Your Fair Trade Coffee and Quinoa Aren’t Improving Farmers’ Lives



When confronted with the ability to make the “ethical” choice at the grocery store, picking up a bag of Fair Trade certified coffee seems like a no-brainer. With a commitment to worthy goals like reducing poverty, empowering women, and supporting education, Fair Trade products appear to put the power of creating a better world in the hands of the purchaser. But the impact may not be a benefit for the poorest workers, and like other food trends, could be negatively impacting the lives of the people producing some of our foods.

A recently released four-year study, Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda, found that Fair Trade certification does not have the positive impact on producers consumers may believe it does. For the report, the University of London researchers collected data from Ethiopia and Uganda in regions where coffee, tea, and flowers are produced. It found that the workers involved in Fair Trade production had very low wages, and they did not enjoy an edge over workers producing the crops that did not carry the certification. Workers engaged in producing the same crops for non-Fair Trade markets enjoyed higher wages than their fair trade counterparts. In the Fair Trade regions, women in particular had lower wages.

“A relatively high proportion of wage workers employed in the production of commodities sold to and through Fairtrade certified channels earned less than 60 per cent of the median wage for equivalent work,” the report states. Even when positives, such as free meals through work could be found, it was often offset by worse overall working conditions for the Fair Trade employees.

The researchers did not go as far as claiming that Fair Trade caused the lower wages, using the evidence to refute the claimed positive correlation between Fair Trade and working conditions. Writing in the recommendations section of the report, the researchers state that before paying a premium, consumers need to be aware of the working conditions on the ground. Otherwise,”if Fairtrade organizations are unable to make any positive difference to the wages and working conditions of those providing the manual labour in the production of certified goods, their claims to ‘ethical trading’ and to make a major contribution to improving the lives of very poor rural people will remain hollow.”

Fair Trade is not the only consumer practice that does not lead to a better quality of life for workers. Food trends, too, can be damaging for the lives of people employed by the craze.

Quinoa has come under a fair amount of scrutiny since skyrocketing into popularity and landing on tables across the world. Closely following the publication of the Fair Trade study can a report on quinoa, cañahua, and Andean farmers by Bloomberg. In 2004, LEISA Magazine – a publication by AgriCultures — called for cañahua’s comeback. It described the role the grain has played for generations of Andean farmers. The crop is highly resistant to the elements, and despite being difficult to harvest, historically played an important role in nutrition. It was particularly valued as a “safety net,” a reliable source for when other crops failed.

Ten years have now gone by, and cañahua’s existence is still endangered, and it is considered an “orphan crop,” one that gets little attention from researchers, and is largely ignored by the business community. “These crops are important for food security and are critical for large numbers of people, but they don’t create significant revenues or profits that can be put into the improvement of that crop,” Paul Anderson, executive director for the Institute for International Crop Improvement at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis told Bloomberg.

With revenues from quinoa pouring in, Andean farmers are ditching the less lucrative cañahua in favor of the money making option. The story of cañahua is similar to other orphan crops. Earlier in the year, SciDev.Net made the case for more research and attention to be given to these neglected crops. Crucial to food security in regions like Africa and Latin America, the crops deserve attention for their nutritional value, and role in every day life for people around in the developing world.

Purchasing power can be an incredible tool. Consumer mindset can cause a company to change its actions, or issue an apology through boycotts and censure. As Forbes points out, it is what caused Target’s then-CEO Gregg Steinhafel to apologize for funding a gubernatorial candidate who was opposed to same-sex marriage, and why Chick-fil-A changed course in groups the chain supported as well. Unfortunately, being unaware of the conditions of workers can have negative impacts. When the consumer is fooled by a label or drawn into a food trend, the purchasing power can have costly reverberations felt halfway around the world.

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