By Grace Hammond (July 14 2008)
Those who say a ripple in America creates a wave in the UK looked to have been proved right.
The global credit crunch which was born out of the US sub-prime crisis has hit Britain hard and with more of us conscious about how much we spend and what we spend it on, one of the first casualties appears to be the organic and Fairtrade goods which until a few months ago filled middle-class shopping baskets.
According to a recent survey, paying up to 45 per cent more for fairly traded and organic goods is no longer an option for three out of five of us and concerns over food miles and climate change have resulted in a bunkering down Britain hasn’t seen since the 1940s.
However, as we heed the advice of chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to look local, Third World producers, whose income is entirely dependent on our demand for their fruit, tea, chocolate, flowers and cotton, are feeling the effect.
Raking in £500m in sales in 2007, Fairtrade products stand quite a lot to lose with a recession in the West – with even the free-trade focused Adam Smith Institute warning earlier this year that “farmers who have been promised long-term contracts and sustainable prices may be unprepared to cope if Fairtrade’s stock suddenly falls in the public eye”.
More than seven million people in 62 countries across the world rely on Fairtrade for their livelihood – either directly through employment or indirectly by profiting from the schools, hospitals and other benefits the premiums help provide and while the belt tightening continues over here, according to Barbara Crowther of the Fairtrade Foundation, short-term thinking could be devastating.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to survive on turnips and potatoes for the rest of my life,” she says
“By supporting agriculture in other parts of the world, we enable growers to provide food for themselves and protect the lands of their community so they’re not bought out by huge developers.
“And if we’re worried about the increasing level of food prices, we should send a positive signal to the growers of those products that we’re prepared to invest in their future – as we’re going to keep relying on them to grow things like coffee, pineapples and chocolate.”
While Britain is unlikely to reach the situation where its shoppers completely shun imported produce, there has been suggestions the country should look towards growing everything we need on home soil. The idea has been gathering momentum with the 80-acre Thanet Earth project, which will grow 1.3 million fruits and vegetables under seven glasshouses 365 days a year, but just because something is possible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right.
“Let’s say we could grow bananas in greenhouses in Kent,” says economist Robin Murray of TWIN, the alternative trading company that launched Cafedirect and Divine chocolate. “Does that make ecological sense in a lifecycle term? Let’s say it does. Then the banana industry the whole world over would have to be restructured – so should we build houses for Ecuadorians here in the UK to help us grow the bananas they used to grow?”
This notion of responsibility lies at the very heart of Fairtrade, but opponents have argued the land that’s currently used to feed the West could actually be used to feed Africa itself.
“They call this Fairtrade,” says Anthony Blay of Vrel, a Fairtrade co-operative with 250 hectares of banana and pineapple plantations in Ghana. “But this isn’t a fair world: there’s a huge difference between the price we sell our mangoes for and the prices in the supermarkets in the UK. There is something seriously going wrong here.”
While Ghana also grows crops like cassava, tomatoes, okra, peas and millet for internal trade, it has had to start importing rice from China to help feed its population of 23 million.
“If we could feed ourselves with our own food, that would be better,” admits Anthony. “But the organic bananas that we export to the UK are too expensive for the average Ghanaian to buy, so it makes sense to sell – you need income to live on.”
Vrel ships 5,000 boxes of bananas in five shipping containers to the UK and France every week. The bananas are put into plastic bags, which are themselves sent from the UK, to help them be differentiated from conventionally grown ones, resulting in 100,000 plastic bags being used every week.
While transport actually only accounts for about 10 per cent of food’s carbon footprint, the rising fuel prices are expected to bump up shipping costs, which in turn will increase the cost of Fairtrade goods.
But forget the future of Fairtrade, says Anthony: he’s not even sure the farming industry as a whole has much long-term projection.
“The toll of climate change is taking effect in a way that it didn’t in my parents’ time,” he says. “There are so many risks associated with farming that I’d rather my children go to school. If climate change continues like this, even more people will fall below the poverty line.
“And then,” he says, clasping his hands together, “then what are we going to do?”