The last couple of years have been a low water-mark in the UK’s broken food system: the horsemeat outrage; the scandal of slavery in the shrimp industry; revelations about poor accounting and abuse of buyer power by some retailers to name a few.
Increasingly aggressive price wars are devaluing food and creating a race to the bottom. Through all of this, farmers, both at home and abroad, too often bear the brunt. Half the world’s hungry are themselves farmers. Yet for the first time in global history there are more obese than malnourished people in the world. Things are really out of balance.
How then can we make better progress, to a food system that is fair for all? I think we need faster progress in two broad areas:
First, companies should work harder to put producers first. Trade must be based on principles of justice and equity. It is simply unacceptable that the smallholders who grow our cocoa, for example, or the wage workers who grow our tea, continue to do so and yet remain in so many cases locked in chronic poverty. Farmers are too often seen as an after-thought in global commodity trading, not consulted on policies or practices that will affect them. This is the case even among many of the now plentiful sustainability initiatives which crowd the ‘ethical market’.
This Fairtrade Fortnight, which started yesterday (23rd February), we are asking people to ‘Choose Products That Change Lives’ and asking companies to value the food producers at the start of their supply chains. After all, farming is a skill on which our lives depend -– we all need a farmer 3 times a day.
Some initiatives to promote sustainable agriculture focus solely on productivity – something which is, of course, an essential tool in fighting poverty. But one farmer’s productivity is another’s oversupply, which can lead to price fluctuations and market volatility. That is when the farmer, growing and selling in the hope of a stable market, all too often loses out. For as long as price volatility and commodity speculation undermine the livelihoods of poor farming communities, there can be no such thing as sustainability.
The need for independent, third party verification is more important than ever- and public trust demands it. There is a great deal to learn from the companies who lead, who really strive to put farmers first. Like Divine Chocolate who have broken new ground in corporate governance by putting farmers in the boardroom. Like Cafedirect who have embraced the challenges of climate change and helped farmers adapt and even thrive, when the traditional business case would have been to source from other suppliers. Like Traidcraft, who continue to innovate with truly pro-poor supply chains, now bringing Fair Trade palm oil to market for the first time.
In these volatile days for the UK supermarkets, when it seems that both the City and shoppers are questioning their role, one thing is clear. Those that survive will be those that can speak authentically to their customers.
The second step is to tackle the indifference of policy-makers to the scale and urgency of the problem. Government is too often asleep at the wheel when it comes to food policy. If we want faster and deeper progress towards real sustainability, it is unreasonable to expect all companies to do all the running themselves. Companies need a level playing field and we need government to step up. For fair trade to be the norm, government will need to act in the long term interest of society – whether on climate change, supply chain abuses or farmer poverty – and not be swayed by short election cycles.
Government policy-making also needs to be more joined-up. For example, the UK stance on sugar is currently failing to tackle the health impacts of sugar consumption whilst also incentivising beet production following an EU decision to lift the cap on domestic beet production by 2017. At a stroke this renders the majority of small-scale sugar cane farmers in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries – including some very poor communities – uncompetitive with (still subsidised) EU farmers.
Many of these countries have supplied Britain with sugar for generations and have few other options for earning a living. The market has adjusted in anticipation: prices have slumped by 30% and the future for ACP cane farmers (including the 67,000 who work with Fairtrade) is bleak. Not the UK government’s finest hour.
The challenges in making trade fair are complex. But public support is growing and attitudes to corporate self-interest or inadequate government are hardening. We should never under-estimate the power of individuals to change the world, whether as shopper or voters. Public support has played an incredible role in mainstreaming the concept of Fairtrade.
This Fairtrade Fortnight let’s hope more companies and policy-makers choose to listen.