|A small plot of shade grown, organic certified, Fair Trade coffee. |
The farmers are members of the Arinagata cooperative in Ache,
Indonesia.Fair Trade cooperatives in Ache truly respect bio-diversity.
On the farm we learned a hard-work ethic which city kids never understood at that young age. Your labor was your worth; for generations the farmers of the American Mid-West understood this and judged their kin accordingly. With this upbringing came an indoctrination into a way of life; I was a participant in this Rite of Passage and subject to the same evaluation of generations before me - "Is the boy worth his weight?" Once you passed, you had earned the trust of the family and the community.
In America's heartland, corporations like Monsanto, Cargill and DuPont had earned the trust of generations past and this has been passed on as a given; an unquestioned relationship. So deep was the trust, as handlers of these death dispersing chemicals we took no precautions; we never wore gloves or masks or protected ourselves from anything but the sun's rays, and that was only by force when caught with our shirts off in the mid-day sun.
I remember riding the bean sprayer - it was a tractor with a metal frame mounted on the front or back depending on the model, holding about eight seats straddling twenty-four rows - each rider was assigned three rows and as the tractor moved forward we used a long narrow sprayer to shoot the purple-dyed chemical concoction onto invasive weeds or the random corn stalk that sprouted up from last year's crop. When our attention drifted and our aim was poor, "Stop shooting the damn beans!" would be a quick reproach from the driver. When the driver's attention was elsewhere we took aim with our new-found weapons and shot one another leaving a deadly purple stain our victim. Of course we would be reprimanded for wasting it, but after a long day in the sun we still took a chance and took aim. We were kids, after all.
Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating child labor here. My drift down memory lane is relevant to my postulated question above because it provides an insight for Fair Trade advocates to understand: Farming isn't just a profession; it is a mentality, a way of life, and given that many Fair Trade products are linked to agriculture it is important to see that our decisions have more direct impacts on the lives of producers than simply as a means to alleviate poverty.
I believe this is a central question for the future of Fair Trade. To begin, I would like to introduce an author which should be on the reading list of every Fair Trader regardless of where you reside: The Ecology of Commerce (the Revised Edition © 2010) by Paul Hawken. I have mentioned his work before, he is a renown environmentalist, entrepreneur, and visionary. The central tenet of his publication is the need for businesses and government to change the narrowly defined concept of commerce and in doing so correct our unsustainable, linear relation to the earth:
Hawken points out that due to the wasteful and environmentally detrimental practices in the current economic system all life forms on the planet face serious consequences. Worse yet, consumers are insulated from this fact because, "The single greatest flaw of modern accounting is that the cost and losses of destroying the earth are absent from the prices in the marketplace."
In agriculture one detrimental practice is the usage of herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides. As the Latin suffix -cida, implies, the sole purpose of their creation is to kill. The point that many people are missing is that soil is very much alive with an array of organisms that provide the life-giving nutrients needed to support plant life.
In the chapter, The Creation of Waste, Hawken writes:
Whenever we introduce synthetic toxins into the biological process, regardless of the intent or original application, we are changing a cyclical process to a linear one... Nature's toxins - and there are many of them - have evolved over millennia as a part of complex, cyclical, life-giving cycles. Even if we imperfectly understand their purpose, in nature these compounds do not break the cyclical pattern of growth and evolution. Our man-made poisons, toxins, and chemical wastes have no such history; not only are they new to biology, but life has no place to put them. They cannot be taken up and incorporated by the normal metabolic processes of cellular life."
Where do we see the irony of our destructive economic system as it stands? Hawken's writes:
There is a serious problem in agricultural practices when farmers have the same short-sighted values as investors on Wall Street. In the aptly named chapter, The Death of Birth, Hawken notes:
"Economists sometimes take the moral position that human life is superior to natural life, and there are environmentalists who take the opposite position. This is not a useful polarization. We can't turn our backs on the web of life that sustains us and live in a biological vacuum engineered by technology. Even if God did grant us dominion over life, I do not believe she had in mind the kind of stewardship we are practicing today. In the Old Testament, Eliphaz the Temanite admonishes a caterwauling old man by the name of Job: "Have you listened in at God's keyhole and crept away with his plans?" Job did not have a convincing reply. Neither do we."
In addition to the exposé on this questionable corporation, after viewing the film I sensed that there was a distinct change in the relationship between the American farmer and Monsanto from the one I remember thirty years ago. A change from one of trust to one of fear of a corporation that divides communities. Unfortunately, Monsanto and their corporate compatriots did not draw the line at dominating the American food market, they have gone global. A Google search brought up a Monsanto office in Ho Chi Minh City, twenty minutes from where I currently reside.
Since 2005, I have worked in rural villages of Vietnam as a consultant in Sustainable Development. In distant regions amongst ethnic minorities where corn is grown on mountainsides, I have repeatedly come across suspicious corn seed sacks and made inquiries with local farmers. I can summarize and paraphrase the many interviews here:
Do you plant this corn? Yes.
Do you apply specific herbicides to it? Yes.
Have you saved seed and tried to grow some of the same corn the following year? Yes, but the corn doesn't grow.
The genetically modified seeds I have encountered here have a suicide gene (again, there is that Latin suffix of death, -cida) to prevent farmers from growing their own crops as had been done in past generations. Instead, these farmers living on $30 to $60 per month are now dependent on the corporation and have to purchase the seed / herbicide combo every year. Not surprisingly, my findings have been that the impact is not increased incomes from increased yields as Monsanto would like for us to believe. Quite to the contrary, the farmers I interviewed over the past several years experienced increased poverty, particularly when inflation is hitting averages of 12% or higher.
To observe farmers spraying herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides in the field, it becomes apparent where the rise in cancers originate. They use hand sprayers and moving forward they spray in an arc, walking through the toxins as they go. At most, they wear long sleeved shirts and pants that are dripping wet by the time they finish.
The Crawford Fund conducted a Risk Assessment to Human Health from the use of Pesticides in Vietnam in which they wrote, "It is clear that existing practices are poor and there is a substantial need for improvement. There was also information that deaths have resulted from pesticide exposure amongst farming communities. The other problem associated with pesticides in Vietnam relates to the pesticide and associated contaminants at former US Air Force Bases, and the implications for safe food production on adjoining agricultural land." (Both of which are directly linked to Monsanto)
Vietnamese farmers are much like the farmers of other developing nations - they have easy access to agrochemicals, but low levels of awareness regarding health and safety practices in applying chemicals, or of the diseases linked to the ongoing usage of these deadly potions.
- Respiratory problems from sulfur
- Medicine ineffective
- Both men and women affected
- Mostly the individual who uses the oven for material preparation
- Long term affects are cancer and early onset of disease (16-18 year-olds, common)
- Kidney problems from water pollution
- Cancer is common
- Main areas affected: throat, airway, lungs (inhalation) and eyes (blurred vision) and kidneys
- Water filters are helpful, but only available to families that can afford
Shortly after publishing this post, I received a message from Kyle Freund, a Communications Officer for FLO - Cert. Admittedly, I am not certain why some comments are not being posted by blogspot despite my inquiries. After repeated failed attempts, with his permission I post it here:
Hey Mitch, Thanks for the post on Fair Trade and organics. I tried to post a comment and I'm not sure if you have it set to review before it goes live, but just in case, here's what I replied.
Good piece with good points and I'll be posting it on our Facebook page today. Funny to see it since I began editing a position paper about pest management just last week. We'll be putting out four papers in the coming months to explain our position on various environmental topics.
Thanks again. Oh and where did you grow up? That farm work comment at the beginning really hit home. I was in the same boat in Southern Wisconsin.
Here's my comment I hoped to post:
Good entry and we're working on a position paper right now on Fairtrade and pest management. It will be coming out in the next week or two. (Full disclosure, I am a Fairtrade International employee, views expressed are my own.)
I think you hit on key ideas here and bring up great points. Responsibly and cautiously used, pesticides and agri-chemicals can help increase productivity, but the trade-offs or potential detrimental effects are great for farmers and their families, the environment and consumers. Plus any use of agri-chemicals increases community reliance on outside suppliers, which needs to be reduced. I think communities would be better off without agri-chemicals and ideally once involved with Fairtrade, communities that are not already organic will transition to more sustainable practices.
Fairtrade doesn't require farmers and workers to stop using pesticides, but the Standards do include a list of prohibited materials as outlined in the Pesticide Action Network Dirty Dozen List and a few other internationally recognized lists of dangerous chemicals. The Standards provide guidance on safe handling and usage. Fairtrade also has an organic differential for almost all products to encourage transition to more sustainable techniques.
With the recent publishing of http://www.fairtrade.net/single_view1.0.html?&cHash=4f6037645a&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=204 Fairtrade's New Standards Framework, a number of Generic Environmental Standards have been added. In the next few months we'll be publishing four position papers on Pest Management, GMOs, Climate Change and Biodiversity.
Side note: Reading your opening statement brought back a lot of memories of picking rocks and working all summer long (actually year round) on the family dairy farm where I grew up in Wisconsin