(F)air trade


First it's Hilary Benn telling us to buy Kenyan flowers; now it's Claire Melamed of ActionAid telling us to buy air-freighted food.

Air-freighted fresh vegetables may have a lower carbon footprint than similar vegetables grown in Dutch greenhouses or in Spanish Polytunnelia, because energy use in European agriculture is virtually untaxed. But does this mean that we should buy food being carted all over the place? And is 'development' a sustainable arguement for doing so?

Cash crop economics are just that – they bring in cash, but someone still has to grow food for the coffee farmer to eat, and that farmer still has to be able to afford it. The fluctuations in the price of coffee clearly demonstrate that the income generated by growing a cash crop are neither stable nor guaranteed.

The West needs a consistent message. We can’t cry ‘localise’ in the UK, then expect farmers in Guatemala to eat rice grown and shipped half-way around the world so that they can produce coffee for us to slurp noisily while listening to easy-jazz – whether it’s ‘fair trade’ or not.

There are other reasons to criticise the air-freight dependent horticultural industry in the developing world. As Felicity Lawrence and others have shown, the growth of the industry has resulted in over-exploitation of water resources, such as is happening in Lake Naivasha in Kenya. These industries are largely owned by the white landowning classes, many of whom expatriate income - thereby keeping the profits out of the local economy. Hardly 'fair', is it?

Besides, are jobs and industry providing horticultural goods really the best way for a country to develop? A typical example is chocolate: even the 'fair trade' farmer producing the raw cocoa will only get 1-2% of the final retail price. The real value in production comes in Europe where the raw cocoa is refined, made into chocolate, packaged and marketed. If all those processes occurred in the third world then there might be some aid value in the process.

Export-driven trade is not the answer to global poverty - it's just an excuse to justify buying out-of-season fruit and veg. Ultimately, the real problem lies in people's desire to eat what they want, when they want. Winter should be a time for thick pea soups (made with dried peas), stews, apples and the like - not courgettes and soft fruit. However it's produced and transported here, summer food in winter is causing carbon emissions.

Ultimately, it's the developing world who'll be paying for our desire to munch extra-seasonal produce. So let's not pretend that the answer lies in a couple of Islingtonites buying Green and Blacks and feeling self-righteous.