The Blog

Change Is in Our Pocket - This Fairtrade Fortnight Stand Up for Farmers

As our annual Fairtrade Fortnight gets underway this week (Feb 29th - March 13th) thousands of people across the UK will "sit down for breakfast, and stand up for farmers" to highlight the hidden scandal that millions of farmers in developing countries who work hard to produce our breakfasts are going hungry. They simply earn too little from their harvests to see them through the year.

This isn't the odd farmer or community, this is something that has become so commonplace it gets named. In Ethiopia the season of food shortage before harvest is called 'Chulga' (food suffering). In Nicaragua it's called Los Meses Flacos (the thin months). In Central Kenya it's Nyagru, in Tanzania it's Katoga. Others call it the 'months of the big stomach' or 'times of silence'. These names conjure vivid images in the mind.

This is such a chronic problem that in the world's main tea producing regions, more than 30% of children are malnourished; in Côte d'Ivoire 65% of cocoa farmers lack enough resources for food during the summer and 80% live on less than 40p a day. Many coffee farming communities in Central America are food insecure for 3-4 months every year.

The fact that people who grow food are themselves hungry is a cruel irony. That they do so in a world where there are now more obese people than malnourished people is an injustice that we cannot ignore.

So how do we change this? I don't believe any of us would want our food to come from people who cannot feed their families. But in a highly consumer-focused economy we can use our power as consumers as never before. The pound in our pockets is our secret weapon, and by asking questions of companies about the lives of people at the sharp end of global supply chains - before we decide where to spend our money - we will challenge them to change.

We just know too much now to ignore this. We know more than ever about the poverty and injustice in so much international trade. The internet has opened up the world like never before. This is the age of scrutiny. Now, surely, we cannot say we were unaware. Now, more than ever, we should be able to look the people who grow our food, who make our clothes, who mine our gold, in the eye. No-one should profit from poverty.

Fairtrade is one way of helping farmers get a better deal. Our new briefing Breaking Fast shows that under the Fairtrade system, many smallholder farmers are benefitting from higher and more stable incomes. For example, banana farmers in Colombia reported an average 34% increase in income, enabling households to save more easily and invest in additional crops or animals to improve their food security. This is hugely significant in a country where many banana smallholders have been forced to sell their family's lands because the market price for bananas is so low that they cannot afford to sustain it as a living. Sadly when I visited the Zona Bananera, in the Magdalena region a couple of years ago, I met former farmers who were now working on big palm oil plantations on land they used to own. Their sense of loss - of their land, their heritage and their hopes for their families' futures - was stark.

Fairtrade bananas make up a third of the UK market with volume growth of 5% in 2015, which generated stable minimum prices and an additional £8.6 million premium for farmers and workers to invest. While there is still much to do, to increase the impact on farming communities and to strengthen their capacity to withstand all the knocks and shocks of globalised trade, there is now a clear route through which producers will be able to trade their way out of poverty.

Fairtrade has been sustained by consumer power. Our 2015 figures, released today, show volume growth in a wide range of Fairtrade products. This shows that despite a challenging grocery sector, British consumers are standing up for Fairtrade.

There are now many people in this movement. Over 1,700 towns have become Fairtrade towns across the world. In the UK alone there are now 1,800 Fairtrade schools and 7,500 places of worship. The energy of Fairtrade campaigners shows just what can happen when people come together to challenge the status quo and show they care. Today 1.5m producers in 70 countries are using Fairtrade as a springboard to a better future and they are beginning to create the change they want to see in the world for their children. It's proof that trade doesn't need to be so out of balance, so unfair. Fairtrade is a community of commerce, in contrast to so much global trade, where out of sight really is out of mind.

So, what is the solution? Let's not wait for governments - they won't regulate this any time soon. If we care about this we should of course challenge politicians with our vote - that will bring change tomorrow. But we also need change today. Imagine if we took a stand, if we took the time to think about what we all buy.

Isn't this the place to start? That no-one should go without just so we can have too much and too cheaply? This Fairtrade Fortnight, remember that change is in your pocket when you go shopping. There are people behind the products we all buy. Too many of them still don't earn enough to feed their families. You can change this, when you sit down for breakfast and stand up for farmers.

To hear more this Fortnight, follow me on Twitter @fairtrademg