Our blog has covered a wide range of sustainable food topics. We have explored topics and debates concerning where our food comes from, such as the advantages of eating locally sourced food, the dangers of eating genetically modified crops or even animals reared on GM feed.
We have covered issues such as the growing food security crisis and arguments put forward to try and solve the crisis, such as converting to a vegetarian-only diet to end the world’s over-reliance on meat. We have looked into organisations that seek to give food producers a fair deal for their work and make up for market failures, such as Fairtrade, and whether buying Fairtrade branded produce does indeed succeed in its aim.
We have looked at sustainable fishing, we have looked at the problems that arise from miss-labelling, which the horsemeat scandal showed to be wholly inadequate, and issues that arise from using pesticides, such as the harm it is causing bees.
Each topic I have researched I have found a common theme running through each and every one: do not take for granted what the campaigners say, do your own research and decide for yourself! Producing sustainable food is a complicated industry and one that brings its very own set of unintended consequences, so when organisations use slogans to sum up their wonderful endeavours, they are trying to simplify a very complex issue.
Here are two problems I have with two social movements which on the surface have very respectable and worthy goals, but are, in reality, threatening the very objectives they are aiming to achieve.
When I researched Fairtrade I came across a story in Ethiopa which exemplifies the unintended consequences that can come about from a seemingly ethical enterprise.
In a small Ethiopian village near Harar, a region which grows one of the oldest coffee beans still produced, there used to be 27 coffee farms, all of which survived on tiny profit margins. The huge spurt in demand in the 70s and 80s was hugely beneficial for these poor farmers, but then in 1992, an organisation called Fairtrade was founded, an organised social movement that seeks to help producers in developing countries get a better deal for their produce, as well as promoting higher environmental standards.
At first, farmers in the village became excited at this new venture which promised to give them higher prices for their coffee, and promoting higher environmental standards did not sound too bad either.
But then they soon found out that to benefit from the Fairtrade enterprise, your farm had to meet specific standards, which, even for the bigger of the village’s farms, required considerable investment and improvement of their smallholdings.
Only three farms met the Fairtrade guidelines after taking significant steps to improve their farms. For them, it was worth it, as demand for their produce rocketed due their farms receiving Fairtrade certification. And they were getting a higher price for their produce too, so profitability rocketed.
For the remaining 24 farms, however, this meant they could no longer compete with the Fairtrade farms. They could not match their environmental standards and did not gain Fairtrade certification, and as a result they did not receive higher prices for their beans, and they saw demand dwindle as the other farms dominated the market.
As a result of Fairtrade, the 24 farms slowly went out of business, leaving farmers and workers unemployed and forced to go and work on the three surviving farms. In this small Ethiopian village, Fairtrade had created monopolies, and instead of correcting market failures and guaranteeing a fairer deal for farmers, it had killed competition and put money and power in the hands of a privileged few.
This was not what Fairtrade was set up for and I have no qualms about its very worthy endeavour to create the conditions of a fairer deal for the people who produce the food we eat. But the unintended consequences of such worthy enterprises have to be understood, revealed and given publicity in order for their ultimate goals to be realised. Otherwise, we will never create the fairer world which they strive to deliver.
In a recent blog post I researched the rising demand of quinoa and the impact it has had on the smallholders who grow it. Global demand for the so called ‘superfood’ grain has increased so much that it is now becoming unaffordable for the native Andeans, who have eaten quinoa as part of their staple diet for over 7,000 years.
It is being grown by farmers instead of other vital and cheaper crops because they can make more profit on it. This means that the region is having to increasingly rely on imported food, which is damaging their food security.
So while vegans and vegetarians continue to tell us all to eat quinoa as it is not only nutritional but it also offers a good solution to our impending food security crisis, by hoarding it, we are actually damaging the food security of a whole region.
I can already guess the solution proposed by the ‘eco heroes’ of the sheltered Western World.
“Expand the growing of quinoa to more areas, educate the masses to the technics and discover new technics to allow quinoa crops to flourish.”
And make the situation even worse. Expanding the supply of quinoa would lead to a price crash, just as what happened to the price of coffee in 1990s.
We need more than simply good-intentioned Waitrose shoppers to solve the looming world food crisis and the shocking food inequality between third and first world countries. We need ‘eco heroes’ to think more deeply about the consequences of telling everyone to eat grain like quinoa, and then when its popularity rises so high they tell more people to grow it, which then makes the original growers’ even worse off.
So to conclude, we do indeed need to think more carefully about what food we buy and where it comes from. But we need to do a lot more research and thinking than simply reading labels in a supermarket or reading biased, under-researched articles in the Guardian because there are tonnes of unintended consequences of buying Fairtrade produce, quinoa and all the other ‘ethically-sourced’ food that is filling shelves across the country.