban areas and bring critical contributions for the transition to inclusive and sustainable food systems.

Panelists identified the following challenges for cooperatives: population aging and decline, food safety, price fluctuations, food loss and waste, climate change, resource exhaustion, shortages in supply, inputs and capital for farmers, and lack of awareness of the average consumer about how food is produced and about the cooperative difference.

Key points from the panel include:

Jamie Morrison: The 2030 Agenda recognises the need for sustainable urban development and achieving food and nutrition security. Rural-urban linkages are increasingly important in this context. With growing numbers of rural and urban producers and consumers, issues relating to how food is produced, processed, distributed, consumed and disposed of need to be addressed in inclusive and more sustainable ways. Cooperatives play an important role, however there is a need to strengthen their capacities and to consider how to establish a supportive enabling environment. Cooperatives need to be at the table when important policy decisions are made.

Shigeshi Onishi: To support inclusive rural-urban linkages in Japan, JA-Zenchu hires and trains new farmers from urban areas, connects local farmers to cooperatives to sell and deliver their products, coordinates more than 2,000 farmers’ markets to link producers directly with consumers, and assists farmers with diversification into traditional processed foods (jellies, deli products, juices) that appeal to urban consumers.

Paulo Gouveia: Farmers have a vested interest in sustainable food systems, since they are caretakers of land from generation to generation.

Waltteri Katajamäki: Cooperatives help diversify rural economies, support improved availability and access of smallholders, including women and youth, to basic services (e.g. inputs, capital), and promote productive employment and decent work for rural livelihoods. There is a need for improved information and statistics on the contributions of cooperatives in promoting diversified and inclusive rural economies.

Judith Hitchman: Community supported agriculture as part of the social and solidarity economy has the potential to change the food system, through partnership between farmers and consumers, citizen engagement, lower ecological impact, and closer contact between consumers and producers.

The key points from the interactive discussion included:

  • More work must be done to identify and integrate smallholders into existing cooperatives, and to support strengthened organizational capacities of cooperatives, given that lack of management and governance skills and low access to capital often pose barriers that can hamper the development of cooperatives.
  • Cooperatives must be autonomous and member-driven to create value for farmers.
  • Cooperatives in developed countries should focus on their unique identity to increase their market share in a discount-focused food system.
  • Cooperatives need to better communicate examples of engaging and inspiring youth.

Summary of key points

As summarized by Maya Takagi in her closing remarks

Cooperatives and other forms of collective action (like community supported agriculture) link producers and consumers, resulting in shorter food value chains and benefits for their members and wider communities, such as: local, low-carbon, safe food; diversified rural economies; achieving scale and asset/risk sharing for farmers; preserving local cultures; and supporting solidarity-based partnerships between farmers and consumers.

There is a need for increased awareness about the cooperative model and its role in supporting inclusive rural-urban linkages for achieving sustainable food systems.

Cooperatives need to be supported in terms of their organizational capacities and with an enabling environment conducive to their development, including the establishment of legal and regulatory frameworks and policies, creation of consultation frameworks and policy dialogue spaces, as well as sound climates for investment opportunities.

Cooperatives are strategic partners and key agents of change for building inclusive rural-urban linkages and sustainable food systems.