As the credit crunch bites and we become more conscious about how we spend our money, what does the future hold for prime food brands like Fairtrade? Jane Hall finds out.
IMAGINE having to permanently forego your morning wake-up shot of Peruvian coffee or soothing cup of Assam tea.
Worse still, muse on what it would be like to never again enjoy the pleasure of eating a banana, drinking pineapple juice or adding an exotic twist to your fruit salad with slices of mango and papaya.
Contemplate what life would be like with no more lemons, limes, grapefruit or lychees. No more demerara sugar, cashews or raisins. And no more organic cocoa.
In short, consider what it would be like to exist with no more imported foods. Could you handle it? They say a ripple in America creates a wave this side of the Atlantic, and the credit crunch is threatening to turn us all into penny-pinchers. Already discount supermarket chain Aldi is cashing in on people’s worries with plans to increase its chain of 400 UK stores to a 1,500-strong empire in the next five years.
The German chain’s expansion plans come amid increasing signs that cheap and cheerful high-street retailers are benefiting from a tightening of the consumer purse strings as inflation hits an 11-year high of 3.8% following a ferocious rise in the cost of living in June.
Now there are fears that inflation may soar as high as 4.5% or even 5% by the end of this year as wage growth stays muted and everything from energy bills and fuel to food prices continue to rocket.
It is premium-priced foods like Fairtrade that are likely to feel the sharp end of the economic turndown as consumers ditch them for their cheaper conventional counterparts.
There is already evidence this is happening. A recent survey found that nearly three in five people said paying up to 45% more for fairly- traded goods is no longer an option.
Add concerns over food miles and climate change to the mix, and Britain is now experiencing a bunkering down not seen since the Second World War and the days of rationing.
Nearly 100,000 Britons are on allotment waiting lists (in Blyth Valley, Northumberland, around 1,140 people are currently hoping to be allocated one of the area’s 900 plots, while in North Tyneside the figure is 1,316 for the borough’s 1,718 strips of land across 53 different sites).
Vegetable seed sales increased by 7% last year and the National Lottery is investing £50m into community gardens and school farms.
But as we look to save the pennies and consume less foodstuffs like Fairtrade, how is this going to affect the Third World producers whose income is entirely dependent on our demand for their fruit, tea, chocolate, flowers and cotton?
Fairtrade sales were worth £500m last year. This compares to £2bn for organic foods.
Any drop-off in consumer interest for Fairtrade goods would therefore have serious implications. Even the free trade-focused Adam Smith Institute warned earlier this year that “farmers who have been promised long-term contracts and sustainable prices may be unprepared to cope if Fairtrade’s stock suddenly falls in the public eye.”
Why is this? Because more than seven million people in 62 countries depend on Fairtrade for their livelihood. This is either directly through employment or indirectly by profiting from the schools, hospitals and other benefits.
So is the UK’s dependence on tropical fruits a sustainable one, or are we about to experience an about-turn and head back to the days of our ancestors when they only ate what was in season and had to survive the lean winter months on what had been pickled, preserved and prepared in the months of food glut.
Barbara Crowther of the Fairtrade Foundation believes we aren’t ready yet to abandon our love of the exotic. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to survive on turnips and potatoes for the rest of my life.
“By supporting agriculture in other parts of the world, we enable growers to provide food for themselves and protect the lands of their community so they’re not bought out by huge developers.
“And if we’re worried about the increasing level of food prices, we should send a positive signal to the growers of those products that we’re prepared to invest in their future, as we’re going to keep relying on them to grow things.” But what if Britain decided to go entirely local and seasonal? “I don’t think this would ever happen, as the cost of manual labour in the UK is too high,” claims Edson Marinho of Etica, a Brazilian farmers’ co-operative that grows mangoes for Dutch importer and distributor AgroFair.
“But if it did, it would result in chaos: even the biggest producers of Fairtrade goods wouldn’t have anywhere to sell, prices would fall and whole corporations would end up bankrupt.”
One alternative to eating seasonally and locally, says Robin Murray of TWIN, an alternative trading company that launched Cafedirect and Divine chocolate, is to grow everything Britain wants in Britain.
“Let’s say we could grow bananas in greenhouses in Kent,” says the economist, alluding to the 80-acre Thanet Earth project, which will grow 1.3 million types of fruit and vegetables under seven glasshouses 365 days a year.
“Does that make ecological sense in a lifecycle term? Let’s say it does. Then the banana industry the whole world over would have to be restructured – so should we build houses for Ecuadorians here in the UK to help us grow the bananas they used to grow?”
This notion of responsibility lies at the very heart of Fairtrade, not least because 1.5 million livelihoods in Africa alone are estimated to be dependent upon UK consumption of agricultural and horticultural produce.
But the land that’s used to feed the West could actually be used to feed Africa itself, opponents to Fairtrade have argued, as our purchase of Fairtrade products is coupled with the need to help feed continents that can’t feed themselves.
“They call this Fairtrade,” says Anthony Blay of Vrel, a Fairtrade co-operative with 250 hectares of banana and pineapple plantations in Ghana. “But this isn’t a fair world: there’s a huge difference between the price we sell our mangoes for and the prices in the supermarkets in the UK. There is something going seriously wrong here.”
While Ghana also grows crops like cassava, tomatoes, okra, peas and millet for internal trade, it has had to start importing rice from China to help feed its population of 23 million.
“If we could feed ourselves with our own food, that would be better,” admits Anthony. “But the organic bananas that we export to the UK are too expensive for the average Ghanaian to buy.” Vrel ships 5,000 boxes of bananas in five shipping containers to the UK and France every week. The bananas are put into plastic bags, which are themselves sent from the UK, to help them be differentiated from conventionally grown ones, resulting in 100,000 plastic bags being used every week.
While transport actually only accounts for about 10% of food’s carbon footprint, the rising cost of fuel is expected to bump up shipping costs, which in turn will increase the cost of Fairtrade goods.
But forget the future of Fairtrade, says Anthony Blay: he’s not even sure that farming – Fairtrade or not – is an industry that has much long-term projection.
“The toll of climate change is taking effect in a way that it didn’t in my parents’ time,” he explains. “There are so many risks associated with farming that I’d rather my children go to school. If climate change continues like this, even more people will fall below the poverty line.
“And then,” he says, a note of desperation in his voice, “then what are we going to do?”