Ways to Eat Sustainably, Part II

Healthy diets, the plantation system, and the hope of fair trade. Second of a three-part series.

By Allan Reetz

As shoppers, our pursuit of a healthy diet and the assumption that farmers benefit from our purchases can fall short, especially for small-scale farmers in distant locales. Until recently, little attention was paid to the sustainability of quinoa farming. Consumers, eager to improve their diets, can unknowingly put tremendous pressure on ecosystems. One of the latest examples is quinoa. According to the website bw.foodologie.net, it seems that “NASA put quinoa in the crosshairs of the West when, in their search for healthy products for long space missions, declared that quinoa has no rival in the natural world in terms of the value of nutrients that contribute to human health.”

Countries around the world are consuming so much quinoa that consumption has been dramatically reduced among the Andean population that produces it. Their high-altitude farmland has rapidly changed from a diversified food shed into a mono-culture landscape. For the farmers, do they eat some of their high-value crop or sell it? High prices mean that other locals can no longer afford it, and they all shift toward food low in nutrition. A diet that had remained almost unchanged for centuries is westernized. Securing fair prices for their crops can fall behind market saturation or pests’ infestations, reduced harvests, and loss of community.

Quinoa is now grown in 70 countries around the world. Will the market and market-prospects for small farmers rebalance? Will true fair trade reach them? Will crop diversification return to the high-altitude regions that first gave us this seed? As consumers focused on sustainable ways to eat, we have some say by voting with our dollars and determining the answers to those questions.

Let’s stay with that topic of fair trade a little longer and review part of a Hanover Co-op blog post from my former colleague, Alicia Barrow.

Alicia writes, “When a product is authentic fair trade, it is deliberately designed from start to finish to fairly advance the economic, social, and environmental goals of a community.” Authentic fair trade is about lifting our farmers into a fair and sustainable market that considers the future of not only the farmer and their local community but the global community as well. Consumers see the words “fair trade” more and more these days.

“But, what about the invisible crops that we use every day and are in nearly everything, like palm oil? Small farmers are trying to pump out oil palm and palm fruit in unimaginable quantities in order to be paid enough to survive.

“You may have heard of all the destruction Asian palm oil is causing. But that’s not the full story. Done right, palm oil can be one of the most sustainable oils in the world, nurturing animals, people, communities and the environment.”

Here’s a final point on fair trade and fair trade labeling: If it says “fair trade” on the label, consumers can be confident that farmers are getting a fair deal, right? Not always. Do a little more homework. Over the past 10 years or so, there has been co-opting of the fair trade label. Labels such as Fair Trade for All allow for certification of plantation crops. Is that bad if the plantation is playing by the rules of sustainability? We must consider that fair trade practices were designed to ensure the sustainability of small farmers; people who, for generations suffered at the mercy of middlemen and land theft. Small farmers cannot compete with plantations and exporters because of resources, technologies, and the economies of scale.

Fair trade advocates around the world agree that fair trade is a certification that should be earned by and awarded to groups of small-scale farmers who form producer groups, or who farm in accordance with the original intent of such certification. These are the people doing the actual growing, harvesting, weaving and making.

And yes, let’s encourage fair labor and sustainability practices at the plantation level, too.

Read the final post in this series—Inconvenient eating for a healthy home and planet

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Allan Reetz is the Co-op's Director of Public and Government Affairs. Contact Allan at areetz at coopfoodstore dot com.