women farmers in India discuss their crops

Is social capital the solution to food security?

Contrary to popular wisdom, humans are fantastic cooperators, and there is a surge of it in agriculture.

In a recent episode of the excellent podcast, The Great Simplification, Nat Hagens interviews Josh Farley, an ecological economist from the University of Vermont. They talk about the future of human cooperation.

Listening to these two liberal academics was remarkably uplifting and a spooky coincidence.

I had just posted on Alloporus a piece on the importance of the social contract, an agreement to cooperate. What I didn’t realise, but thanks to messers Farley and Hagens now do, is just how important cooperation is to our future.

The simple reality is that as individuals, we have zero chance of survival for more than five minutes.

Even a moment of thought proves this point.

If I took away all the trappings of modern civilisation and dumped you in the wilderness, where would you find something to drink, a meal, or a safe place to sleep? 

See what I mean. Five minutes is probably generous.

The next realisation is that all the trappings that we need to survive result from cooperation. The hundreds of people that do their thing drawing on historical knowledge from thousands more to put that loaf of bread on your countertop.

Photo by vwz.photography on Unsplash

Just think how many people had a hand in getting a loaf of bread this delicious onto the breadboard. There were dozens of them, each offering skill and their experience.

Humans are brilliant cooperators and always have been. It is a critical ingredient in our secret sauce.

Social capital

There is a vast body of research on human cooperation that many call social capital, a term used to describe the importance of social bonds, trust and reciprocity and collective action through institutions (Putnam, 1995).

Other definitions 

“the structure of relations between actors and among actors” that encourages productive activities 

Coleman, 1990

“a durable network of institutional relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition … to membership of a group, which provides each of its members with the backing of collectively-owned capital”

Bourdieu (1986) 

“multifunctional phenomenon comprising stocks of social norms, values, beliefs, trusts, obligations, relationships, friends, memberships, civic engagement, information flows and institutions that further cooperation and collective action for mutual benefits.”

Bhandari and Yasunobu (2009)

How the term is defined is less important than what it means.

Human cooperation through trust and identity with a mutually beneficial group of people—be that our ancestral tribe on the African savanna or a Facebook group today—are better working together; we become more than the sum of our parts.

And our chance of survival goes up exponentially when we cooperate, whether we think we are or not. 

If you live in a modern city, you cooperate even if we claim to be independent economic actors following the neoliberal paradigm of self-determination. Ask the train driver or the guys who repair the track if you could get to work by train on your own. Or maybe make dinner without going to a shop for the ingredients.

But there is more to social capital than modern life forcing us into it. Various researchers—for example Anderson et al. 2014; Borgonovi 2008; Layard 2020—have established that people who actively choose to cooperate are more likely to 

  • live healthier lifestyles 
  • with lower incidence of mental ill-health, and  
  • live longer. 

The good news is that social capital is growing, especially in food production.

Social capital for food security

Cooperation in food production is as old as the human species. We have always formed groups for safety, to share tasks in hunting and gathering, and perhaps most critically, to retain technologies through shared knowledge.

No surprise that researchers have looked to food production to find social capital.

Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, authored a collaborative study on the growth of social groups in agriculture. The results are encouraging.

They found 8.5 million social groups distributed across 55 countries, comprising 3% of the world’s population, all involved in agriculture. These groups manage 299 million hectares of agricultural and non-agricultural land. 

The numbers are substantial, but so is the growth in numbers of groups from 0.005 million at the end of the 1980s to 0.48 million in 2001 and 8.54 million by 2020, a statistically significant exponential increase. 

The researchers then found eight social group interventions that either manage land or support land managers.

Table describing the eight categories of social intervention

Countries leading this growth in social capital for agriculture include Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Sri Lanka, China and Vietnam.

Along with recording this growth in social capital in agriculture, Pretty et al (2020) also searched for research evidence of the benefits of social groups to individuals, farm productivity and to nature and found many.

Benefits to individuals

  • Emergence of new leaders of groups, especially by women, and changes in the relationships between women and men.
  • Positive role of women leaders in group effectiveness and conflict resolution over common resources.
  • Changes in the worldviews of farmers and of scientists and extensionists working with farmers in novel innovation platforms.
  • Increases in the savings and repayment rates of members of microfinance groups. 

Benefits to farm productivity

  • Increase in crop productivity, such as by FFSs on all crops and in grazing and pasture productivity.
  • Increases in tree and agroforestry cover on farms.
  • Reductions in the use of pesticides in IPM.
  • Adoption of organic and zero-budget systems.

Benefits for natural capital 

  • Increase in irrigation water availability and efficiency of use.
  • Improvements in forest productivity of wood, forage and secondary products.
  • Increases in carbon sequestration in soils by conservation agriculture.
  • Reductions in surface water flows and soil erosion. 

Social groups in agriculture make it easier to grow food. Farmers feel better about their role and are less daunted by the challenges. Productivity increases and inputs decline. Farming becomes more ecologically friendly.

farming family in Asia planting rice
Photo by En. ji on Unsplash

What sustainably FED suggests…

We are encouraged by the idea that cooperation is a way out of so many FED dilemmas. But we are not naive enough to think that once everyone cooperates all is well. 

We know that individualism and selfish behaviours will never go away altogether. There are many people who would rail against the premise of this post. Some would not even accept that cooperation gives them their wealth and opportunity.

The truth is that individuals and groups are both in our evolutionary history. And not all groups are egalitarian. Perhaps most have some form of forced cooperation from the relatively benign ‘exchanging time for money’ to the insidious systems of slavery that still exist today.

We do see that cooperation in agriculture is a route to more sustainable production than the intensive approaches and a way to wean us off the fossil fuel energy subsidy that gave us so many people in the first place.

Research quoted in this post:

Anderson, N. D., Damianakis, T., Kröger, E., Wagner, L. M., Dawson, D. R., Binns, M. A., … Cook, S. L. (2014). The benefits associated with volunteering among seniors: a critical review and recommendations for future research. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1505.

Bhandari, H. & Yasunobu, K. (2009). What is social capital? A comprehensive review of the concept. Asian Journal of Social Science, 37(3), 480–510.

Borgonovi, F. (2008). Doing well by doing good. The relationship between formal volunteering and self-reported health and happiness. Social Science & Medicine, 66(11), 2321–2334.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In P. Bourdieu, & J. G. Richardson (eds). Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241–258). Richardson.

Coleman, J. (1990). Foundations of Social Theory. Harvard University Press.

Layard, R. (2020). Can We Be Happier? Pelican.

Pretty, J., Attwood, S., Bawden, R., Van Den Berg, H., Bharucha, Z. P., Dixon, J., … & Yang, P. (2020). Assessment of the growth in social groups for sustainable agriculture and land management. Global Sustainability, 3.

Putnam, R. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of Democracy, 6(1), 65–78.

Hero image from photo by amol sonar on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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