Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Grow Your Own Vegetables Shop!

There you are watching TV, tucking in to your beef lasagne and you find that it may have won the four-thirty at Haydock Park. Food quality was a major issue back in the nineteenth century and a key factor in the growth of the co-operative retail movement. Who would have thought that over a hundred and fifty years later food adulteration would raise its head again?

The horse meat scandal has exposed all sorts of shady dealing. It is shocking to discover that shops selling foodstuffs did not know (or appear to care) what it was and perhaps even worse consumers did not know or care what they where eating.

The worst feature of this crisis is not the duplicity of food producers and retailers who are after all only in it for the money. The surprise is the constant shock at the idea that profit seeking enterprises are only in it for profit!

When I was small my mum taught me not to put anything in my mouth if I did not know where it had come from. Yet millions everyday eat food that is processed to such an extent you need a forensic laboratory to know what it is. As someone who likes his grub I find this deeply sad.

Good food is one of life’s great pleasures and yet a swathe of our population has been enslaved by relentless marketing and advertising and by a growing addiction to salt, sugar and fat, to believe that this stuff is edible.   Sadly this is something of a class issue. Growing health and obesity issues do disproportionately affect the less affluent that have been conned into believing they can only afford cheap processed crap. It is ironic that in Britain the rich make a fortune selling this stuff to the poor whilst they eat like Mediterranean peasants.

It now seems amazing that early council houses where built with large gardens so that people could offset the rent by growing their own vegetables. We are a nation that has become alienated from the environment and have lost all sense of where our food comes from with many seasonal foods available all year around - all that varies is their number of air miles.

Thankfully there is growing resistance to this environmentally damaging food economy. Some of it is being lead by a growing network of new co-operative stores selling organic and ethically sourced foodstuffs. A classic example since its opening in 1996 is the wonderful Unicorn grocery in Chorlton, South Manchester. 

This multi award winning - Observer Food Monthly’s Best Independent Shop, Radio 4 Food Programs Best Independent Retailer - store’s basic offer is affordable, wholesome food with a focus on organic, fair-trade and local sourcing. As a workers co-op, owned and managed by the people who work in it they have created a place they would want to shop in themselves.

Their focus is on basic ingredients for tasty, interesting and affordable cooking with around seventy lines of organic fruit and veg at prices that compare well to the supermarket chains.

Unicorn also owns 21 acres of prime growing land, just 14 miles from the shop, tenanted by a co-op of organic growers, improving and securing the regional veg supply for the future. Packed on site they have a wide variety of staple cooking ingredients such as pulses, grains, nuts, dried fruits and spices, provide the basis for really good value meals.

Put this together with organic beer and wine, daily fresh organic bread and an ever-expanding deli counter and you have a winning combination. They also have a growing selection of environmentally friendly baby products, cosmetics and household goods made from natural ingredients.

Unicorn also caters to people seeking dairy free, gluten free and sugar free products. The shop is full of information about trade and food issues, and aims to help customers make informed shopping choices.

So does it work financially? Well it has grown from a turnover of £3,500 to £3.5 million, from 4 members to 50. The worker/members donate a steady 5% of wage costs to local and international projects relating to its Principles of Purpose and also contribute to a tree planting scheme with a carbon tax in an attempt to offset some of the environmental impact of running the business.

There may not be room for a Unicorn on every high street but surely there is a need for one in every small town and every suburb?  Unicorn encourages others to have ago themselves with a self-help guide to opening your own new co-op store on their website at: www.unicorn-grocery.co.uk. If your town needs better food and a healthier diet why not have a go and Grow a Grocery?

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Hugo Chavez- 21st Century Socialism and Co-operatives

So farewell Commandante Chavez!  I was very sad to hear of the death of Hugo Chavez, taken from us whilst there was still so much work to be done cementing the Bolivarian Revolution. A great leader winning the hearts of the people and expanding the realm of the possible in Latin America. He had huge charisma and a ready wit which he often used to wind up the “the Empire”!

His attitude to the United States hardened, and who could blame him, after the attempted coup of 2002 which had US fingerprints all over it. The good news is that it will be extremely difficult to undo the opening up of citizen power in Venezuela. Having flexed their muscles it is hard to imagine any circumstances in which the people would wish to give it up.

As a co-operator one of the most exciting aspects of the revolution was his commitment to co-operatives. The growth in the number of co-operatives was astonishing in 1998; there were fewer than 800 legally registered co-ops in Venezuela with about 20,000 members. By the middle of 2006 the National Superintendence of Cooperatives (SUNACOOP) had registered over 100,000 coops with over 1.5 million members.

Since then they have continued to grow and some now estimate that there are 200,000 co-ops employing 20% of Venezuelans. There have been heated debates in the co-op movement about top-down versus bottom-up co-ops, if they are truly voluntary and even if some conventional businesses are calling themselves co-ops just to gain tax advantages.

The government have been active promoting the creation of new co-ops by providing cheap credit, preferential purchasing arrangements particularly on government contracts, and technical support. At this rate of growth it is unsurprising that in the academic and technical literature there are reports that a large number of Venezuelan co-operative members have serious weaknesses in administrative and technical skills, as well as in motivation.

It is also true that producer co-operatives are also having great difficulty in competing with their capitalist counterparts to purchase inputs and to find customers. There is a fear that their dependency on state institutions for access to capital and contracts is threatening their sustainability.

It is clear that post Chavez a new wave of co-operative development is needed to consolidate the gains of the revolution. The lack of integration amongst co-operatives needs to be addressed. The key is co-operative principle 6, co-operation amongst co-operatives. This requires an active national co-operative centre to provide advice and support for co-operative enterprise and the creation of secondary co-operatives or what are called federals linking together smaller co-ops to gain the market advantages of larger businesses especially when it comes to trading, either buying crucial inputs or selling their wares to the public.  

I am sure Venezuelan co-operatives can overcome these challenges by coordinating their activities among themselves and by exploiting the special relationships they have with their neighbouring communities.

A good dose of democratic planning and co-ordination could also serve to consolidate their organizational and ethical principles, and to transform them into true socialist enterprises that effectively and efficiently satisfy social needs.

There is no area of the Venezuelan economy in which this is more important than food production and distribution. The government broke the private sector stranglehold on food distribution with Mercal created in 2003 which markets food at low prices to some 15,000 stores about (10per cent of the total) supported by the Venezuelan Agricultural Organisation (of 2004) which owns a series of processing subsidiaries which supply Mercal. In 2010, after months of negotiations the Government purchased the supermarket chain, “Supermercados Exito”, the French group, “Casino”, and the Colombian “Almacenes Exito” then in November, they also bought the CATIVEN Supermarket Chain (also owned by the Casino Group).

With these acquisitions, they became the owner of 35 stores - renamed Abastos Bicentenarios and six stores of Gran Bicentenario (formerly Hipermercado Exito), eight distribution centres and a fleet of trucks. This new business controlled by the Socialist Market Corporation (COMERSO) gives the State a presence in the retail sector but certainly not a dominant one. Makro for example have 35 Hypermarkets compared with Bicentarios six.

These could form the backbone of a consumer co-operative retail sector that could seriously challenge the private sector. What is more our friends at Mondragon know how to co-operatise a retailer having done so with the Eroski chain across Spain.

Challenging the crony capitalist oligarchy in Venezuela is a huge challenge and Hugo Chavez deserves great credit for the progress that has been made but to consolidate these gains with out the huge charisma of an individual we need the collective engagement of a people and co-operative structures can make that possible.