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.

http://www.schusterinstituteinvestigations.org/#!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.



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.


Fairtrade is an imperfect yet aspirational success for coffee farmers and consumers


Handsorting defects at Abakundakawa Rwanda v1Union Coffee Roasters emerged a few years ago in the UK at the top end of the coffee trade selling good quality blends and single origins. It speaks the aspirational language of quality. Founder Steve Macatonia has always had a bit of a thing with Fairtrade though and it is good to see him putting pen to paper again in the Guardian Sustainable Business pages published during Fairtrade Fortnight.


I love the debate he stirs up and was stimulated to contribute. I have used his article as a framework for discussion rather than for riposte. I would encourage further contributions from him and others.

Let me be honest that I am a Fairtrade believer, a committed insider and possibly responsible for some of the success. I speak from experience having pioneered and managed 100% Fair Trade food businesses for over 20 years. That said, I also have a few issues with Fairtrade but would use his article and my experience to build on.

What is Fair? Of course we would all like farmers to invest in education, health, climate mitigation, gender empowerment and business development as proscribed by the standards. It’s a much easier emotional sell to talk of the social gain rather than the nitty gritty of business … Feeling uncomfortable that honest values based entrepreneurs have successfully built a billion dollar business around fairness suggests unfairness elsewhere. Yup. Unless you meet the standards you are outside it. The real lesson, remember this is business not an absolutist definition of right or wrong…

A successful safety net for over 20 years

So to Steve’s article. (Sorry once I started it got longer than I planned.. more essay than blog). He starts:

Coffee drinkers want great tasting coffee and coffee farmers need reliable and consistent demand for their crop. Roasters and distributors are seeking dependable producers of high-quality coffee, grown under sustainable environmental and social conditions.

Fairtrade certification set the tone to fulfill the need for socially sustainable coffee production by providing a price safety net to coffee producing cooperatives.

A bit of history, the bi-partisan International Coffee Agreement, which had provided price safety nets for millions of farmers for decades, was collapsed by consumer countries like the UK and USA when they withdrew quotas (the supply/demand lever) unilaterally. As a result the price plummeted in the late 1980’s pushing farmers towards poverty.

Fairtrade was a market based response to this collapse. In 1991, I remember trying to sell (via our new cafedirect proposition) roast and ground coffee of good quality, where people wanted to buy it… i.e. in supermarkets. We became agents for the democratic coops of small-scale coffee farmers who were a good place to begin supply as they could be relied up to negotiate fairly on behalf of their members.

For 6 years or so, cafedirect was the most widely recognised face of Fairtrade in the UK. It was a joint venture between 4 very different businesses or NGOs. Twin, an NGO/coffee trader, Equal Exchange a food selling coop, Traidcraft a Christian business and Oxfam, an NGO with lots of charity shops. We very quickly focused on our new business of creating a brand, selling good coffee in supermarkets. Other NGOs had had a different vision of setting up independent standards for any company to join as a licensee and Fairtrade certification arrived in the UK in 1994, two years after Lorna Young won our first supermarket sales into Scottish stores of The Coop and Safeway. Our paths have crisscrossed ever since, but as a business insider I can offer critical insights into the challenges that Steve outlines.


For most (about 80%) of the last 25 years since the collapse the average green coffee price has been below average cost of production, so for a growing number of farmers Fairtrade fulfilled its safety net mission. Picture1

Indeed, it’s success can also be measured by the volume of business and current competitive position of grocery distributors such as Sainsbury’s (entire own ‘private’ label Fairtrade coffee category), global brands (joining lower cost entry certification alternatives like Rain Forest Alliance or Utz Kaffee) or to a much smaller extent private ‘Direct’ self-certified (the alternative traders and likes of Union Coffee). Together these suggest a successful but maturing market.

Remember, Fairtrade is an international certification standard (as are RF and UTZ). It is not just about the safety net, but also about other key business issues for farmers like timely pre-harvest finance. This is facilitated at the request of the coop, either direct lending via the buyers as the alternative traders did 25 years or more ago, and now  more commonly via third party lenders such as Shared Interest, Root Capital or Responsibility. These lenders leverage the long term relationship that consumers have with Fairtrade, to take more risk than commercial banks, perhaps another subject for GSB to explore?

Interestingly, no other certification fulfils the safety net function and no other requires fulfillment of a finance function.


Challenges ahead

Now, to what is I suspect Steve’s main point. He is correct, in my view, to say that Fairtrade is least effective when green coffee prices are high. For instance, in the 90’s when Brazilian droughts cause price spikes despite markets flooded with very low quality coffee or recently when Arabica demand has outstripped supply.

In the rising market coops can use the strength built by participation in the lean years to negotiate a higher price built on expectation of further rises. Yet, especially once it begins falling, they do report some traders using the then downward market to also bid down prices between farmer coops. Is this fair or unfair or just the market working?

Paradoxically the crop finance issue above gets worse for the coops in these markets as cash flows tighten so the pre-finance function of Fairtrade can provide critical advantage.

However, the output of Fairtrade certified production is mostly mass market commodity grade coffee which doesn’t deliver the impact to really change producers’ lives in a significant way.

There is little freedom for the individual farmer and no incentive to focus on quality or innovation.

I think this minimizes the success to date for many farmers and rather simplifies the market.

Fairtrade contracts offer predictability in a historically volatile market. Coffee farmers are as aware of this volatility as any. This very predictability brought by Fairtrade is a success not a failure and a step forward. Yet very very few farmers sell their entire crop to the coop. That too would be risky too.

When an individual family faces the market alone, more often than not, they face prices much lower than the coop pays. Few farmers have a large choice of traders let alone the power to bid up prices! Traders function mostly as cash rich middle men making their offer early when household cash balance is at it’s lowest. Selling a proportion then may pay for schooling or urgent repairs etc. Thus early market signals from Fairtrade buyers can raise cash and compete with middle men so creating more impact.

Not unsurprisingly when the market is rising strongly, farmers do sometimes break contracts with their coops and sell to middlemen, for short term gain, leaving coops in contractual default and lenders having to reschedule.

It would be encouraging if farmers and coops had more choice from an empowered position to negotiate. Any parallel initiative, offering secure steps up the value chain, should be encouraged. Sometimes this may mean coops sell outside Fairtrade, for instance to Union Coffee. If consumers are willing to pay a higher price so be it, but fairs fair don’t undermine the intermediary role the coop plays by persuading farmers to break contracts.

A more sustainable approach would reward excellence. It would be based on quality, innovation, growth and economic progress. It would be accessible to all farmers, not restricted to just co-operatives.

As we examine the quality issue more closely, we notice that very few buyers are willing to invest in visiting individual farmers in any region. I would challenge even a committed buyer like Steve to find an economy of scale in that. The coop is therefore an excellent vehicle for adding economy of scale value, assisting farmers move up the value chain. The coops have long been most successful in supporting the safety net with certification; more and more they can also support quality development.education4[1]

As coops understand that a shortage of quality Arabica exists, they participate more confidently in supported initiatives whether inside or out of Fairtrade and gain advantages for their members.

This is one area where Fairtrade practice provides good examples of supporting the wider push for better quality. Many participate successfully in regional ‘cup of excellence’ competitions that were pioneered by coops in Nicaragua and have now spread to Africa and Brazil.

Coop micro-lots traceable to specific farmers fetch high prices in the US specialty market. but challenges and sceptics remain.


Cost, efficiency and choice

In 2012, 430,000 metric tons of Fairtrade certified coffee was produced but only 30% was sold under Fairtrade conditions. Despite investment in certification, farmers would only receive commodity prices for the remaining 70% of their crop.

We come to a section about cost, choice and efficiency. Let’s be clear, the coop invests in and pays the certification not the farmer. If a farmer sells outside it she/he does not incur the direct cost of certification, she/he also takes the risk and opportunity of so doing. Equally, levers do exist within the coop, with boards and managers being removed for poor performance just like in any other business.

In addition, Fairtrade has always consulted heavily during reviews of cost of production. Now farmers are integrating at all levels of both decision making and governance. This surely signals authenticity and clear water between it and other certifications and private/Direct propositions

This brings me to yet another piece of detail. In many places farmers do the first value adding by pulping the red cherry, but full grading is impossible until after hulling. This requires the scale a 1 hectare farm just doesn’t have. The Coop if large enough may do this but it will certainly be able to offer the farmer this service.

In reality all coffee has to be graded. I suspect in many cases, the very best (probably <<5%) will be saleable to buyers like Steve prepared to buy small lots for high prices. The middle 30% represents some of the better grades, leaving the rest below Fairtrade buyers requirements. These coffees are often sold in local markets or as fillers in very large export orders. Critically you might say that if demand is there, coops will ignore Fairtrade and sell the better grades elsewhere leaving the poor grades for Fairtrade consumers. This is indeed a potential issue for the reputation of Fairtrade system. Perhaps it needs more Specialty buyers like Steve, not less, to set the Fairtrade bar higher! At the end of the day each coop will examine it’s own context and try to sell it’s crop as profitably as possible

I would agree with Steve, how can transform quality, especially Arabica quality, upwards on a large scale. This is a problem the whole market is trying to address not just Fairtrade.


Positive social impact from the coffee value chain founded on the basis of Fairtrade certification is limited by world markets.

Again let’s underline that Fairtrade brings livelihood impact both social and economic whilst strong and trusting relationships generate confidence. As a business of course it’s penetration or success is limited by world markets. The issue is can we create a market based model which is more resilient for more small scale farmers in good times as well as bad.

Fairtrade has always consulted heavily during reviews of cost of production. Now farmers are integrating at all levels of both decision making and governance. This surely signals authenticity and clear water between it and other certifications and private/Direct propositions


How can coops move up value-chain?

In 2013 the average world market price for Colombian Mild Arabica was $1.48/lb, (£0.89/lb) which is eight cents/lb greater than the Fairtrade minimum price (not including the optional 20c social premium).

Those roasters and importers who seek high quality, speciality coffee do not rely solely on certification. An alternative trading model focuses on the prices that customers are willing to pay, rather than the market basic or even average price; if it tastes delicious, we want that coffee. For some coffees, this approach can achieve 10 times above the Fairtrade price.

Coop managers respond specifically to the market at any point. As already described, the market price rose in 2009 above that average for first time since 1995 and has remained so since then except for a few months last year.

The Colombian Milds is a good indicator of the grade of many good Fairtrade Arabica coffees. Recent ICO figures show that that price fell from $1.69 in Jan 2013 to $1.48 in June  falling through $1.24 but rising sharply again to $2.24 as we speak. (Another climate related story!) Indeed it was over $3.15/lb only 2 years ago. When I worked at EE we were lucky to buy Colombian anywhere near minimum price. Good Ugandan Arabica AA was selling at that level too and Sumatrans even higher. My point is that comparing price and quality is very difficult and all buying or selling decisions depend on the moment the deal is done and outlook on the market.

Perhaps Steve also uses the term ‘alternative’ here to mean ‘other’, you will now find that the UK Fairtrade Foundation highlights the best practice from the so-called Alternative Trading world. Best practice from it seeks to give coops the tools to make good decisions at all times. Indeed, without the best practice of Twin, cafedirect and Equal Exchange Instant coffee came from the Cafe Soluble factory in 1984amongst others, consumers impression of Fairtrade coffee quality would, oh dear, indeed be that of the old Campaign Coffee.

Teaching producers how to evaluate and grade their own coffee helps farmers to understand what buyers might be looking for, and puts them in a stronger negotiating position. It also encourages continued improvement.

lydiamarieThis is a widely copied innovation more licensees should participate in. Twin and others have been setting up cupping labs in coops ever since they pioneered cafedirect Machu Picchu  selections in the late 1990s, so Steve is right getting this quality feedback back to farmers cost effectively is critical.

One of the most profound examples comes from Twin’s award winning work in the Democratic Republic of Congo conflict zone. Following 6 years of investment, farmer led coops (supported by certification minimum price) can enter European and US markets for the first time and moved average prices for individual farmers from -40 to +40 against the NYC average plus a premium. This example spreads confidence indirectly as well as directly throughout a community and can only be done lead by cooperatives with the secure market and potential pre-finance that Fairtrade offers.


Farmer initiatives such as the  Joint Marketing Initiative change the entire dynamics by moving them up the value chain. How can we position Coops in the market place to sell more effectively whether the market is high or low?

Certification is one business tool amongst many that assist Coops and their farmer members on the climb to market access.

Smiley poor people or respected farmers: Who grows my coffee?

Farmers, distributors and consumers should be able to answer questions such as, who roasts my coffee? Who drinks it? What price does it fetch in the UK? Many coffee roasters – let alone coffee drinkers – don’t know which country their coffee comes from, let alone which farm.

I have no problem with traceability. The best quality food always has denomination of origin displayed in some way. If your customer can pay for the system to trace the product to the farmer, whether that is electronic or trust based on a small volume visit, fantastic. The more companies that support and invest in this best practice the better.

Equally if Fairtrade distributors do not promote their source or generalise the proposition to be meaningless, who knows perhaps they are bidding prices down to FT minimum?

No farmer wants you to buy their coffee because they’re labelled as ‘poor’. A sustainable long-term relationship, season after season, works both ways between buyer and producer.

Development professionals have sought for decades to move the imagery and narrative away from charity and ‘poor farmers. Fairtrade is a business concept which is part of that narrative and employs the skills of PR professionals in communicating the positive story of inspirational leadership and farming skill as well as the realties and challenges of daily life. It is re-visionist to suggest the focus was still otherwise. I would stand with Steve and challenge any patronising ‘poor me’ simplifications. That said I am pleased to see him briefly mention the value to farmers of long term and engaged relationships from the coffee trading community. It was exactly that which inspired and informed the expertise in the ATO (Alternative Trading Organisation) movement that pioneered Fairtrade over 25 years ago. I could continue here on learning models. Are we empowering choice or telling farmers what they should do but that reflection can wait for another time.

Consumers may buy cause-related products once or twice, but life’s too short to drink bad coffee – or, arguably, simply waste money on it. Focusing on high quality and sustainable production of coffee is the only fair way to manage the coffee supply chain. This approach is not easy and introduces complexity in explaining trading models.

Absolutely. Quality is precious, there is plenty of bad coffee about and most of it is not Fairtrade. I am the first person to discard a pack after one purchase if I do not like it. However, if the overall quality of Fairtrade was that bad, the market would not have grown and achieved such stability for two decades or more. During that time quality has improved enormously as consumers rejected poor offers and rewarded good ones.

Fairtrade will rightly be challenged by consumers demanding better quality and traceability. Those who want the ‘cask matured single malt whisky’ equivalent will pay for the additional selection cost and the traceability and the relationship for such small volumes. Many of these customers are promiscuous and do not stick with one origin though. They like the change and uniqueness of each offer. There is little stability for the farmer though

These initiatives may require extra effort from consumers compared with buying a pack of coffee with a succinct logo, but it’s more effective for the farmer and more pleasurable for the customer

If Arabica farmers want to move on they will… probably to Union Coffee or the big US Specialty market amongst others but only if the prices are consistently better. The best farmers will always move on and seek a better return on risk and others will follow if they succeed. However consumers will have to demand better quality first.


Aspirations for the 21st Century?

We have seen how developments within Fairtrade, take it beyond a safety net, For example they assist quality development using cupping labs and to develop price risk management strategies for managers, and really upgrade a coops capacity for sustainable business.

Coops are key democratic intermediaries to deliver scale and effectiveness to Fairtrade’s vision amongst coffee farming communities. The Certification business model must work well when prices are higher as well as lower. It must offer competitive advantage for younger, vulnerable or crisis prone coops as well as the more successful. It must spread success both deeper and wider. Above all to expand globally, it must continue to appeal to consumers in markets with several decades exposure to sustainability and perhaps new ones in emerging regions too.

So, perhaps it is time for Fairtrade to look ahead and add more value to its development ‘model of change’… Grown by Women Mary Nabugobelo sstandards would refocus the value chain on the most effective lever for household livelihood improvement and align with UN Millennium Development Goals. A new Robusta offer could leverage the vast instant coffee market, (though preferably one which does not contradict or compete with the current Arabica focus). Both would keep the offer fresh and competitive with the other ethical certification offers and pull in new consumers.

There are many ways Fairtrade isn’t enough, and in a relatively mature market, it does needs to change to stay ahead.  However, good cups of coffee are worth a premium and the coffee trade needs branded offers like Union Coffee (and my former company Equal Exchange) that set the quality bar high, whether they are Fairtrade certified or not.

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

Pumice and chips

Last June I spent some hours on the Sunshine Beach … here is the blog  I posted to my Facebook friends at the time. Yesterday’s beach walk inspired me to re-post it here.

I got back from the beach and spent a few hours looking into plastic pollution. I’d read about the Pacific, west of California, being turned into a giant garbage dump bigger than Texas but was astonished to spot large numbers of plastic chips amongst what looked like pumice pebbles right here on Sunshine Beach.

Receding king tides had left small drifts of pumice interspersed with tiny blue and green shards.

Pumice and plastic chips on Sunshine Beach

Pumice and plastic chips on Sunshine Beach

and nearby a bigger bank.

Having begun reading up about Capn Charles Moore’s sailings a few years ago to the N Pacific Gyre on the Alguita http://www.vice.com/toxic/toxic-garbage-island-1-of-3

I found more on volcanic eruptions in the nearby South Pacific.

There are no active volcanos in Australia! However, newspapers reported major pumice strandings along the Queensland Sunshine Coast in mid April 2013. The most likely source was recycling along coast from earlier arrivals that had first come ashore in 2007 from a Tongan eruption.

There was one in my collection from yesterday. About 3=4 mm in diameter.

Pumice from the Home Reef eruption that began early-to-mid August 2006 reached the eastern Australian coast in March 2007. A substantial stranding of the pumice in mid-April extended for more than 1,300 km along the Queensland and northern New South Wales coast. Pumice ‘clasts’ or stones ranged in size from 1-4 cm in diameter, with the largest ‘clasts’ up to 17 cm in diameter. A visit to Home Reef in February 2007 revealed a pumice mound barely visible over the waves.

Pumice raft

Research now shows that such eruptions can disperse marine life more effectively than ocean currents alone. Studies demonstrated that large rafts transported over 80 species collected on a +5000km journey from the eruption locality to the Barrier Reef over 8 months.


The same author reports a similar sequence of events in 2001-2 and other writers researching pumice layers from midden excavations on NSW coast suggest that it has been going on for thousands of years.

Whilst reports mention the marine hitch-hikers they say little about rafts picking up plastic waste too. I wondered how these became mixed with the pumice. Were they local waste, carried into the sea through storm drains and subsequently ground by beach action. I didn’t see much evidence of on-going waste deposit on the Beach so perhaps this was just a collection zone for the little bits floating out on the ocean?

This afternoon, curiosity got the better of me. Here is my collection (along with some pumice and shell) from a sparse 2 metre drift randomly chosen. The little round white one next to the coin is the raw material from which plastic objects are moulded. There were 17 different blues and greens and 2 reds, never mind the black and whites. I imagined quite a heap just from my little area. I imagined a large heap of plastic objects from all over the pacific of which these shards were a small percentage, and now distributed along countless beaches and sea floors.

Fair Trade Alliance Kerala inaugurates new office

Late May is hot in Kerala. This year hotter and dryer than usual, reports not of hunger in this the homestead state, but drought in villages near Calicut http://s.coop/1p1nk

Elsewhere, it’s still dry but a green countryside… coconut palms, rubber trees and smallholder farms known as Homesteads where 10 different tropical products from coffee and cashew to cinnamon cloves and vanilla are Fairtrade certified, many all on the same few acre farm.

Welcome pre-monsoon storms

Welcome pre-monsoon storms

We’d met women farmers and tribal communities, all members of Fairtrade Alliance Kerala (FTAK) as part of a field visit to celebrate partnership and the inauguration of their office building in Thadikkadavu village in northern Kerala.

The gleaming white building shone in the eerie evening glow as clouds descended and the heavens opened. Perhaps it was only fitting that the first heavy pre-monsoon shower should christen this brand new building, the new home for FTAK, Kerala’s largest and most successful Fairtrade small-farmer association.



The deluge

The deluge

As thunder and lightning crashed and flashed, excitement over the refreshing rains turned to concerns as chairman and organisers stripped to their dhotis to dig channels to clear the deluge away from the venue.




Symbolic candles lit at FTAK office inauguration

Symbolic candles lit at FTAK office inauguration

Next day we shared a platform with local politicians, the FTAK Board, Abishek the new CEO of Fair Trade India and senior staff from FTFUK. Tim Gutteridge Chief Operating Officer of Fairtrade Foundation choose to light the symbolic candle with Theamma from the Pulpally women’s group and pronounced the office open and fitting gesture of partnership to begin the day

 Speakers focused on the continued passion to improve livelihoods on journeys shared since 2005 by nearly 10000 member farmers across this State. Mention was made of those 100% Fairtrade partners such as Equal Exchange, Twin and Pakka and Liberation CIC, http://s.coop/1p1ph  a Fairtrade Nut company co-owned by FTAK and other farmer groups across India, Africa and South America.

FTAK Fairtrade cashew products

FTAK Fairtrade cashew products

Several hundred proud farmers shared lunch with us and renewed dreams before their annual AGM later in the afternoon. The new office was a fitting stepping stone to even greater innovation lead through the ‘Fairtrade plus 3’ programme begun last year focusing on Gender Justice, Biodiversity and Food Security.

I left reflecting that a rarely publicised component of the Fairtrade value chain is their association or coop. It is a critical step in scaling up the individual family efforts, so that collectively, they have power and can gain market access. Here was an fine example of where the bar should be set.

A year’s progress for the women of Pulpally in Kerala

Pulpally women's group describe their loan project

Pulpally women’s group describe their loan project

In April 2012 I visited Wayanad in Kerala and meet the Pulpally women’s group and learnt about FTAK’s ‘Fairtrade plus 3’ policy, in particular to distribute Fairtrade premiums as loans for livelihood development through women’s projects . See  https://www.facebook.com/notes/equal-exchange-uk/gender-justice-at-fairtrade%20-alliance-kerala-ftak/10150672014243344 and similar for reports.

The ladies were thrilled with their success then and now I wanted to hear how their work was progressing a year later.

Our party (Tim and Martin from Fairtrade Foundation) myself, Tomy Mathew, and Paul (the FTAK district officer ) met them again . All smiles as we started the meeting. There was an air of excitement presenting to visitors again.

Philomena began by reporting on the previous meeting, describing loans repaid, decisions made and noting that they had to decide who was going to the FTAK office inauguration the next day.  Apparaently there were only 6 places for the members and they all wanted to go.

The group had applied for a loan from the Fairtrade premium fund via the local panchayat board of FTAK, this had been approved at district and then centrally. This year 20 women had taken loans all now managed by the group. 10 had bought cows (Rp150,000), 5 goats and 5 for collective vegetable growing. In total Rp325000. After 8 months Rp90,000 had been repaid. All households plant tapioca root as a household staple and grow yams for mainly for sale if the price was good or storage/later use if not.

Loans for cows are popular with Pulpally women's group

Loans for cows are popular with Pulpally women’s group

Cows were seen as a long term investment, providing cow-dung for their organic farms, milk for immediate income via the local coop and the occasional sale. Goats, as we were to learn later were ready for sale in 6 months and also a popular income generator.

What was the impact of your work this year?

‘We have only been doing this for two years so don’t expect so much quickly!.  We know how to handle money though. Now we can say we have done this. ‘

‘Last year we made a profit and repaid the loan. This year we used the profit to plant again, but we didn’t give any yam money to the house (the husband).  The rain was poor and we didn’t grow many (yield) and the price was bad. We will have to keep asking for money this year.’

One of the big changes reported by the district officer was attitude to travel. Their eyes had been opened and had a real appetite for travel for leaving the household chores.  Molly spoke of how , following an FTAK policy statement of support for anti-nuclear action in Tamil Nadu, 5 women had been to a demonstration at Kundankulan. For years it was their menfolk who made decisions and travelled now it was their turn and the enthusiasm for new experiences was very evident.

‘We are no longer stuck in the kitchen, we meet often and always go the AGM. Don’t send us on these local trips… we want a big one with all of us’

'We'll take 8 to the AGM. We can fit 8 on the 6 seats allocated!'

‘We’ll take 8 to the AGM. We can fit 8 on the 6 seats allocated!’

Last year, FTAK piloted cashew collection stations run by women managers. It was a success. This year the Wayanad group ran the first coffee collection depot. Theamma was the manager with Celin’s help.

Molly described how they had planned their farm work together.

‘We decided three of us would work together picking coffee on our farms for 3 days. We had to get all our jobs finished by 10 o’clock to start work. Finish the cooking and get children to school. At the end we only needed men to lift the bags’

The group had collected over 40 tonnes of coffee.

‘This year we (the group supporting the collection depot), collected nearly 25,000 kg of organic coffee and 18,000kg non organic coffee. We received 75Rp/kg for organic. Farmers received 68 with 7 later as a bonus. The group took a 0.75RP (75 piasa) commission to support our work. In total , over the season, we handled 25 lakh rupees cash (25,00,000Rp) and distributed 2 lakh bonus.’

Conversation wandered to the future. Labour shortages are hitting farms across India. Families worry about the future as children head for city lights, call centres and IT jobs.

Do you think your children will want to continue farming?

‘The older children are being trained on the farm, others will not want to farm but the land is theirs so how can they not farm it? ‘

I left wondering if this old and deeply felt connection with the land and the new-found aspirations of these women will secure a future for the Kerala homestead farmers despite the uncertainties in modern India.

‘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.