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The Road to Fairtrade (and points elsewhere) is Paved with Good Intentions

If you aren’t addressing the underlying economics and shaping the market through policy, you are swimming upstream at best. Some might say pissing in the wind.

According to Mr Sylla’s calculations, for each dollar paid by an American consumer for a fair-trade product, only three cents more are transferred to the country it came from than for the unlabelled alternative.


You Can’t Have It All: Kenyan Farming Edition

The Economist has a fine short piece on the tensions running through the thriving Kenyan horticultural trade. Kenya is a fantastic place to grow things. Their export market is thriving. The problem is that consumers on the other end of that trade want two contradictory things:

more value for money and more corporate social responsibility (CSR). Many shoppers’ incomes have been stagnant since the financial crisis. But at the same time Westerners worry increasingly about labour conditions in poor countries and environmental degradation. Britain’s supermarkets are particularly powerful conveyors of these messages: the four biggest, which control about 70% of the grocery market, are relentless in imposing their will on their suppliers. They are caught up in a fierce price war: even the posh ones, such as Waitrose, promise to match competitors’ prices. They are also caught up in a CSR race to show they are model employers: a wallchart in an office in Longonot is jam-packed with the dates of inspections by NGOs and industry groups.

How to square that circle? Consolidation and vertical integration:

These three forces are producing a wave of consolidation and vertical integration, as economies of scale and close ties to retailers become more important. Large companies such as the VP Group (which owns Longonot Farm), Swire and Finlays are expanding while smaller family farms are going out of business. The big firms are creating production chains that stretch from seeds to cellophane and spawning subsidiaries to handle transport and marketing. They are also forming tight relationships with European retailers. The people who once dominated Kenyan horticulture—independent farmers, many of them white, and sharp-eyed middlemen, many of them Indians—are being displaced by company men who speak of scale economies and integrated supply chains.

Which provokes further tensions:

The Kenyan horticultural industry has provoked a predictable debate. Critics say it is folly to transport flowers, fruit and vegetables halfway across the world. Defenders retort that growing roses in Kenya, where it is hot and light all year round, produces fewer carbon-dioxide emissions than growing them in dank, dark Britain or the Netherlands. Critics complain that poor Kenyans are labouring long hours to produce salads for lazy Europeans. Defenders reply that horticulture is creating jobs in parts of Kenya where they are in short supply. But the most interesting thing about the industry is the way that it is shaking up ideological certainties. The West’s demand that companies be good citizens is confounding many on the left by consolidating more power in the hands of giant agribusinesses. At the same time it is confounding many on the right: far from choking enterprise, it is encouraging firms to become more productive and innovative.

I would underscore four things here. We have to be clear about the tensions embodied within what we demand from the economy. We need to always be aware that the social costs of displacement are often more obvious and emotional compelling than the broad and diffuse benefits of economic and technological progress. Instead of turning to a ‘common sense’ metric like food miles, we we need to really do the math when comparing the environmental impact of two alternatives. Finally, small independent businesses are not always the best way to achieve high returns on the triple bottom line.

We might not need GE Crops right now- but Africa sure does

Guest post by Graham Strouts,  originally from his blog SkeptEco 02-03-14.

Prof. Robert Paalberg’s book Starved for Science stands as a damning indictment of the environmental movement’s ideological campaign against genetic engineering, which has made the task of solving hunger and poverty in rural Africa much more difficult by keeping it from those who need it the most.

Book Review:
First posted on 10 September 2010 on

Starved for science: How Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa

IMG_1625Robert Paalberg
Harvard University Press 2009 Pbck 235pp

Harvard Professor Robert Paalberg has written a book that makes essential reading for anyone interested in global food politics and why Africa still fails to feed many of its people.

Africa remains the only region on earth with increasing poverty and hunger. The number of Africans living on less than a dollar a day increased 50% since the early 90s; Between 1991 and 2002 the number of malnourished people in Africa increased from 169 to 206 million, with nearly a third of sub-Saharan Africa malnourished, compared with just 17% in the developing world as a whole.

Paalberg accounts for this as a result of policies that since the 1970s have resulted in a massive decline in investment in agricultural science in Africa. While in Asia and South America, farmers benefited from the new science of the green Revolution, and have been able to both feed their growing population- confounding the predictions of neo-Malthusians- and bring many out of poverty as well. India started planting new Green Revolution short-straw varieties in 1964; by 1970 production had doubled, averting fears of famine.

Why did Africa get left behind? Paalberg argues that while in Asia and South America had strong enough institutions and science to continue with their own scientific developments with little further outside assistance, Africa was became influenced by a change in the political and cultural climate in Europe from the 1980s onwards. In particular, this has seriously slowed the uptake of Genetic Engineering in Africa, which Paalberg argues is a result in part of the ideological position of many NGOs working in Africa.

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