Fighting for food chain justice

Bananas and milk may seem like strange bedfellows but these two commodities – despite the 4,000 miles that divide the farmers who produce them – may be pivotal in triggering a new wave of thinking about food marketing at a time when consumers have a growing ethical awareness about the food they eat.

Cumbria dairy farmer Robert Craig, who milks 400 cows on his farm at Armathwaite near Carlisle, has recently returned from a visit to the Windward Islands in the Caribbean where a successful banana growing industry collapsed under price pressure from wholesale buyers. The crisis, which saw the number of banana growers in the islands fall from 10,000 to just 1,200 and output slump from 30,000t a year to barely 135t, was a situation that wrought social as well as economic turmoil.

In a last ditch attempt to salvage their industry, the Windward Island growers turned to the Fair Trade Federation in the hope of re-establishing the islands’ banana growing industry based on ethical trading along the entire production and marketing chain. While Fair Trade agreements are now operating in over 20 countries, appear on 7,000 products and achieved a growth last year of 40%, the ethos of the federation has yet to be applied to food production policies within the EU – but things may be about to change.

Fair Trade Federation chief executive Harriet Lamb has been in Cumbria to add her support for a growing swell of opinion that the essence of the Fair Trade movement – in terms of how it can create sustainability and fairness within the food chain – presents an innovative opportunity for farmers and retailers to re-think how they do business.

“Fair Trade sales are now worth £1bn a year and we know that 77% of all consumers recognise the label and know what it tells them about that particular product. I believe now is the right moment to pioneer the ethos of Fair Trade in the UK,” said Harriet Lamb.

She has pledged to offer her wide experience in the concept to the innovators of change in Cumbria. As a mentor her knowledge will be invaluable but it already looks as though the Cumbrian initiative – created to spark debate and dialogue throughout the UK food chain is developing its own individual identity.

Local and Fair – may soon be a label that is as well as known as the one which denotes the origins and ethos of Fair Trade. Robert Craig and his fellow Cumbrians behind Local and Fair are wasting no time in extolling the virtues of a more transparent, sustainable and fairer system of trading across the food chain at large – and that of course includes supermarkets.

Yes, some have made an effort to stock food produced locally but the big retailers have paid little more than lip service to local food as anyone who has seen supermarkets close to the North West’s main tomato growing region awash with Dutch tomatoes in mid-summer, Mr Craig says.

As a marketing tool, the proposed Local and Fair label must be one of the most powerful opportunities presented to supermarkets for decades. It can provide a wealth of ethical advantages to farmers, retailers and consumers and address the vexed question of what exactly is “sustainable” food production. For farmers it has the potential to stabilise demand and to provide a premium price – earned and justified by the “locality” of the food and its provenance.

Joe Human from Keswick is co-ordinator of the Cumbria Fair Trade Network and believes it is essential for consumer organisations, farmer groups and anyone committed to achieving a sustainable food chain to come together to create the necessary foundation for a Local and Fair movement.

“We live in a precarious world where food supplies are at risk. Locally produced British food that is clearly identified with a label that provides consumers with the same confidence they have in food carrying the Fair Trade mark – and is underpinned by a robust an independent licensing system – can have a huge impact by achieving a sustainable food chain,” says Mr Human.

The Fair Trade model has much to offer the development of such a food movement in the UK. While the Co-op has been a vigorous supporter of Fair Trade products, it is the scale of Sainsbury’s that has enabled it to achieve 25% of the total world sales of Fair Trade products.

“Ethical issues aside, there are clear marketing advantages for supermarkets to sell locally produced food carrying its own generic label. This is an opportunity for supermarkets and consumers to buy into the principle of sustainability and ethical food production through local sourcing and retailing under the same clearly identified mark.

“As I see it ‘trade justice’ is already under way at the checkouts. Consumers have never been keener to recognise the values that lie behind the food they eat,” Mr Human says.

Robert Craig: My vision

Cumbria dairy farmer Robert Craig wants to see farmers show a greater willingness to engage in wider co-operation in the way they market the food they produce as well as the introduction of more sustainability within the food chain to avoid the roller-coaster ride of price volatility that has become the norm.

“There’s a lot we can learn from the way the Fair Trade movement has created a solid and meaningful approach to the food chain. It rewards farmers for co-operation between each other and that’s as important for UK dairy farmers as it is for banana growers in the Windward Islands.

“A united, global approach to food-production needs to come to the top of the agenda. So much could be gained from a stable and responsible food chain. Food, just like water and climate change, unifies everyone.”

Jeremy Hunt: My view 

While there clearly needs to be debate on what actually defines locally produced food – in terms of the where it is produced and where it is sold – it is the power and influence of the supermarkets that will inevitably be responsible for the survival or failure of a nationwide Local and Fair branding initiative.

While supporters see it as an opportunity to add value to farm products and to establish stronger trading partnerships that will hopefully strengthen the bargaining power of producers, supermarkets appear to be adopting scepticism and caution.

All the major supermarkets were approached to comment on their perceived value of a scheme that sought to emulate the ethos of the Fair Trade movement for UK farmers. Tesco, Waitrose, Morrisons and Booths all failed to give a response.

Sainsbury’s commented: “We already clearly label all of our products with country of origin and British labelling as we know it is important to our customers and we are proud to support British farmers.”

The company added that its regional sourcing teams already worked directly with local producers and suppliers to build strong relationships. “We know our customers want to buy regionally sourced food which reflects local tastes and traditions and, in turn, helps support rural communities.

“We’ve been building our local sourcing network for a number of years and have created a strong base in Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular with 140 Scottish suppliers and 186 Northern Ireland suppliers currently working with us to source over £850m pounds worth of local products.”

Surely that level of demand for local and regionally produced food in one major supermarket is a clear endorsement of the potential value of a Local and Fair initiative.

As Fair Trade Federation boss Harriet Lamb commented during her visit to Cumbria: “There’s no shadow of doubt that consumers want to support Fair Trade products. That support would be there for a similar approach to marketing locally produced food in the UK. Its success is proven; it is time to maintain the momentum and engage with the big retailers.”

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