Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/5/2016 (2257 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Chances are, when you ask a person where their food comes from, beyond knowing which grocery stores they shop at, further information on the origins of their food will be vague. As the world continues to urbanize and globalize, we are increasingly losing touch with the people who produce what we eat.
A group of 13 people, mostly Manitobans including myself, have just returned from visiting producers in Peru. Most folks who travel to that country are more interested in seeing the ancient ruins of Macchu Picchu, but our aim was to visit co-operatives in the northwest of the country that grow coffee, cocoa, sugar cane, bananas, mangoes and other products for the fair trade market.
We left Manitoba with snow on the ground a few weeks ago and returned to continued cool weather. While in Peru, however, we encountered temperatures more than 30 degrees higher than here, as we endeavoured to cope with mid- to high 30s with accompanying humidity! As well, visiting rural and remote communities, we found that there was a lot of walking and climbing, seemingly uphill in all directions!
Anyone who reads this column regularly likely knows about fair trade, a system that seeks to pay producers a fair price for their efforts, use environmentally friendly growing methods and contribute to the social welfare of poor communities. Under the Fairtrade International symbol, agricultural producers in developing countries organize themselves into co-ops, giving them greater say in decision-making around their business.
Farmers we met with talked about how their participation in co-ops and the stabilizing of prices over the past 10 years had brought better financial conditions to their communities and strong representation of each community in the larger co-op. With fair trade, they had more control over who they sold their product to and what price they received, thus their communities were better off now than before.
Being part of the fair trade and co-operative system also means getting technical support that is much needed, particularly as producers attempt to deal with the effects of climate change. Flooding in Peru mirrors flooding in Manitoba where crops and roads have been victimized by unusual amounts of rain. The incredibly hot temperatures we encountered were not just a random accident but rather indications of a pattern of global warming. This has led to new diseases attacking crops, in particular the coffee harvest in Latin America.
Producers showed us organic pest controls they are using, for example growing hot peppers near their banana crop and then using the peppers to manufacture a spray to ward off insects. New equipment is another benefit of "premiums" — bonuses — that come from the fair trade system, particularly items that add to the productivity and safety of harvesting bananas, sugar cane and other (to us) backbreaking activities.
Challenges remain for this generation of producers, despite the benefits of the fair trade system. Just like in Manitoba and other parts of the world, young people are migrating to the cities, leaving food production in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Rural schools have much fewer students than before as young people seek training or jobs away from home. We met few farmers below 35 years of age.
Young leadership leaving rural areas means a poor prognosis for the future of communities. We met a mayor in a small town who splits his time between his job and family in the capital, Lima, and his feelings of obligation to his hometown.
Diversification of crops is also on the agenda of Peruvian farmers so that they can employ local people year-round rather than just seasonally. Rice is one crop that some are considering and they asked us questions about Asian rice producers who are part of the fair trade system.
Another concern is the need to increase consumer demand for products in the fair trade system. More is being produced than is being sold as organic and/or fair trade. This is a challenge for us to take on in North America and Europe, to get the word out that fair trade products are good for people and the environment and worth the slightly higher prices we would pay.
Some good news has been that the Peruvian government has recognized that their fair trade co-operatives are contributing to the national economy, to the extent that officials are making grants available to develop the co-ops and to improve roads to allow fair trade products to get to market. Still, there is much to be done as the communities we visited were extremely remote and, with the effects of El Niño and global warming, transportation is often uncertain with bridges washed out and roads a quagmire.
The positive impact of fair trade on poorer producers in our world is undeniable. But there is much more to do be done to make fair trade part of our mainstream. Corporate and consumer social responsibility, with our help in promoting fair trade,will ultimately bring better products to our store shelves — better for us and for our world.
» Zack Gross is fair trade outreach co-ordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC).