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Celebrating Fair Trade success

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Fairtrade Fortnight in the United Kingdom reaches its conclusion this weekend with an attempt to establish a world record for the most bananas eaten in a 24 hour period. No! Don’t hold your head in horror about the possibility of potassium poisoning, nor of overeating or gluttony. Nothing of the sort!{{more}} It simply means that people all over the United Kingdom are being encouraged to eat at least one banana between noon on March 6th and noon March 7th, hoping that the collective total will establish a record which would become the target each subsequent year.

Under the slogan “GO BANANAS,” consumers, from as far north as Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh, in Scotland, across the Irish sea to Dublin, Belfast and Londonderry, in Ireland, in the Welsh capital Cardiff and further west to Swansea, in the south coast ports of Southampton and Plymouth and in the east to Norwich, not to mention huge London itself, will participate in this record attempt. They will be joined by citizens in at least one producing country, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Here, the National Fairtrade Organization and WINFA are enjoining the record attempt.

Since the year 1997, the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK has been organizing annual events in the February-March period to promote the consumption of products sold under the Fairtrade label and to let the world know how this system of alternative trading is both helping millions of producers as well as advancing social justice and environmental sustainability. It is an occasion which the Fairtrade movement in the Windward Islands has utilized in our continuing bid to maintain a firm bond with British consumers, to encourage them to keep on buying our bananas, and to whet their appetite for other products from our shores.

Among the main activities of the 2009 version was the holding of a big Conference, aptly entitled: “THE GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS AND FAIRTRADE SMALL FARMERS, BIG SOLUTIONS.” I had the distinct honour and pleasure not only to be able to participate in the Conference, but to be one of the main presenters. Attended by more than 200 persons-producers, academics, retailers, government officials, and above all, ordinary consumers, the Conference was a most engaging forum for the exchange of ideas.

The theme chosen was most appropriate to present-day developments since it is not just a financial crisis and “credit crunch” affecting most of the people on the planet today. Food, not the production of it, but under-consumption on a massive scale, contrasting with gross waste and over-consumption, combine to create a most unjust food distribution system. Whilst billions still daily do not get enough, either in terms of quantity or nutritional content, government spending on agriculture does not match the severity of the crisis. Levels of aid to this vital sector collapsed dramatically from US $7.6 billion in 1980 to US$3.9 billion in 2006. Aid support of rural credit to farmers fell also in this period from US $466 million to just US$71 million and assistance for agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizers and machinery) declined from US $860 million in 1980 to US $66 million in 2006.

All the while, the inequalities of capitalist production and distribution systems and the inequalities inherent in the patterns of world trade have concentrated more and more power over the world’s food supply in the hands of a powerful few. Thus the 10 largest food retailers control about a quarter of the US$3.5 trillion world food market. Three companies control 90 per cent of the world’s grain trade, while the top 10 seed companies control almost half of the world’s US$21 billion global commercial market in seeds.

No wonder, therefore, that with such power in the hands of rapacious entities, food prices have been skyrocketing. The World Bank itself says so. It reports that average food prices rose 83 per cent between February 2005 and February 2008. It would appear then that farmers, the producers of food, ought to be doing well. As Princess Monique put it: “Who laughing now? Is the man who rear the goat, the sheep and the cow.” Yet it is not as simple as that, for in international trade (local trade as well) it is the intermediaries who almost always benefit most. Producers of many commodity crops, including the 450 million small holder farming households around the globe, such as our banana producers, have in fact suffered a decline in real prices, especially as the cost of inputs have rocketed.

In the face of this, the Fairtrade model sets to give small farmers particular advantages in the market for their commitment to more friendly environmental production and willingness to work to improve the quality of life in their communities. For this commitment, consumers’ pay higher prices for Fairtrade products enabling the producers to get a stable Fairtrade price with the minimum not below their cost of production, extra income and a Fairtrade premium for investment and social projects in their communities.

This system has grown rapidly to the extent that in 2008, Fairtrade sales reached over 700 million pounds sterling, a big increase of 43 per cent over 2007. All this, in spite of the economic crisis. Is this not a testimony of the strength of consumer-producer relations and a growing awareness of the need for social justice in trading arrangements? Fairtrade Fortnight had much to celebrate and the movement continues to grow, bringing more and more benefits to small producers.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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