Fair trade or food sovereignty?

MST march for land reform in Brazil. 'For Brazilians, Fairtrade is a distant concept ... feeding Brazilians is our priority'.

A University of Newcastle student group, the Fairtrade Club, has had a win: a campus cafe has agreed to serve Fairtrade-certified coffee.

The club formed earlier this year. It campaigns for shops and cafes at the university to sell fair trade products like coffee and chocolate. It also organises awareness-raising events, like “Fairtrade Fortnight”.

Generally, the fair trade concept is about getting better prices and working conditions for producers in poor countries. Fairtrade refers to products certified by the Fairtrade Association of Australia and New Zealand, having met certain criteria including being sourced from producers who are guaranteed a minimum price.

The cafe on campus has not totally shifted to fair trade, however. It continues to sell non-fair trade coffee, giving customers a choice to pay a surcharge for Fairtrade-certified beans.

A similar campaign exists at the University of Sydney. Students there have campaigned for the student union cafes to serve only Fairtrade-certified coffee.

Small fair trade shops, like Salawi in Newcastle, are increasingly popular, selling clothes and arts and crafts. Salawi’s director Sal Richardson sells handicrafts made by artisans, some of whom she has met personally. She told Green Left Weekly she can be sure there’s been no sweatshop labour used.

The rise in interest in fair trade products reflects a growing consciousness about the exploitation involved in the production of goods that are exported from the Third World to the First.

Richardson said part of the aim of fair trade is to guarantee producers a stable price. Many producers in the Third World suffer from constant price fluctuations in commodities, as large purchasers manipulate the market to keep prices low.

Salawi is on the other end of spectrum to multinational companies that have a legacy of underpaying producers. But some big companies are now getting on the fair trade bandwagon. In the past year, both Nestle and Cadbury have had a section of their chocolate range Fairtrade certified.

“Cadbury or McDonald’s might have some products Fairtrade-certified but to what extent are they really changing all their practices or to what extent do they just want to be seen to be doing something?” said Richardson.

A May 3 episode of the ABC’s Four Corners, “Chocolate: the Bitter Truth”, showed child labour continues to be common in cocoa production in Africa. It revealed cases of cocoa bean suppliers approved by the Fairtrade foundation using child labour.

At an Australian Political Studies Conference this year, in a paper called “(Un)Fairtrade?”, Bronwyn McDonald, a PhD student in political philosophy at the University of Newcastle, explained that Nestle introduced a Fairtrade coffee blend in 2005 “to target a semi-ethical consumer segment”.

McDonald referred to the marketing of Fairtrade products like Cadbury’s “It’s Cadbury Dairy Milk® with the same taste, same price, but extra ethics”. She argued that fair trade risked directing concern about injustices in world trade into consumerism.

McDonald said fair trade often puts the responsibility on the consumer and not always on the few companies that control most of the world market in major food commodities.

“In this way [it] may serve to secure corporate hegemony at the expense of meaningful social change”, she said.

Not everyone in rich countries is in a position to make “ethical choices” that involve paying premium prices for fair trade goods. The September 26 Sydney Morning Herald said a study by Flinders University has found low-income families in Australia are facing “food stress”: to have a balanced and nutritious diet these families must spend 30% of their income on food.

Geoffrey Lawrence, co-head of food security research at the Global Change Institute, told the SMH, ''Just like in the Third World people in Australia are nutritionally insecure.”

So, should fair trade be opposed?

In his book Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Raj Patel said he bought fair trade because it might help producers to “claw back a margin of dignity and income from a food system that holds them in contempt”.

“For others though Fair Trade can be much more: a gateway to a new post-capitalist future. But Fair Trade is unlikely to get us there.

“The basic price of agricultural goods is low. While Fair Trade raises it slightly, the price is not nearly enough to sustain, much less develop, communities in the Global South. The process of Fair Trade commodities also encourages monoculture — it sucks farmers and rural communities into a single crop.”

Patel stresses the need to ask producers in poor countries what they want.

The global peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina, is said to be the biggest social movement in the world, with around 500 million members. The alliance of peasant organisations promotes the idea of food sovereignty, whereby people not multinationals control the food system.

Marcelo Joao Alvares from the Brazilian Landless Peasant Movement (MST), an affiliate of La Via Campesina, spoke at the 2006 War on Want conference in Britain.

“For Brazilians, Fairtrade is a distant concept”, he said. “There are so many people living in shanty towns, so many street children; people don't even have their basic rights to food and shelter. For the MST, feeding Brazilians is our priority.”

“We aren't opposed to exports, but we don't agree with the agribusiness model of valuing exports over the needs of domestic consumption. Primarily, food sovereignty is about feeding the people.”

I recently visited Venezuela, where the concept of food sovereignty has been adopted in national food and agriculture policies. Cocoa producers, with government support, have established a number of chocolate factories so local communities can benefit from the value-adding processing of the cocoa beans, which has traditionally been carried out by multinationals.

Producers and community representatives make decisions about the operation of the factories and the price of the cocoa beans. Producers explained that this was part of a broader process to take control of food production and distribution for the benefit of Venezuelans.

Seeing the Venezuelan approach has made me consider the limitations of fair trade as a strategy for change. At its best, fair trade can be a way to contribute to improving prices paid to some producers in poor countries and can be used as a springboard to raise awareness about injustices in global trade.

On the other hand, it can be used by multinationals as a token effort to meet the demands of campaigns or the tastes of consumers — and even as a distraction from the much deeper problem stemming from the private control of food production and distribution.

As students have shown in the case of a small victory at Newcastle university, collective organisation and campaigning can have an impact. Indeed, as Patel has argued, we are more powerful as citizens than consumers.

It’s worth reflecting that 10 years ago, thousands of people from around Australia successfully blockaded and shut down a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne that aimed to extend corporate globalisation.

As part of an international movement, our collective action can push back the unfair trade rules of the World Trade Organisation, give poor countries the right to determine their own food and agriculture policies and guarantee all producers the deal they want.