A fair trade: putting farmers first in the fight for climate justice

By David Taylor, Policy Manager for the Fairtrade Foundation

The 22 February marked the start of Fairtrade Fortnight, the annual celebration of all things Fairtrade. It’s a time when individuals, companies and groups across the UK come together to share the stories of the people behind our food and products, and explore how trade justice can be part of the solution to the many challenges they face.

The 22 February marked the start of Fairtrade Fortnight, the annual celebration of all things Fairtrade. It’s a time when individuals, companies and groups across the UK come together to share the stories of the people behind our food and products, and explore how trade justice can be part of the solution to the many challenges they face.

COVID-19 has been a huge challenge for farmers and workers across our Fairtrade system. I’ve written here before about the impact of lockdowns, first in Europe and then in low-income countries themselves, on the people we work with. Despite the challenges, as supply chains adjusted to a ‘new normal’, we are pleased to share that Fairtrade sales actually increased by 15% over the last year in the UK.

The events of the past year have highlighted just how vulnerable chronically-underpaid farmers and workers are to external shocks. The emerging evidence tells us that those in a better financial position were more resilient to the crisis. Flower farm workers in Kenya, for example, have told us how they used the Fairtrade Premium – an additional sum that Fairtrade producers can invest in projects of their choice – to help support them during a critical time.

As the pandemic rolls on, this Fairtrade Fortnight 2021 (February 22 – March 7), the Fairtrade Foundation is focusing on another global crisis – the climate crisis – and the steps we believe need to be taken to help farmers and workers in climate-vulnerable countries become more resilient to this growing emergency.

As our new report highlights, by 2050 climate change could mean that 50 percent of the land currently used for coffee farming will be unviable, as will many cocoa-growing regions in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, who produce over half of the world’s cocoa. Meanwhile banana yields in 10 countries, including India, Brazil and Colombia, will drastically decline. This isn’t only a problem for the future: devastating hurricanes, some of the worst on record, hit Central America late last year, wiping out a third of Fairtrade farmers’ Nicaraguan coffee crop.

It is in all our interests to address this problem, given how many of our countries rely on food imported from overseas (in the UK, nearly half of our food is imported, with 10-15 percent from Asia, Africa and Latin America).

But this is also a question of fairness. There are a number of ways that vulnerable farmers and workers can adapt to climate change, and Fairtrade’s Climate Academy – which has empowered East African coffee farmers to fight the climate crisis – is one such example. But adapting to climate change costs money – so who pays? Those who don’t earn a living income or living wage because the price they receive for their crops is too low? Those that are least responsible for the climate crisis in the first place?

Rightly, consumers in wealthy countries are demanding more sustainability in their products, and we welcome the G7’s commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050 for their domestic carbon emissions. But again, the question is who pays? The on-farm emissions that come from growing the bananas, cocoa, coffee and other products we love can and should be reduced, but that will cost money. Agroforestry systems can reduce the use of carbon-intensive fertilisers and pesticides, but can result in a loss of yields, and so can afforestation, whereby farmland is given over to grow trees. Switching to clean energy vehicles will reduce emissions, but means paying to replace existing infrastructure.

Vulnerable farmers and workers need fair value, fair prices, and fair trading practices to resource the investment needed for adaptation, diversification and resilience. Fairtrade Foundation is therefore calling on business and governments in wealthy countries to ensure farmers and workers in poorer countries get the support they need in a number of ways.

Governments in wealthy countries can send a strong signal to business by setting targets to reduce the emissions from imported goods, and by bringing in regulations that reward companies trying to reduce their carbon footprint and compelling those that don’t – for instance, through current attempts to bring in human rights and environmental due diligence (HREDD) regulations in the UK and EU to clamp down on goods produced on deforested land. They can also support innovation and investment in zero-carbon freight solutions, put binding environmental clauses in any new trade deal, and deliver their promise to spend $100bn a year on climate finance at the COP26 climate talks later this year.

Businesses, meanwhile, should help farmers and workers within their own supply chains with the means to foot the bill for adapting to the changing climate and moving to low-carbon production methods. They can do this by paying higher prices for the produce they buy, by investing in community programmes, and by collaborating with their competitors to find solutions for the whole of the groceries sector.

As we look to post-COVID recovery, we must commit to build back fairer, with a new approach to supply chains that is better able to face future emergencies and one that protects both people and the environment – for all our sakes.

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