News - February 6, 2012

Knowledge cooperatives instead of product boards

Dutch farmers and horticulturists can set up knowledge cooperatives if product boards are terminated, proposed Professor Gert van Dijk of Cooperation Sciences in Wageningen.

The Lower House of the Dutch Parliament wants to scrap product boards. A majority feels that these statutory trade organizations - which require farmers and horticulturists to contribute money for legal matters, research and marketing - have become archaic. 'Product boards have let their members down,' says Van Dijk. 'Farmers and horticulturists only see the costs; the product boards are unable to show properly what such organizations can do.'
However, farmers and horticulturists still need to do research jointly, says Van Dijk. 'Take for example, research into animal diseases, such as the current Schmallenberg virus. That has to be tackled across the entire sector.' A cooperative can be set up to do so, says Van Dijk. He has been director of the National Cooperative Council for Agriculture and Horticulture for many years and was involved in the formation of new forms of cooperatives, such as nature and environment cooperatives, in which farmers accomplish public nature objectives together.
'A new generation of cooperatives has sprung up nowadays,' says Van Dijk. 'In these cooperatives, members can also participate by just contributing money and technology, such as companies and the government. In this way, an energy cooperative has been set up in which farmers and the general public produce energy together. A German energy company brings in knowledge and technology and can leave after several years when the technology costs are paid up. Moreover, this type of cooperative differentiates between the founders who have to bear more risks and other members who join later.'
Van Dijk can picture livestock farmers and horticulturists setting up a cooperative with knowledge institutions and companies to develop, for example, a vaccine, or a greenhouse to generate energy. These farmers and horticulturists can also determine the knowledge agenda themselves and contribute money voluntarily. 'So you build it up again from the bottom. With various organization forms available, that's not hard to do.'
The product boards are currently lobbying for their existence. Van Dijk is surprised that they are not making a plan B should Minister Kamp decide to take up the motion from the Lower House. 'There is much knowhow and scope in the product boards, particularly in the area of public-private cooperation. They need to take the initiative quickly and get back on track again.'