We can establish several correlations between agriculture and health. In fact, children raised on a farm have stronger immune systems than children who grow up in the city because, from a very young age, they come into contact with a variety of many micro-organisms. Just think about that tiny little Mycobacterium vaccæ bacteria commonly found in soil; it was recently discovered that it plays a role in protecting against depression, cancer, asthma and eczema. This is no small feat! Furthermore, exercise, fresh air and easy access to fresh foods are more factors that contribute to keeping farm families healthy.
However, it's impossible to ignore the health risks related to modern agriculture. Last year, France officially recognized Parkinson's as an occupational disease in the farming community when it acknowledged its link to the use of pesticides. Awareness of the dangers and risks related to this profession is critical and extra caution is essential to staying healthy.
But health is so much more than the absence of illness! According to the World Health Organization, health is a state of complete well-being in which all of our fundamental needs are met, including our mental and social needs. Health is therefore related to a person's subjective experience: how we feel in our environment has a direct influence on our health. Several researchers touched on the issue and, again, gave us a glimpse of the new benefits related to the cooperative formula.
First there was Robert Putnam the sociologist. After analyzing extensive data, Mr. Putnam noted that membership in an association would reduce by half the risk of dying over the next year! In fact, being part of a group seems to compensate the need to belong thus having a positive influence on health. We can then surmise that being a member of a cooperative and taking part in its associative life is essentially good for one's health.
There was also Dr. Spencer Kagan, a renowned leader in cooperative learning and a strong advocate of dialogue. Kagan explained that dialogue has a calming effect on the amygdala, that part of the brain that produces stress hormones. And because dialogue reduces stress, any opportunity to put it into practice is an opportunity to improve one's overall health. Consequently, cooperators benefit from the meetings or training sessions proposed by La Coop network when they participate in the resulting informal discussions or peer-to-peer interactions.
And then there was Richard Wilkinson, physician and speaker at the Imagine 2012 conference. For more than 25 years, Wilkinson has been studying the constantly expanding gap between economic growth indicators and well-being. Relative poverty, he noted, has a much greater effect on people's health than absolute poverty. Economic inequalities corrupt the quality of social relationships within a collective – what is referred to as « social capital » and defined by the level of trust demonstrated between individuals, the level of mutual aid, the feeling of security, etc. Games of power and influence produce strained social relationships that undermine one's health and quality of life. Business models that can reduce economic inequalities, such as a cooperative, contribute to public health in a very concrete fashion.
Am I stretching this a little? Not at all. In an interconnected world, our relationship with others is critical. Mark my words: more and more research will document the psychological benefits of cooperation. Because taking an interest in health is also uncovering underlying social factors that improve or perturb people's well-being. And that is when cooperation will be recognized at its fair value, as an efficient and beneficial social structure that needs to be encouraged and promoted.