A selection of vegetables

There are about 815 million hungry people in the world. But here’s what’s ironic — half of all the households most affected by hunger belong to farmers; the same people responsible for operating a big chunk of the half a billion farms that are critical to feeding the world.

The farmers are unable to afford healthy and nutritious food because they often do the difficult work for very little pay, plus people in the food production and distribution cycle undervalue them. 

For example, the value of the cocoa and chocolate market is currently around $43 billion and it’s forecast to reach $67.22 billion by 2025. This valuation is in stark contrast to how much the cocoa farmers get. West Africa is the world’s largest cocoa producer but on average, farmers get a paltry daily wage of less than $1, which is way below the extreme poverty line.

The poor wages lead to serious seasonal hunger problems for farmers, many of whom have no guarantee of food security for at least several months every year between harvests.

It’s easy to assume that there are other reasons for the hunger besides the low pay. Maybe failed harvests, floods, or drought. After all, these people are farmers and producing food shouldn’t be very hard for them, right?

What is the real problem?

The farmers’ plight is, to a large extent, attributable to the way the global food system works. This global food system is made up of businesses as well as farmers and consumers who interact and essentially affect how food is traded.

The underpayment of farmers is a big component of the global food system. Couple the low wages with volatile produce prices and unfair trade rules, and the farmers simply don’t have enough to feed their families all year round.

Hunger issues are also true for farmers who produce luxuries such as exotic fruits, sugar, and coffee. Although these luxuries are produced for consumers in developed economies who pay a premium for the produce, the farmers get meagre wages.

The injustices are so entrenched in the current global food system; demanding a lot from the smallholder farmers and giving back very little. It’s time to challenge the system.

Enter fairtrade and sustainable food systems

Fairtrade is trading between producers (the farmers and workers) in developing countries and companies in developed countries. It addresses the injustices of conventional trade and gives producers more control over their lives. This is done by setting environmental and socio-economic standards for both producers and the companies they work with. Fairtrade is about:

  • Addressing a system that discriminates against the poorest and weakest producers. For instance, a company working with producers from a specific community under the Fairtrade Foundation has to pay a Fairtrade Premium. This premium is used to invest in community projects of the community’s choice.
  • Paying fair prices to producers and providing a stable income that can improve their lives.
  • Providing decent working conditions and fair terms of trade that protect the producers’ rights.
  • Protecting the environment and promoting local sustainability.

The Fairtrade system provides a much-needed buffer for smallholder farmers, helping to address the big issue of hunger and unsustainable food systems.

Connecting to food systems

Fairtrade is a game changer for farmers who have been both poverty- and hunger-stricken for a long time. It curbs volatility, provides fair pay, protects farmers, and allows them to achieve food security throughout the year. This means that when you buy Fairtrade products, you are helping a farmer out there lead a better life and afford to eat.

The need for an all-inclusive system

Fairtrade is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t cover all farmers.  There’s still lots to do — including upping the scrutiny — before all farmers can benefit from trading fairly. 

A farmer watering a garden with two watering cans

For instance, big food companies such as Sainsbury’s and Cadbury are leaving independent fair trade certification schemes and moving into self-regulation.

While this may not seem like a big deal, it can lead to less accountability and result in communities having less autonomy in their decision-making. As such, it’s important to push for transparency and accountability regardless of brands setting up their own fair trade certification schemes.

We need to keep the pressure on business leaders and policymakers. By doing this, we’ll ensure that fair trade becomes the norm. Consumers will also become aware of fair trade at the point of purchase.

Surely, all food producers should be treated well and compensated fairly. Above all, they should have access to food just like the people they produce food for.

Sustainable food systems can help us achieve this.

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