Category Archives: Our Food

Why are foodies turning their backs on Fairtrade: Part 1?

Small-holder walnut in shell

Is there is a growing critique of Fairtrade from the ‘foodie’ end of the market as was highlighted in the Guardian Development recently?

This is not the first time writers have explored this theme. The so-called ‘Direct Trade’ in the coffee industry, as also seen here in Australia, has had airings before, but what of ‘foodies’?

Rather than pose the disillusionment of foodies as a cause of the small fall in UK Fairtrade sales I would explore the opportunity that a growing foodie market represents and how it compliments a Fairtrade business strategy for small-holder farmers.

I suggest foodies have been around since well before Fairtrade grew to its current size. Certainly for the decade since I tried to sell Fairtrade certified products at Speciality Fine Food trade shows. For those that have never been, the sheer diversity and quality at these shows is mind boggling and for a foodie, it’s like being a kid in a toy shop. They are awesome fun but exhausting for the taste buds! Serr Walnuts from ChileWe struggled to find interest in high quality Fairtrade Darjeeling tea or fine Orange Blossom honey. We just couldn’t find UK customers willing to pay a premium for the world’s best walnuts grown by small holders in Chile.

The fact is, most speciality products are not widely distributed, selling through specialist retail or online so few get to supermarkets. Consumer trial and therefore the opportunity of developing scale will, for the most part, be small.

On the other hand, many such brands are the pride and joy of artisan food makers and growers too. The foodie market suits them well. Their food passion is unsurprisingly shared by foodie consumers. Very high quality cannot be mass produced, so it was common to see innovation, combining the feedback from market access, careful product development with the skills of farmers and growers on show at these Fairs each year.

In my experience smallholder farmers (even in developing countries) have always been good at responding to market exposure and they can easily acquire skills to grow amazing quality or taste. All it takes is that market access to begin with. In that sense, this is what the Workshop or Chef Roellinger is doing, providing the information and support for farmers to do better. However, and a critical difference, they neither have the intent nor the resources to develop transformational change at any scale, where the focus is on poverty alleviation, given the number of farmers that grow coffee or any other tropical crop and exist on precarious livelihoods. Product educationThis type of business development work is happening more and more in Fairtrade with the assistance of experts.

I believe if Fairtrade, had targeted it’s business strategy at this small specialist sector of the market 25 years ago it would have failed! We needed scale, both for impact but also to achieve competitive business costs and viable products. But several decades later, in a global billion dollar market, the time is now right for differentiation and we see ‘Direct Trade’ of high quality products and examples of foodie success in Fairtrade too. For instance Fairtrade company Zaytoun sells a wonderful freekah from small farms in Palestine. No doubt there are others, but even here, the cost of certification is prohibitive and for the farmer not the entire solution to better livelihood

Consumer foodies are naturally interested in the story of any product and its provenance so explored Fairtrade and its authenticity. So, many enthusiasts in the food trade also saw an opportunity to emulate the stories of traceability told by Fairtrade and told their own in similar terms. Even sometimes criticising Fairtrade to differentiate their own approach as a positive attribute, perhaps ideologically (not unusual here in Australia) or perhaps just from a business cost or quality perspective.

So what is happening to the foodie market (as the article rightly questions)? It is definitely growing and perhaps now fast outgrowing the ability of Fairtrade to deliver a range of high quality and interesting raw materials or finished products, especially in such a promiscuous category. By this I mean foodies get bored easily. They graze, moving on to the next tasty morsel for excitement! Whilst this is a fascinating aspect of consumer behaviour it is not a fundamental flaw in the Fairtrade paradigm. Of course a product can be ethical without being Fairtrade too! The key issue now is one of Fairtrade capacity to deliver. The same Annual Report highlighted the growing Fairtrade support from upmarket UK supermarket Waitrose; I hope Fairtrade can keep up with demand.

Both opportunities can complement each other providing a more secure livelihood for the small holder farmer. So let’s celebrate the skills and capacity of small scale farmers wherever they grow and whatever they grow. If you are a business, be ethical about product development and your terms of trade. If you want to use the complimentary certification, remember Fairtrade is fundamentally a tool to give market access to those who are marginalised.  If you are a consumer, enjoy your food but I would still urge you never to buy a Fairtrade product if you didn’t like the taste! That is the best feedback a farmer can get.

In the second part of this blog I’ll explore some of the Guardian article content in more detail.



Beyond Fair Trade premiums: Onam brings celebrations for farming families in Kerala

September brings the onset of Onam, the annual harvest festival, in Kerala, South India.IMG_2507

Small-holder farmers are celebrating this year. 4500 growers of cashew, coconut, coffee and spices amongst many crops, all very small scale (a couple of hectares), are collectively Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK). The alliance was formed in 2005, to address twin threats of farm debt and poverty both on the increase at that time and characterised in the extreme at times by the tragedy of farmer suicides.  Each year since then it gets stronger, a collaboration between farmers, promoters and consumers, defending the Kerala Development Model and using Fair Trade as a market tool to secure a strong sustainable business.

10666084_1489731467945805_4827038276676895373_nThe Onam celebration marks the annual distribution of price additional to the market. This year INR 11 million or $189,655 from cashew sales in to Fair Trade markets in Europe and USA.  Fairtrade premiums (certified by Fairtrade International) make up an additional INR 5 million.

This is the true inspiration. They are proud not just for the their own individual achievements as farming families managing the yearly risks but for that of the system as a whole and for all the cashew farmers of the region who have also indirectly benefitted from higher seasonal prices due to the associations strength and market share of the their supply chain. The security of a Fairtrade consumer market has added value to their crop and empowered many families.

Whilst you can read more about their Fairtrade story on the pages of the UK Fairtrade IMG_0296Foundation or on brands that sell their product such as Liberation CIC,  the wider farmer story is the one that goes on 365 days a year on their small homestead farms.

The glut of cashews collected at peak season gave power to processors who traded down prices well below cost of production as farmers became price takers. They had little choice and for some the stress was too much. Now with guaranteed contracts and pre-season finance flowing before harvest, FTAK and their supply chain partners can negotiate above market prices for the entire crop. Committed consumers are very happy to pay a small premium at retail to secure the deals.

Individual farmers in turn, trust the integrity of their Association and such is market share, local farm gate prices were estimated to be 30% higher at peak season. Now there are 40,000 small holder families farming cashews in the northern districts of Kerala producing between them around 30 million Kilograms of raw cashew nuts. The additional benefit the cashew farmers at large received because of the presence of FTAK intervening strategically in the market is about USD 0.30 per kg. This is an addition of nearly INR 450 million or USD 7.7 million in to the local economy this cashew season … just how much indirect benefit  is Fair Trade bringing!

Surely changing the paradigm like this is the true value and strength of Fair Trade when organisations leverage power beyond the personal bargaining of individuals to compete with businesses and bringing benefits to the many.IMG_2549

Empowerment has developed fast, their Fairtrade+3 policy is beginning to address the wider regional issues of biodiversity, gender equality and food security.  Also, having learnt that most value is accrued by businesses ahead of them in the chain, the farmers and their supporters now have confidence to launch their own brand into the BxT1NCyCMAAE_55Indian market, spearheaded by high quality organic coconut oil. What a fantastic example to farmers everywhere!


Tim Tams and Palm oil: Don’t forget child labour

Even in Australia, where rabbits are vermin and fair game for the gun, Easter is celebrated with purchase of chocolate bunnies. This Easter, when Australians double their weekly chocolate purchases, a campaign focused on unsustainable palm oil has hit ethical consumers on social media . It aims to educate consumers with tools to buy wisely, highlighting the impact that forest clearance for palm oil plantations has had on the endangered Orang-utan. This palm oil is an essential component of many chocolate products, the problem is consumers cannot identify it on the label where it is often called ‘vegetable oil’.

Of course it’s not just buying Easter bunnies and eggs. Daily Facebook posts highlight good and bad examples of many other products which do and do not follow sustainable or certified practice, covering every conceivable processed or manufactured food product and cosmetic or household product. Indeed coming soon is an App which will allow shoppers to scan barcodes during the trolley dash.

timtamsEven family favourite, the iconic Tim Tam chocolate covered biscuit, is a key target, one which contains unsustainable palm oil.


Facebook comments reveal real consumer willingness to get behind proactive choice and education too, showing that just as Fairtrade or Organic choices in Europe have added value and social meaning to basic farming commodities; an environmental choice can do so in Australia too.

But Tim Tams are covered in chocolate and as much as orang-utans are a beautiful orange colour, have ageless wise faces and rain forests are needed to convert carbon dioxide back into the oxygen we breathe, chocolate is also synonymous with Child Labour. This campaign is therefore an opportunity to uncover a human dimension of your chocolate bar and the farmers that grew the cocoa beans.


Sustainable or certified palm oil?

Whilst I had a pretty good background on the people side , I checked up on the palm oil. You can read the campaign sites above, but I also found a reliable study and it will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about labour conditions on palm oil farms.!palm-oil-controversies-forced-labor-child-labo. r/c1xrj

It also tells you more clearly than I can what the difference is between Responsibly Sourced Palm Oil (RSPO) i.e. ‘we don’t want to be boycotted or legislated against’ and the preferable Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) i.e. ‘we had to change the way we did business and be inspected against ILO standards by an independent agency’

Find out how parts of the industry responded positively to consumer pressure and shareholder questioning of reputation.!palm-oil-industry-response/cgm5


Whilst it is great to see US pension funds threatening to divest can you imagine Australian Funds doing the same under this political climate? There are choices. Try asking Australian Ethical about their policy if you want to ensure your pension is disinvested from this dirty industry without compromising it’s value.

Clearly consumer leverage is strongest if demand is for certified product so I am looking for those.


From Cocoa to Chocolate

So what is the chocolate story? Our favourite luxury is made from cocoa beans grown on small family farms. I worked with a large Fairtrade certified cooperative in Ghana, home to some of the world’s best cocoa, to working with farmers to improve their business.

IMG_168670% of the world’s cocoa is grown on farms of a few hectares in Cote de Ivoire and Ghana in West Africa. As with many crops most of the labour is provided by women. Unless organised around associations, household value remains low which is another factor leading to widespread use of migrant and child labour.

IMG_1727The open pods reveal creamy mucilaginous beans which are fermented and dried on the farms. Intermediaries collect from the farms bulking up until it ends in the hands of the global giants like ADM and Cargill (yes they of wheat and soya). Like all commodities, global traders manage prices by a complex series of forward pricing and hedges with the chocolate brand often locked into prices and manufacturing contracts far ahead.

The best quality cocoa comes from Ghana and it is often used to provide a good quality consistent flavour. Other more individual beans from diverse sources from Madagascar to Peru and Venezuela find their way into speciality or single origin bars. Milk chocolate is rarely more than 20% cocoa and is often (especially in hot countries like Australia) mixed with Vegetable fat to keep it hard under higher temperatures. The darker the chocolate the higher and purer the cocoa content is likely to be.

Whilst much Australian chocolate is made by global brands like Cadbury (now owned by Kraft) they still source from West Africa and blend with cheaper cocoa from Indonesia where plantations have taken hold in recent years with emergence of strong Asian markets. Smaller Australian companies like Whittakers , also source their quality from Ghana.

Why should I care about chocolate products? A BBC Documentary in 1998 revealed that despite global International Labour Organisation (ILO) laws, child slavery was still found on cocoa farms in West Africa. It accused the chocolate brands Hershey, Cadbury, Nestle and Mars of complicity. Successive attempts to legislate in the US have largely failed.

Since then others the spot light has remained on yet still a 2011 study by Tulane University in the USA showed that children are still trafficked. It found that 1.8 million children in the Ivory Coast and Ghana work in the cocoa industry and that the vast majority of them are unpaid. The study also found evidence of child-trafficking, forced labour and other violations of internationally accepted labour practices.



Fairtrade has responded to these challenges and some farmer cooperatives are actively working to eliminate the problem. Whilst this is a slow process requiring continual education and empowerment at farm level, Fairtrade offers a market based framework of sustainable livelihood development within which this can happen.

IMG_1733Annual audits by third party inspection can lead to loss of certification income benefits such as higher prices and premiums.

Fairtrade Australia is promoting certified chocolate eggs this Easter. The global Fairtrade standards are defined by Fairtrade International, partially owned by small farmer organisations and workers.

Products (not companies) are certified against these standards which prohibit the worst forms of child labour. Farmer organisations receive a market price backed by a cost of production minimum to ensure sustainable production. This floor price acts to protect the farmers if the market goes into oversupply. A social premium supports projects or organisational development of their business.

images[9]Even better, if you want to go a step further, find out more about the pioneer 100% Fair trade companies that developed the first products, read about farmer owned brands such as Divine Chocolate. Co-owner, Ghanaian cocoa grower cooperative Kuapa Kokoo has a website too. Divine brand products are available in Australia via Heart of Chocolate


‘Every Little Helps’.

If the saying was true for British Supermarket giant Tesco, it is even truer for small-scale cocoa farmers and their communities, the orang-utans and the forests they live in and of course we need to clean the atmosphere of carbon dioxide too.

Ask for #Fairtrade certified chocolate products off the campaign list for sustainably sourced and certified palm oil.

Where Real Food is only referred to in the past tense

A late Christmas present copy of The Gaza Kitchen by Leila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt arrived last week.


It is full of insights into the lives of the women who keep stomachs full despite the trade embargo which has destroyed most economic activity. The recipes are simple, but eloquent statements of Gaza, its people and its history and future aspirations on hold.

This is both a cook book with easy to follow recipes, and a cultural journey from a forgotten corner of  the Mediterranean Sea.

My favourite quote comes from an elderly lady, Um Ibrahim.

Now 89, she remembers a wholesome village life prior to their enforced 1948 Exodus in the face of Jewish militias. They headed for the then safety of Gazan refugee camps. She describes recipes not from her current day to day, but from that earlier memory. Now real food is referred to in the past tense.

‘’I am telling you how we would cook and eat in the past; here everything (the UN hand-outs she and her family have lived on since 1948) is unwholesome, bad food.  In the past we ate heartily and were very healthy’’

Learn all about life in Gaza through the eyes of the women, their food, and their traditional and adapted recipes. Look for Palestinian #fairtrade olive oil from Equal Exchange and a range of Palestinian products from Zaytoun CIC

‘whats wrong with our milk’


In April, before I left UK, I ate with Tomy Mathew, Michael Barrett Brown and Robin, Frances and Beth Murray. As usual conversation swung backwards and forwards around food and the politics of food, our health and choices we take toward sustainable livelihoods for ourselves and our planet.

I am still a meat eater but do my best to stay organic wherever possible and have made a pretty good start on the organic dairy side, milk and yogurt anyway but stray when artisan cheeses are put my way. Tomy introduced a topic I had heard nothing of: A1 and A2 milk. We were all enthralled. Michael was quite taken and resolved to review the book Tomy had refered to (reproduced below).

Anyway, as I just started to read the labels in my first Aussie supermarket I thought you might like proof that consumers can make a difference…  the debate has already moved here. Now in my fridge is a bottle A2 milk… and selling well  in Coles, one of the mainstream supermarkets here (kind of Sainsbury positioning), alongside Organic and Guernsey milks. Perhaps this is more important than just organic certification and UK consumers should ask for a choice too?

Do read Michael’s review below even if you can’t find the book.

Keith Woodward, “Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health and Politics – A1 and A2 Milk”  Craig, Potton Publishing, New Zealand, pb.pp.238,, 2007  I must confess at the start that I have always loved milk.

I was born in March 1918, when German U boats were sinking the Atlantic grain convoys and there was a serious milk shortage. We lived in Woodbrooke, a suburb of Birmingham, and my aunt Fran had to scour the local farms to get milk for my mother and me. Thereafter, aged three,  I collected our  milk in a jug filled from a churn that came to our house in a horse-drawn cart. For sixty years or so we always had ‘Guernsey’ milk from Jersey cows, with cream on the top until all milk was homogenised and pasteurised and cartonned,  and you did not know what cows it came from.

This book is about two breeds of cows that produce different types of milk, so-called A1 and A2. Most European and American and Australasian milk is A1; most Asian and African milk A2. Human breast milk, Jersey milk and the milk from goats, Yaks, camels, and sheep is A2. The difference; lies in the different forms of casein in each milk type and the ways these are digested.  So, what is wrong with A1 milk? Woodward has chapters on heart disease, diabetes, autism and schizophrenia and some human allergies. In relation to each of these diseases, Woodward shows that there is a suspicious association of their prevalence with consumption of A1 milk, even when it is pasteurised. The evidence comes from inter-country human comparisons and from tests on rats, mice and rabbits. None of it is finally conclusive with any of the illnesses, because there are nearly always in each case other factors to take into account. But I have to say that the evidence is strong enough to convince me. I am too old to suffer now from diabetes, autism or schizophrenia, but I do have heart problems, and some skin allergies.  As a result of reading this book, I have switched to buying Jersey or goat’s milk and goat’s cheese and yoghurt. I have obviously been lucky in that I have drunk mainly Jersey milk throughout my life.

Keith Woodward is an agricultural scientist, Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University in New Zealand and has worked on agricultural development and research problems in some 20 Asian and Pacific countries. New Zealand is one of the largest dairy producing and exporting countries in the world, and most of the book is concerned with the argument in New Zealand about the two types of milk. Most of New Zealand’s milk and dairy products come from A1 cows. Switching to A2 herds would take time and prove extremely expensive. An A2 corporation was established in New Zealand and Australia, but it has struggled to survive financially. The most extraordinary part of this book lies in the chapters which reveal the extent to which the New Zealand Dairy Industry has been prepared to go to challenge the evidence about A2 milk in relation to A1 milk and even to suppress information that it holds, and obstruct A2 distribution. It is regrettably true that some scientists whose funding depended on the Dairy industry can be shown to have been complicit in some of these deceptions. It is perfectly legal to advertise  your own product, but not to vilify your competitor’s,  so that there are major expensive legal issues involved in questioning A1 milk.  This book was published in 2007, and I do not know how the argument in New Zealand has gone since then. According to the commendations on the book’s cover Keith Woodford’s argument has the support of at least two leading New Zealand professors, respectively of Medicine and Biochemistry.   I have not found comments from UK scientists.  Nearly all the milk in the UK is from A1 cows. The Google search refers to the questions raised about A1 milk affecting heart disease, diabetes, autism and schizophrenia, but offers no scientific evidence, only anecdotal  – stories from people in the UK who have switched to A2 products, with information about places where you can find A2 products. I will let everyone know the results of my switches when I have watched them for some time.