Global food trade isn’t something that most of us think about on a daily basis, but it is something that each us partakes in (probably 3-4 times a day). How is it that we are so disconnected from something we are directly involved in?
What is Fair Trade, exactly, and why does it matter when we use our dollars to cast a vote each day?
You may or may not think of yourself as an exotic, adventurous eater. But even the most vanilla of meals will most likely contain ingredients that have been sourced from thousands of miles away (including the vanilla). No single locale can produce everything that a modern society will need, and trading commodities globally has expanded markets and provided a way of living for thousands of communities around the world.
In America, the food imports we rely on most heavily (and probably couldn’t live without) include coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, fruit, grains, and spices. These products also happen to come from poor countries and marginalized communities. If we’re buying so much of what they’re producing, why aren’t those communities flourishing?
Trading isn’t always fair
This is the issue that Fair Trade organizations are devoted to correcting. This organized social movement’s goal is to ensure that producers in developing countries receive fair prices and trading conditions, along with promoting sustainability. In order for a company to place a Fair Trade logo on their packaging, the product must have been grown according to the international Fair Trade standards. These standards include:
- Ethical purchasing
- Banning child and slave labor
- Guaranteeing a safe workplace
- Right to unionize
- Adherence to UN protection and conservation of the environment
- Fair price that covers cost of production and facilitates social development (source)
All that sounds pretty good….
Most reasonable people wouldn’t argue with any of these guidelines, yet most of us are buying and using products daily that don’t comply with these basic standards.
The best way to start your day?
Coffee is the largest food import in the US, and it’s a mandatory component of most of our morning routines. Over the countless cups you have most likely enjoyed, how many were spent contemplating the actual source of those coffee beans? Coffee producers are kept in a continuous cycle of poverty and debt in order to keep consumer prices low. Four (giant) companies control about 40% of the world’s coffee, and process it into brands like Folgers and Maxwell House. Low bean prices ensure a good deal for consumers, billions in annual profits for manufacturers, and severe poverty for bean growers in countries like Nicaragua. In most of Central America, where coffee supports more than 40% of the rural labor force, pickers earn less than 2$ a day. (source) Fair Trade coffee guarantees a minimum price to farmers, which enables families to send their children to school rather than having them work in the fields.
A superfood for whom?
While Quinoa has found a newfound popularity in Western nations eager to experience its superfood powers, the humble grain has supported rural Bolivian communities for thousands of years. The recent explosion in demand would assumably bolster the communities producing the grain, but has actually raised the price so that the poor inhabitants of the region can no longer afford to eat the staple grain their ancestors have long survived on. Western nations now consume over half of the regions annual harvest. And while quinoa has always been sustainably harvested (safe to say after 6,000 years of production) insatiable appetites for the stuff require farming practices that can be detrimental to the regions where it is grown. Fair Trade quinoa means not only protecting the environment, but also ensuring that the indigenous people who have relied on those little pearls for life will be able to continue growing and eating it. (source)
Chocolate; maybe less sweet than you think
To many, chocolate could be deemed the most important result of global trade. Hard to believe that a famed treat that reaches nearly every corner of our world comes from a region that receives little worldly attention. 70% of the world’s chocolate is harvested in West African countries, much of it by the hands of young children. With little access to markets, cocoa farmers in Africa must rely on middlemen to sell their product. This blind faith system coupled with the world’s ravenous desire for cheap chocolate results in poverty-stricken communities who are forced to put the entire family to work. There are over a quarter million African children working in harsh, often dangerous conditions to bring us that familiar taste that we all know and love. Chocolate is incredible, and should be experienced at least once by everyone. But the tiny hands that harvest cocoa will likely never unwrap their own Hershey’s Kiss. (source) Fair Trade works to ensure that cocoa farmers receive a fair price, and child and slave labor is prohibited. (source)
We live in a society that expects everything, especially food, to be cheap. But we don’t often think of the repercussions of our insistent appetite for cheap things, and who is actually paying a high price for that appetite. While most people have positive attitudes towards the principles of Fair Trade, they are less likely to pay the higher prices that come along with it. As conscious consumers, we can make a difference with our dollars to reduce exploitation, and ensure that more of our money is ending up in the hands that have rightly earned it.
Don't let me do all the talking! Let me know what you think in the comments.