An uphill battle
Small-scale farms are estimated to produce around 70% of the food eaten globally and are recognised by many, including the UN, as playing a key role in supporting global food security and rural sustainability.
Despite this, small scale and ecological farmers are often undervalued by society and face many threats to their viability. From land grabs and industrial pollution, to being undermined and marginalised in a free market economy that does not account for negative impacts; ecological farmers face an uphill battle.
Stories highlighting this injustice are many and include:
In 2013 a company owned by Harvard University’s endowment fund fenced off and cleared the land around Arthur Passos, a village in rural Brazil, for an irrigated plantation project. In 2015 Harvard stopped the project, but continued to guard the land and prevent the villagers from going back to farming.
“We used to live off of fishing and farming. I can still remember the smell of rice when it was being harvested. But now we can no longer grow our crops” commented a resident of Arthur Passos.
The Niger Delta provides many more examples, having experienced severe environmental pollution at the hands of careless oil companies.
“The vegetables we plant within the community, some of which are medicinal and we use in treating ourselves, are also affected by crude oil.” Resident and member of the Ikebiri community in the Niger Delta.
What is trading fairly?
Trading fairly means paying people at all stages of the food supply chain a decent amount – valuing the work that goes into producing and distributing food. It means no one is exploited.
The notion of fair trade is widely associated with the Fairtrade label. This certification scheme was built around the idea of providing a fairer deal for farmers in poorer countries, often cocoa, sugar and cotton.
The imbalance in relationships between rich and poor countries is stark, and the need to address it is obvious. Fairtrade is an initiative that consumers can easily engage with, even if it is not the whole answer by any means, and has been somewhat undermined by companies abandoning the scheme and switching to their own in-house certifications, as Sainsbury’s did with tea in 2017.
What about fairness in the UK?
Supermarkets have played a big part in pushing down prices of food and what is paid to suppliers, as they compete to dominate the market, and boost their own executive pay and profits.
A Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) was introduced in 2013, as a regulator of the UK’s ten biggest supermarkets. It quickly found evidence of unfair trade in the supply chain, including unexpected costs and massive amounts of waste being created through cancelling orders at the last minute, or asking suppliers to pay unexplained fees.
For example, supermarkets will delay details of the volumes of orders they need until the last minute, but often apply fines to direct suppliers who cannot meet an order. This results in producers further down the chain investing in overproduction to manage the risk. Suppliers are also under pressure to over-order, and may later make impossible changes to technical specifications (such as asking for a different variety of fruit, after the crop has been planted) to enable them to refuse an order they no longer need.
There are also issues around ‘transfer of ownership’, where a buyer may reduce what they pay, because of damage to the product, even after it has left the hands of the producer.
Campaign groups have called for extending the GCA to cover producers, as at the moment, only the very last part of the supply chain is covered and so it’s easy for brokers to push costs back to the farmer.
The need for better trading systems
Alternative trading models – such as food co-operatives, veg box schemes, farmers’ markets and local food distribution hubs- can bypass the supermarkets and be a lifeline for farmers, especially small producers.
Tim and Jan Deane of Northwood Boxes, the couple whose story helped to popularise veg boxes in the 1990s, found that they could sell directly to customers, instead of their vegetables travelling 50 miles to their regional organic co-operative, then 200 miles on to a retail depot, only to end up in a supermarket 10 miles from home at more than four times the price they had sold them at.
Growing Communities, founders of the Better Food Traders network, state: “if we don’t also change the systems that trade the food then… new small producers will follow the same fate as many of the small farmers who have gone out of business over the past few decades – trying to sell their food through a system that puts them at a permanent disadvantage or being completely dependent on subsidies from a rapidly shrinking public purse.”
What values do you link with fair trade?
Are these values embodied in the food you buy?
If no, what prevents you from acting on your values?
When you think through the whole process behind a carrot that ends up on your dinner plate, what do you consider a ‘fair’ price to be?