October 2013 is Fair Trade Month, when consumer advocacy groups, companies, and certifications raise awareness of the reasons why fair trade is important, and promote buying and using socially and commercially sustainable, fair trade products in place of commodities which may harm the environment, the economy, communities and disadvantaged individuals. Despite it’s good intentions, the campaign hasn’t been visible at all on the ground in this Fair Trade producer country. I can’t help noticing the one-way flow of information and energy within this movement that has legitimately transformed the way that trade impacts hundreds of thousands of small producers’ lives. Since beginning my work with agricultural cooperatives almost a year ago, I have had the privilege of seeing and experiencing the incredible results of implementing a trading structure that supports small producers. And I also am able to see its shortcomings in the field, where the newest innovations in ethical trade need to be focused. Like a missed opportunity this “Fair Trade” month for companies and advocacy groups to support producer cooperatives in recruiting new members and launching local awareness campaigns in their own countries, not only in consumer countries. When Fair Trade USA decided to break away from the Fair Trade Licensing Organization’s international standards to certify plantations and reduce the amount of certified ingredients necessary for labelling, they sent a clear message to agricultural cooperatives that have toiled for years to create successful democratic businesses – we care more about profit margins and consumer demand than your participation in the market. Ouch. So while consumer advocacy groups shuffle around to take sides and pour resources in re-educating the public on new standards and symbols, agricultural cooperatives have to huddle, suck it in to prepare for an even more competitive market on top of coffee rust and whatever climatic disaster is waiting around the corner.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, tomorrow Oct. 16th is World Food Day. This year’s theme is Healthy People Depend on Healthy Food Systems. Access for consumers to quality food is just one piece of a food system, and it’s an important one – besides the social and other health costs associated with lack of access to good food, the costs of malnutrition alone could account for as much as an estimated 5% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). Both upstream and downstream from agricultural food production are important links in the food system that impact the lives and diets of many people. Availability of soil amendments, financing, regional land policy, and road quality all have an impact on both local and global food systems. Ethical trading structures like Fair Trade can have a direct impact on a subsequent food system – like the example of this Coop in Achuapa, Nicaragua. Innovations to ethical trading structures should improve information and resource feedback, continue to empower small producers and provide ways for them to increase ownership over links in the supply chain, and support them in building parallel local markets so the overall effect of good fair trade is healthier food systems – and healthier people – around the world.