In her blog, GreenLaGirl, Siel wrote about the issues presented in the Business Week article, “Is Fair Trade Becoming ‘Fair Trade Lite’?” and asked those of us at Equal Exchange why we were so opposed to the idea that plantations and multi-nationals should be operating within the Fair Trade system. Siel wondered if EE is simply nostalgic for the good ole days of co-ops, or if being a co-op means we only want to work with co-ops. Similarly, Jaqui de Carlo asks in her blog, Fair Trade Beginners, can’t fair traders be more inclusive – why can’t Chiquita sell fair trade bananas as well as Oke USA?
Both Rodney and Nicholas have written responses to Siel’s blog, so I won’t go through and repeat their arguments about why it is not just ideology, nostalgia or a desire to be exclusive, that keep us following our own path regardless of the direction being pushed by the Fair Trade certifiers. Please read their comments for some great reasons that should help clarify our position.
Personally, I think it comes down to the question of what the goal of one’s work is and how to best achieve it. Paul Rice, Executive Director of Transfair, was quoted in Business Week as stating that the goal of Fair Trade is to help poor people. While there’s nothing wrong with helping poor people – I prefer to work along side others who want to change the conditions that actually create poverty and injustice. Not just to help – but to change the system. To me, Fair Trade is more than a higher price, as important as that higher price is to the farmer who receives it. It’s more than a supply-side strategy in which the more people buying and selling Fair Trade, the better. It cannot be reduced to a seal; rather it is a holistic approach to economic development and political empowerment and self-determination.
How ironic. During the same week that Business Week came out with their article entitled, “Is Fair Trade Becoming ‘Fair Trade Lite’?” by Pallavi Gogoi, Alternet printed, “Why Fair Trade May be Our Only Hope,” by George Monbiot (originally published in the Guardian). If you want to understand why we should be supporting small scale agriculture, please read this latter article. Monbiot clearly explains why small-scale sustainable farming is the only solution to our multiple problems of environmental protection, feeding the poor, and providing for dignified livelihoods for farmers.
Here are some excerpts:
“…Though the rich world’s governments won’t hear it, the issue of whether or not the world will be fed is partly a function of ownership. This reflects an unexpected discovery. It was first made in 1962 by the Nobel economist Amartya Sen, and has since been confirmed by dozens of further studies. There is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per hectare. The smaller they are, the greater the yield.”
“…In the early days of the Green Revolution, this relationship seemed to go into reverse: the bigger farms, with access to credit, were able to invest in new varieties and boost their yields. But as the new varieties have spread to smaller farmers, the inverse relationship has reasserted itself. If governments are serious about feeding the world, they should be breaking up large landholdings, redistributing them to the poor and concentrating their research and their funding on supporting small farms.”
“There are plenty of other reasons for defending small farmers in poor countries. The economic miracles in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan arose from their land reform programmes. Peasant farmers used the cash they made to build small businesses… Growth based on small farms tends to be more equitable than growth built around capital-intensive industries. Though their land is used intensively, the total ecological impact of smallholdings is lower.”
“Big business is killing small farming. By extending intellectual property rights over every aspect of production; by developing plants which either won’t breed true or which don’t reproduce at all, it ensures that only those with access to capital can cultivate. As it captures both the wholesale and retail markets, it seeks to reduce its transaction costs by engaging only with major sellers. If you think that supermarkets are giving farmers in the UK a hard time, you should see what they are doing to growers in the poor world.”
He ends his article, by saying:
“… the structure of the global food market is changing so rapidly that fair trade is now becoming one of the few means by which small farmers in poor nations might survive. A shift from small to large farms will cause a major decline in global production, just as food supplies become tight. Fair trade might now be necessary not only as a means of redistributing income, but also to feed the world.”
Monbiot gives many compelling reasons why small farms are more ecological, more productive, more just. I also believe that one of the most important achievements of the Fair Trade movement to date, is that it has helped keep farmers organized and on their land – no small feat in today’s economy. Once organized, farmers have been able to achieve all sorts of more far-reaching and far-lasting change – both economically and politically. Our blog and our web-site have many inspiring stories of our farmer partners’ political and economic achievements.
Our food system is increasingly consolidated in the hands of a few corporations. Agri-business has a hold on almost every aspect of the food chain – from what we eat, to how our food is grown, by whom and even how it gets to us. As consumers, we are giving up our power without even realizing it and the choices available to us in the production, distribution and retail of our food have become fewer and fewer. Worse, of course, is the situation for the rural poor, many of whom are the very farmers who grow our food but can’t afford to feed their families. Millions of farmers abandon their farms each year, risking their lives to migrate north, unable to compete with an environmentally and socially destructive model of production.
Big changes are needed to fix our food system and to curb the destructive environmental impact we’ve placed on our natural resources. If we continue to act as if the strategy of growing the supply of Fair Trade products into supermarkets by itself can solve all the problems of “the poor”, I fear we will actually do a disservice to farmers and to ourselves. The world is growing ever more complex even as globalization makes it smaller; yet it also presents us with a new opportunity. Those of us in the Fair Trade movement who care about farmer livelihoods, consumer choice, community empowerment, the food system and our planet need to take additional actions. We should commit ourselves, and encourage others to go even further, not just to help the poor but to change a system that isn’t working – for anyone but large multi-national agri-businesses.
At the end of the day, if those of us in the Fair Trade movement aren’t looking at the bigger environmental, agricultural and trade issues that affect us all and are constantly being transformed and re-configured to benefit corporations instead of people, I’m not sure the debate between plantations vs. co-operatives will continue to have relevance. There are much larger questions to be asking.