Friday, October 14, 2011

Are Fairtrade Products in conflict with 'Buying Local' ?

There is currently a rush to promote Fairtrade products in order to support farmers in poorer parts of the World, but is everything what it appears and should Local Authorities be promoting these at the expense of local products?

Buying local products supports the local economy, reduces food miles, and contributes to a feeling of involvement between local businesses, suppliers and the customer. Promoting local products is not necessarily in conflict with promoting Fairtrade products; they can exist together - JUST!

As well as supporting East Yorkshire farmers and producers, there is no doubt that buying locally grown produce reduces our carbon footprint through reduced fuel mileage, and this has to be a consideration, but this tends to swing the balance away from Fairtrade produce, especially when there is a choice.

The ‘Tescofication’ of the high street, and their massive advertising budgets, continues to have an adverse effect on local producers and farmers, many have described the appalling practices employed by the giant superstores - hardly what could be termed FAIR TRADE. This is why, wherever possible, I support local farmers and producers, but again this swings the balance away from Fairtrade produce.

Buying local has many benefits, one only has to visit a local farmers market to buy fresh, high quality local produce, and also ‘meet the farmer’ to find out more about what you are buying. There is a genuine desire to ‘buy local’ driven in part by quality but also trust, there is also a belief that we are doing our bit for the environment by reducing fuel mileage - the products are grown or reared more naturally – and this is further enhanced by the generally lower amounts of packaging used.

My local pig farmer in Howdenshire wants to pay a fair price for feed and energy, and in return she wants a good price for her produce - but she also wants to see small coffee, cocoa and tea farmers in developing countries receive a fair price for their products too.

Many of us drink coffee and tea, and some people really love chocolate - but where does coffee, tea and cocoa grow? Certainly very little, if any, grows in Yorkshire. The majority is grown in developing countries where the climate is more suitable. So to ship over and transport Fairtrade goods alongside non Fairtrade goods makes sense.

As someone who has spent many years as a development worker in West Africa, perhaps I have a good insight into how the world’s poor can be supported through trade. Interestingly there are instances where the growers of Fairtrade crops can contribute to offsetting the carbon footprint for transportation; achieving this indirectly through local economy boosting agricultural sector job creation and directly by helping people in being able to grow and buy local food rather than importing. This is especially relevant when Aid Agency funding is provided for basic tools to enable the growing of local vegetables. Linking Fairtrade production to helping the World’s poorest would appear to be a positive step.

But alas this is not the whole story, the Fairtrade Foundation demands these poor farmers sign up to or ‘join the scheme’ and insisting that only ‘environmentally sound’ agricultural methods be used – this can mean backbreaking work for farmers and their families, without any mechanisation, chemicals or fertilisers, in return for them receiving a few cents more for their products. The liberal elitist champions of Fairtrade would have us believe that this is about “freeing the poorest producers from the exploitive effects of the market” when in fact it can have the completely opposite effect, through preventing farmers developing or growing their businesses from this basic level. In a ‘nutshell’ – the negative impacts of what the Fairtrade Foundation deems to be the ‘right way’ of farming or harvesting.

My message is that where possible we should be supporting our local producers by purchasing their products - and certainly not encouraging the purchase of those same products from afar. But for those products that are NOT grown or produced locally then to look at Fairtrade products is an option worth pursuing – but remember Fairtrade does not always deliver what it says on the tin.


Hennie said...

A very fair assessment of the situation Paul. Fairtrade as a name has positive connotations but the ground level effects of existence-level farmers being forced into a Western world administration system is simply "we know better than you" being forced upon these budding businessmen and women by a foreign elite. A couple of phrases jump into mind - "liberal elite" and "chattering classes".

Whinging Webo said...

Interesting and mostly agreeable article. I'd just like to point out, if I may, that the one major fair trade product you didn't mention, sugar, is produced locally but at no economic benefit to ourselves. Sugar beet is grown under EU subsidies in the UK. Even with these subsidies the price of EU sugar is approximately 4 times the international price. This is not only due to higher production costs in the EU, but because sugar beet is far less efficient to produce than sugar cane, which can only be grown in warmer climates such as Tanzania. We then of course charge extortionate tariffs on non-EU sugar to protect 'local producers' and not only that, the EU subsidises the profits of sugar manufacturers to allow them to export to the international market. We are therefore paying significantly higher prices for sugar through our shopping bills and taxes combined than if we were to simply import 'fair trade' sugar from developing countries. Just because something is grown locally doesn't mean it's good for the local economy. Sometimes it just gives some rich landowners free money at your expense (The Queen's estate makes roughly £500k/yr from sugar subsidies).
I'd personally like to see the relaxation of regulations on hemp growth in the UK (hemp being the world most useful yet most neglected crop) and replace local sugar beet with that.

Malcolm Stockill said...

Fair Trade or Far Trade, you are correct, we can hardly get tea, coffee or cocoa from our own farmers, not even if we drink Yorkshire Tea, but is Fair Trade another name for exploiting the small farmer, They worked hard in The Gambia to produce a single sack of Cashew Fruit. A handful of Groundnuts bought from a street vendor for cash always tasted better than any packaged item, the unpackaged item will never see these shores though. Not without Holland & Barrett, Tesco or Cargill taking the first cut.

The Gambian dish Domoda is a very tasty meal that the locals can afford to prepare for their family. The main ingredient, Groundnuts.