A question of trust
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Date: 28 November, 2003


 

 

Nick Tancock, the Fairtrade Foundation's head of communications, looks at the difference between organic and ethical goods

Trust is not a word you hear very often these days, unless it's about the lack of it: in the establishment, the media, with technology. But no other area has suffered quite as great a loss of faith than what we eat.

It began for me back in the late Seventies when two deaths caused by botulism in tinned salmon hit the headlines. As a child, this left a huge impression on me and even now I would think twice about buying it.

But it was not just my young world that was rocked - the shock caused by the outbreak even found its way in to a Monty Python film where guests at a dinner party find themselves visited by the Grim Reaper. When the hostess asks what has caused their demise, the Reaper says: 'The salmon mouse.' The man of the house asks: 'You didn't use tinned salmon, did you darling?'

A decade later there was another outbreak of botulism. This time in hazelnut yoghurt. One person died and over four times as many people were infected, yet few people can remember. By then we had had BSE, salmonella, E Coli. The hellish pyres of foot-and-mouth were yet to come.

This is arguably one of the main reasons demand for organic foods in the UK has rocketed, while resistance to genetically modified crops has grown ever greater. The press recently reported that sales of organic goods had broken the billion pound mark - a sure sign that the British public were thinking much more about what they eat.

Sales

Meanwhile sales of foods with the Fairtrade Mark stand at £63 million. This is no mean feat - staggering growth from a standing start just 10 years ago. But there is still quite some way to go to match organic sales - themselves only a small proportion of overall retail sales.

Around a million farmers and their families across 45 countries benefit from UK Fairtrade sales. Just imagine how many would benefit if Fairtrade sold a billion. And the Fairtrade Foundation - along with the farmers' organisations and companies involved - have their sights set that high.

Of course, much Fairtrade food is also organic. Fairtrade farmers interested in the social issues are also acutely attuned to environmental needs - indeed, they of course, live on the land so are close to the problems caused by agrochemicals, as well as to the benefits of organic agriculture. And they appreciate that shoppers will often pay more for their produce and therefore pull out all the stops to reach the high standards of organic certification.

But not all Fairtrade is organic. So why not? Fairtrade helps the poorest, most marginalised farmers. These are people who may not be able to switch to organic for financial or environmental reasons - for example, their small plots of land may be surrounded by larger farms whose chemicals would drift. Or they cannot afford to set land aside during the conversion period before they can earn the higher organic price. Yet often these farmers would face absolute poverty without the fair price that Fairtrade pays.

Improvements

But, where it isn't organic, farmers will still use a minimum of pesticides and natural alternatives wherever possible. To be certified, Fairtrade farmers have to make gradual improvements on environmental standards, which for some products are very high. Standards for bananas for example, include:

Buffer zones between trees and water courses, preventing any chemicals that are used from leaching in to water
Reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides and where possible total elimination of herbicides

And the Fairtrade standards do explicitly encourage farmers to convert to organic - and indeed many have used the extra funds raised through Fairtrade to do just that - paying for the information, experimenting with plots of land etc.

You can be sure that your Fairtrade foods will always be of the highest standards. On a recent visit to the Windward Islands, farmer Denise Sutherland told me: "Because we know people may pay a bit more, we are always careful to save the best for Fairtrade." Not only this, but in terms of taste, they are up there with the best - Fairtrade foods regularly feature among the award winners.

Provenance

You know that you can trust their provenance and that the producers will have received a fair price that covered their cost of production and a premium that the farmers can invest back in to their business and communities. The Fairtrade Mark doesn't say 'Guarantees a better deal to third world producers' for nothing.

Fairtrade is helping put the trust back in food. It's a very timely idea of trust: one that takes in to account our changing world; that recognises it is not just about how crops are grown but who is growing them and the share they get for their back-breaking work

In this increasingly globalised world, our own wellbeing and that of others is inextricably linked. Poverty is a universal ill, which can have a universal impact. We are beginning to understand that every time we shop, we are making a choice that will have a direct impact on others, for good or ill. And in turn we too can be affected.

This is the logic that helps answer the 'why' of the once-cynical marketeers, behind the rise and rise of Fairtrade.

A beginner's guide to organic goods
• Visit the Fairtrade Foundation's website
• Find out more about Christian Aid's credit card with The Co-operative bank, the UK's only clearing bank with an ethical policy
• Living an ethical life




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