Inconvenient truths for the world’s first fair trade nation

Alastair Smith reports on the Big Food Debate at the Abergavenny Food Festival

The Abergavenny Food Festival is already an established phenomenon in the world of good eating. This year the event featured 180 stands featuring food from all over the globe. There were more than 80 events including demos from the chefs Bruno Loubet, Henry Harris and José Pizarro. Icing on the cake was an evening with Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, at the Angel Hotel. The festival is not just a Foodie’s delight but also a vibrant illustration of the diversity of the contemporary global food system as it showcased wine from Wales, coffee from Uganda and chacuterie from Spain.

Such a high level of diversity and choice is something that many in the world now take for granted, However, it contrasts strongly with a question raised at the preceding Big Food Debate: Fair Trade, Sustainable Food and Climate Change – how many of you in this room have missed a meal this year because there was no food available? What about in the last 5 years? Perhaps understandably, no hands appeared to balance the statistics on developing world hunger.

It is in response to this issue of inequality and social injustice which the fair trade movement has been responding since roughly the 1960s. Specifically the aim of the movement has been to restructure the interactions between disadvantaged southern producers and more powerful northern buyers. The aim is to improve the economic, social and environmental effects of international trade in the developing world.

However, with the growing awareness of climate change, many have come to see the issues of fairer international trade and environmental stewardship as contradictory. Fair trade is largely about the production of food in the developing world for consumption in richer markets. As such it involves the use of huge amounts of carbon based energy to get our food from farm to folk. Surely encouraging fair trade is only contributing to the increase of greenhouse gasses and climate change. According to Peter Lipman Chair of the Transition Town’s network, this is far more advanced than people are generally aware. From this perspective, the production of food needs to be re-localised to reduce environmental costs of transport and reconnect consumers with the realities of food production.

Yet, as Gareth Edwards-Jones, Professor of Agriculture and Land-Use Studies at University of Bangor, reported, empirical testing of these ideas shows food miles to be little related to the overall carbon footprint of food products. Instead, what is most important is the method by which food is transported. As such while green beans air freighted from Kenya have a high environmental impact, tomatoes grown in the UK have a far higher carbon cost than those from Spain, given the way they are produced.

Furthermore, using distance as a proxy for how appropriate a food item is to consume is further complicated by issues of human development. After all, sustainable development is a far wider matter than carbon reduction. It seems rather odd to worry about the standards of living for future generations if we ignore issues of social justice present among the living.

While many countries in the developing world rely on the export of food crops to earn foreign exchange, working in the export sector in Africa also offers greater individual benefits compared with producing for the domestic market. This can be further contrasted with very low quality of life often found among (illegal) immigrant communities working in the UK agricultural sector.

In one of the workshops Dybon Chiabonga, the chief executive of NASFAM, a farmer-directed business system based on the individual participation of over 100000 Malawian smallholders, noted that given the way that colonial intervention has locked the country into declining export markets for tobacco (not to mention the wider ethical concerns), diversification into crops like groundnuts is of paramount importance. Chiabonga underlined the opportunity that fair trade markets had offered. Their absence would have meant such exports would never have been possible.

While fair trade is often accused of further developing the reliance of southern economies on low value agricultural goods, Atif Choundhury from Zaytoun olive oil in Palestine had a similar story. He spoke about how fair trade connections had allowed the organisation to build on political efforts to keep Palestinian farmers on their land. They sell their olives as fully processed olive oil in the European market rather than as a raw commodity.  The resulting added value allowed for more autonomous investment and for fight the causes and consequences of a changing global climate.

Far from being a contradiction, it emerged that southern producers need fairer trade more than ever. They need it to diversify livelihoods in circumstances where farming is made increasingly difficult by the disruption of weather patterns. For this reason another panel discussion considered how public authorities can increase the consumption of fair trade goods, and thus contribute to the continuation of Wales as the world’s first fair trade nation.

However, this is not to say that there are not still tremendously complex issues involved in the ‘local and green’ versus ‘global and fair’ debate. Peter Lipman referred to the genocide committed when imperialists transformed southern agriculture to serve the needs of Europeans, imposing taxes and simultaneously destroying the food security of local communities. This is not an issue that has gone away. In Malawi, for example, until very recently the expansion of the tobacco, sugar and tea industry at the behest of international institutions like the World Bank has maintained the danger of famine. In this light it seems certain that fair trade institutions need to structure incentives and standards so that business development as well as basic nutritional needs are considered.

The Big Food Debate at Abergavenny broke some ground by raising issues concerning a variety of ‘inconvenient truths’. While some of the more extreme positions on this subject were hopefully laid to rest – such as the use of food miles as an appropriate proxy for a sustainable diet – others are more problematic in reconciling the issues of social justice with the sustainability of human life. If there was one message from the debate it was that we should all take the time to think a bit more about how the food on our plates is produced.

Alastair Smith is a third year doctoral research student based at Cardiff University’s Centre for Business, Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society.

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