Fair Trade in a World of Climate Change

While governments, scientists, civil society and others convened at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the U.N.’s weather agency reported that 2011 was the 10th hottest year since records began in 1850. Though politicians and pundits may still debate the origins and impacts of climate change, there is a general consensus in the scientific community that we are experiencing a significant shift in the earth?s climate. This shift has particular significance for people living in the developing world and those who depend primarily on both subsistence and commercial agriculture for their livelihoods. Farmers are on the frontlines of climate change and are confronted with daily evidence, facing ever chaotic and extreme weather conditions.

2011 marked a flashpoint for many small farmers and fair trade producers. Fair trade producers from Mexico and Colombia to Ghana and Indonesia experienced a record number of climate change influenced disasters, including landslides, severe floods and crop failure. According to Fairtrade International (FLO), fair trade farmers are experiencing up to 28% reductions in yield due to erratic weather patterns and droughts. Small farmers, already vulnerable from a lack of financing options, limited market access and/or volatile markets, among other factors, are now faced with lower yields, ?natural? disasters and higher costs to adapt to and mitigate climate change impacts.

Climate change is impacting specific crops in very specific ways. A recent report by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) detailed how a significant percentage of Ivory Coast and Ghana, the two biggest cocoa producing countries, will be too hot for cocoa by 2030. Compounded by erratic and unpredictable weather patterns, flooding and new pests, cocoa and cocoa producers have a very bleak future. Sadly, this pattern is replicated in other crops like coffee. Coffee producing regions are experiencing a dangerous combination of lower rainfall and higher temperatures, which some speculate will render production unsustainable in lowland countries and regions by 2050. While coffee plants may be able to adapt to higher altitudes in search of cooler temperatures, small farmers are tied to their land, both historically and financially. The United States Agency for International Development?s (USAID) work with the Global Climate Change Initiative recently published a study that analyzed a number of intersections of climate change, poverty and agriculture. Key to the study is an index of ?country vulnerability? with many of the countries with significant fair trade presences ranked as ?extremely? vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.

Size matters: small farmers are key to combating climate change

Global trends in farming point towards an increasingly large-scale and industrialized approach to farming. The last century has seen a significant transformation of the global food system away from locally-based, family-scaled farms towards large industrial farms. Gone are the days of family-scaled farmers providing food and fiber to their local communities. The global food system is now largely dominated by multinational corporations, exploitative conditions for farmers and farmworkers and chemical dependent agriculture.

Large-scale, industrial agriculture is a primary contributor to climate change. According to author and farmer Will Allen, the ?combination manufacture and use of pesticides and fertilizers, fuel and oil for tractors, equipment, trucking and shipping, electricity for lighting, cooling, and heating, and emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide account for approximately 30% of the United States? carbon footprint.? The US-styled energy intensive approach to agriculture, not only adopted by many industrialized countries but also exported to underdeveloped countries, ironically contributes to food insecurity or the ability of a given country or community to feed itself.

Impoverished countries and communities have long experienced varying degrees of food insecurity. As renowned NGO, Food First, has detailed, the underlying causes of hunger are largely attributable to poverty, inequality and failed institutions, not scarcity, overpopulation or a lack of technological fixes. The last five years– collapsing financial markets, the global push agriculture fuels (biofuels, like ethanol) and the expansion of speculation of the food market?have been the near ?perfect storm? for small farmers. With close to 1 billion victims of malnourishment in 2011, it is clear that the industrial agriculture model is a failure.

However, there is hope. Despite the strong global tide towards industrial agriculture, small farmers, who not only form the backbone of the global food supply, are central players in safeguarding biodiversity, fostering environmental stewardship and innovating sustainable agricultural practices. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, small farmers hold the key to doubling food production while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. Similarly, Via Campesina, the global movement of millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, has demonstrated that small farmers can address the global food crisis in a far more equitable and sustainable way than agribusiness and large-scale farming.

Fair Trade: An Antidote?

Fair trade is a social movement and market model that aims to empower small-scale farmers and consumers in underdeveloped countries to create an alternative trading system that supports equitable exchange, sustainable development and long-term trading relationships. Fair trade supports fair prices and wages for producers, safe working conditions, investment in community development projects and the elimination of child labor, workplace discrimination and exploitation.

What is unique about the fair trade system is its ability to channel financial resources and technical support for small producers. A key benefit of the system includes a social premium that farmers use for use in their local communities and farms. Though the fair trade social premiums can be used for virtually any project that benefits the local community, fair trade producers are increasingly using the fair trade premium for environmentally focused projects. For example, Coocafe, a coffee co-operative in Costa Rica, used its fair trade premium to greatly reduce the amount of water wasted on washing the beans allowing for other farmers to plant trees around their crop as shade, which is good for the quality of their crop and for the environment. In India, tea workers have invested some of their fair trade premium to replace traditional wood-burning heating with a solar-panels.

Fair trade standards can also positively contribute to improving energy efficiency on the farm and throughout the supply chain. Fair trade standards encourages fair trade producers and traders to implement measures to improve water conservation, energy efficiency, eco-system management and waste management.

With a strong majority of fair trade producers also either certified organic or practicing organic and agroecological methods, fair trade producers can both significantly improve yields and mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. A landmark study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that organic and agroecological farming practices increased productivity on 12.6 millions farms, with an average crop increase of 79%, while at the same time improving the supply of critical environmental services. According to Food First Executive Eric Holt-Gim?nez, following Hurricane Mitch in 1998, a large-scale study on 180 communities of smallholder farms in Nicaragua demonstrated ?that farming plots cropped with simple agroecological methods (including rock bunds or dikes, green manure, crop rotation and the incorporation of stubble, ditches, terraces, barriers, mulch, legumes, trees, plowing parallel to the slope, noburn, live fences, and zero-tillage) had, on average, 40 per cent more topsoil, higher field moisture, less erosion and lower economic losses than control plots on conventional farms. On average, agroecological plots lost 18% less arable land to landslides than conventional farms and had 69% less erosion compared to conventional farms.?

When it comes to reversing climate change, organic agriculture can, in fact, play an important role. According to the Rodale Institute, organic farming practices can not only sequester 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre per year, , but organic agriculture can also can boost yields significantly. According to the 2008 edition of Waste Management & Research, simple composting not only increases crop yield and replaces dangerous and greenhouse gas emitting synthetic fertilizers, but also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. Many fair trade organizations have also invested in regional and local composting operations as an effective method to increase soil fertility, boost yield and sequester carbon.

Fair trade alone cannot address climate change, nor the daunting challenges confronting farmers on a daily basis. The planet will need a concerted effort to address the root causes of climate change with a comprehensive approach to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Small farmers in the fair trade system can, however, improve farmers? likelihood of mitigating climate change?s negative impacts, showcase local innovations for reversing climate change, and provide one opportunity for Northern consumers to support farmers in a concrete way.

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