Today, agricultural cooperatives (ACs) have a strong presence in the EU market, accounting for around half of all EU agricultural trade (Bijman et al., 2012). ACs are promoted around the world as organisational mechanisms to increase lobby power, access to machinery and reduced prices on inputs and other farm costs for farmers. There are many types of AC, from machinery-sharing to processing and marketing. Despite the strong presence of ACs in Europe, the social, environmental and economic challenges facing EU farmers and consumers are huge. This chapter poses the following question that will be answered in the book: Why are cooperatives unable or unwilling to address these challenges?

A summary of the European “farming problem” is presented, followed by definitions and typologies of agricultural cooperatives in the academic literature, primarily from the economics discipline. As the numerous existing categorising criteria show, cooperatives can be studied and analysed in many ways. This assortment of “lenses” through which to look at cooperatives has affected the way their performance has been measured, as will be discussed in Chapter 10. The cooperative principles introduce an added layer of complexity to the raison d’être of ACs, pushing them beyond the traditional, monolithic profit-making aim of private firms.