16/10/2014 13:29 BST | Updated 16/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Making Farming Sexy

Thanks to my teenage son, I have the song She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy from the US X Factor on my brain. If you haven't heard it, look it up on Youtube - but be warned, it gets into your brain. I was reminded of it yesterday at a conference, sponsored by Oxfam, to celebrate 20 years of Fairtrade in the UK. The CEO of Fairtrade Africawas outlining the many problems facing smallholder farmers.

"The trees are ageing", she said. "And the farmers are ageing. Young people don't want to go into farming - they don't see it as sexy".

It's not hard to understand why: many smallholder farmers growing our food, themselves struggle to put enough food on the family table - let alone invest in their farms or their futures - trapping them in poverty.

As a cocoa farmer in Ghana told me, bemoaning the fact that his sons had gone to the capital Accra in search of work: 'My sons see farming as drudgery for no reward'.

Smallholders who grow 70% of the world's food - in cocoa, as much as 90% - endure volatile prices that skyrocket and plummet 'to hell and back' as one farmer once told me. In coffee, for example, farmers watched as the price zoomed up to $3/lb in April 2011, only to drop to below $1.05 by October 2013. And now they're headed back up, at $2.16 as I write this. In coffee, it's not so much low prices as the inability to know where it's headed that hurts farmers.

It must be one of the greatest injustices of our time that in 2014, with so much wealth in the world, half of the world's hungriest people are farmers - a stark illustration of just how unbalanced our global food system has become. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said: 'The world has enough food for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed'.


While 500million smallholder farmers work to overcome the odds, a handful of global companies control the transport and distribution of our food supply. Rampant consolidation of food companies has created an 'hourglass economy' with millions of farmers selling to a handful of companies - who in turn sell to millions of consumers. It is an extraordinary concentration of power in the middle of the hourglass - that leads to a driving down of prices to farmers.

  • In coffee, just three companies sell us 42% of our coffee globally. While coffee growers receive just 7-10 % of the retail price of coffee, 33% goes to the supermarket.
  • In cocoa, four companies deliver over half of the world's US$82.5billion chocolate sales. In the late 1980s cocoa farmers received about 18% of the retail value of a chocolate bar, compared to 3.5-6% now.
  • Same story in tea, where seven companies control 85% of tea production through their factories and estates, and workers on tea estates struggle to make ends. Minimum wages in many of the producing countries are nowhere near what could be considered a living wage. That's why tea is so very cheap in our shops. And a similar story can be told again and again for product after product...

Today Oxfam is sounding an urgent wake-up call. And they are far from alone. The situation has gotten so bad that the economic and social dangers of growing global inequalities are now right up there on the agendas of more surprising organisations such as the World Bank or the IMF.

At Fairtrade, we are trying to put a stake in the ground for farmers, to put the spotlight on the need for fairness, for farmers to get a bigger slice of the world's food pie. This is why we welcome Oxfam's campaign against inequality, their work to put the politics of food on the public agenda and to find better solutions to the insanity of our broken food system reducing imbalances and ensuring a healthy, sustainable supply of food for all.

And if farmers were to receive a decent price for their crops, I am sure farming would become more sexy again... And now I am stuck with that song in my head all day again...