The future of farming

Is it too late to keep growing?

Bananas in water

Here at the Fairtrade Foundation, we’ve been giving some thought to what the future might hold where farming our food is concerned. The world has a lot on its plate when it comes to food. What and how we eat has changed drastically in recent years. Hunger and obesity are widespread. The climate emergency is already having grave consequences for farming communities. In fact, a ‘perfect storm’ of change is coming to our food system, says Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of non-profit Sustain. ‘Evidence is now stark of the causal link between food production, land-use change, greenhouse gas emissions and precipitous loss of nature, undermining the very ability of our species to eat well and pursue social progress.’ Given UN estimates that the global population could rise by 2 billion to 9.7 billion by the time we hit 2050, how will we sustainably feed that many people?  

And more than that. Food production has developed new levels of complexity since the COVID-19 pandemic. Its spread recognises no borders, exposing our interdependence, our connectedness, the fragility of our supply chains and the struggle of those living from paycheck to paycheck. Many farmers and workers in the global south who already live on thin margins are feeling the effects of the virus. Restrictions on movement and reduction in staffing have already impacted the harvesting and transporting of produce. Demand for products like tea has seen a sharp decline with a corresponding reduction in price by as much as 40 percent in India and Sri Lanka. Prices have dropped for products such as cocoa, too.

This seismic shift could force us to change the way we conduct our lives, what we value and how we consume goods. And so as we look to a new decade and a rapidly changing world shaped by the climate crisis and COVID-19, we ask experts about the challenges facing food and farming, the solutions, and the role Fairtrade has to play. 


A warming planet could leave coffee farmers out in the cold 

When the coffee leaf rust struck, which was an unknown disease here, it gave us a hard time, it was a very good crop and we were left with next to nothing.
Segundo Guerrero, Coffee Farmer, Norandino co-operative, Peru 

For many of us, coffee is a daily fix. For decades, millions of farmers in developing countries across the world have grown this most vital of crops. Fields of dark green leafy plants with bright red cherries covering mountainsides are a common sight in the tropical highlands of Latin America, Asia and Africa. Arabica coffee – which makes up 70 percent of the world’s supply – grows well in this environment. 

But according to a global study, hotter weather and changing rainfall patterns could cut the area suitable for farming coffee in half by 2050.  Part of the problem could come down to arabica’s extreme sensitivity to temperature and moisture. If temperature fluctuates even half a degree off the norm at the wrong time, it can dramatically change the flavour, aroma and yield of the beans. Above 23°C, the plant grows too fast and fruits too early, damaging the bean quality. Robusta, the other strain of coffee in global production, can survive hotter temperatures, but it can’t compete in flavour and fetches a much lower price than arabica.  

Rising temperatures also make plant diseases more prevalent. According to Sam Dupre, a researcher at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, a fungus called ‘leaf rust’ normally dies when the temperature drops in the evening but with rising temperatures bringing warmer nights, the fungus lives on. Since 2012, leaf rust has destroyed farms in Central America, affecting more than 50 percent of the crop, with some Guatemalan producers losing up to 85 percent of their coffee.

Leaf rust

In the Peruvian Piura valley district of Montero, leaf rust disease continues to diminish yields after a devastating outbreak five years ago. Pictured above are leaves with La Roya, or coffee rust

In the Peruvian Piura valley district of Montero, leaf rust disease continues to diminish yields after a devastating outbreak five years ago. Pictured above are leaves with La Roya, or coffee rust

When coffee farmers find their crops are starting to fail due to rising temperatures, they look further up the mountain where it is cooler to cultivate land, which can lead to deforestation and biodiversity loss.

The hardest hit by climate change, says Kath Dalmeny, as we know only too well at the Fairtrade Foundation, are those groups of people already on the lowest incomes ‘trying to make a living from farming and fishing affected by changing trends in the weather, crop yields, water availability and extreme heat episodes.’    

Many coffee farmers rely on coffee for their primary income. When disaster strikes, they often don’t have savings or a plan B to fall back on. It can mean destitution, leading farmers to decide between risking their hand on another crop like sugar cane or leaving farming altogether. Who knew there could be so much jeopardy behind an everyday drink so many of us might not think twice about? 

Segundo Guerrero, a founder of the Fairtrade farming group Norandino in Peru, has first-hand experience of the damage disease can do. Segundo explains: ‘When the coffee leaf rust struck, which was an unknown disease here, it gave us a hard time, it was a very good crop and we were left with next to nothing.’ 

Segundo Guerrero, Fairtrade Coffee Farmer and Founder of Norandino Co-operative, Peru

Segundo Guerrero, Founder of Norandino co-operative, Peru

Segundo Guerrero, Founder of Norandino co-operative, Peru

But belonging to a Fairtrade co-operative can offer a lifeline to farmers. It means they can access loans and training to support them through unpredictable weather patterns and other problems on their farms. Segundo has certainly benefited from being part of Fairtrade: ‘I am happy to have been able to achieve all of my dreams, and all of the goals we have established for ourselves.’ Segundo hopes more farmers will join the co-operative as they’re stronger when they stick together. ‘Many have similar problems,’ Segundo says, ‘like low education, no training, no access to technology to help them work, and they do not have support to help manage plagues and diseases.’  

Segundo is clearly anxious about what the future holds: ‘I am a little worried that coffee might disappear entirely from this area. If we can produce coffee that is higher quality we can get a better price at export, but it’s very difficult for many farmers to grow the high quality coffee plants.’ But there’s hope. Segundo’s 33-year-old son Hugo returned from university to help with his father’s farm, sharing his knowledge of organic techniques and crop diversification with his co-operative.  

Finding ways to keep farming sustainably in a changing climate means farmers of all kinds must look beyond the farm gate to new horizons. 

There's no future in farming against nature

At a certain moment we’re going to run out of planet to destroy and so need to find ways to restore it – agroforestry is a good way to combine agriculture with care of the planet. 
Antonie Fountain, Managing Director, VOICE Network

Farmers will face huge challenges from the impact of the climate crisis. But the farming industry as a whole will also come under greater scrutiny as one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions.  

Deforestation is mainly caused by the expansion and relocation of fields and pastures. Cutting down the world’s forests accounts for nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, putting it ahead of the world's entire transport sector for harmful emissions. In 2018, humans destroyed forest areas equivalent to the size of 30 football pitches every minute. Often, when forests are removed, they are  replaced by monocultures, expanses of a single crop, or grazing pasture. And of course, there are unintended consequences. For example, airborne diseases like coffee leaf rust spread easily through cattle pastures and other open spaces far more quickly than they would through dense woodland.  

The scale of deforestation in the name of agriculture suggests that food production and forests can’t coexist. But there is a sustainable agriculture model that goes against the grain – agroforestry. This is essentially when trees are deliberately grown alongside crops and/or animals, improving nutrient and water cycling, preventing soil erosion and increasing biodiversity. Forests and trees provide a habitat for natural pollinators and stabilise soil and climate. 

Sireet OEP, a Fairtrade tea co-operative in Kenya, planted over 150,000 trees between 2016 and 2017, part-funded through the Fairtrade Premium. According to Victor Biwot, the co-operative's Executive Director, inter-planting trees with tea crops provides shade to the tea and protects it from hail and frost. Jane Sepkazi, who also farms with Sireet OEP, explains the increase in crop fertility she gets from agroforestry: ‘The trees provide shade for my crops and the leaves fall and decompose,  [and] make the soil more fertile. And now I’m getting a better yield.'

Victor Biwot,  Executive Director Sireet OEP Co-operative

Victor Biwot, Executive Director, Sireet OEP co-operative

Victor Biwot, Executive Director, Sireet OEP co-operative

For Kath Dalmeny, the clear priorities for a climate-friendly food system must be ‘a large-scale transition to ecological farming, fishing and land use that sequester carbon and restore nature.’ But getting the balance right between biodiversity protection and return on investment could take some more work, according to Antonie Fountain, Managing Director of VOICE Network. Antonie is a supporter of the agroforestry model and sees it as a good way to combine agriculture with caring for our planet but suggests that we need to work out how to balance financial and biodiversity needs. For agroforestry to have a truly efficient economic return, Antonie says, you need 30 percent forest and 70 percent crop. ‘But to preserve biodiversity, you need the ratio to be at 40 percent of forest.’  

It’s also vital that smallholder farmers receive enough money and support to transition to agroforestry or a more ecological farming model. Working in a Fairtrade co-operative can really benefit farmers through knowledge sharing, training and financial loans to get started. For example, Fairtrade Premium has been used to start tree nurseries. In Rwanda’s coffee sector, farmers who belonged to co-operatives were three times more likely to practice agroforestry and apply manure than private farmers. This is relevant because Fairtrade only certifies smallholder farmers and workers who are organised into democratic co-operatives. 

After deforestation and livestock production, pesticides sit high up in the list of planet-harming agricultural activities.

Pesticides can reduce biodiversity and pollute the water and soil. As well as being bad for the earth, chemicals can harm the health of farmers and workers, causing mild symptoms such as headaches and rashes, and long-term problems in the form of nerve diseases and liver damage. Fairtrade trains and supports farmers to reduce their use of harmful pesticides and offers training on how to adopt organic pest control and use natural fertilisers. 

What I recommend is not to use herbicides nor insecticides, nor nematicides because they contaminate our land. And producers when they use them they too are contaminated, however they don’t realise this. With these chemicals we are killing life, it’s not possible to be able to apply these types of chemicals in our foods. We are poisoning ourselves, we are poisoning our children and we are leaving behind deteriorated land to the future generations.  
Hugo Guerrero, Coffee Farmer, Norandino co-operative, Peru 

In Vietnam, where many farmers and their environment suffer from the overuse of chemicals, there’s a group of Fairtrade farmers reducing their reliance, and looking to other methods to protect their crops. The Ea Kiet Co-operative, located in an area rich in natural resources and close to several national parks, have stopped using chemical pesticides and herbicides with the help of Fairtrade training. 

When pests appear, farmers use a high-pressure washer to remove them. They have also adopted a more intensive weeding and pruning routine for their coffee trees, attending to them continuously during the rainy season, when there is a higher risk of pests and diseases. 

We need to get in touch with the wild relatives  for the sake of food security

In a time where the fight to achieve food security and end hunger is one of the greatest challenges of our time, there is a pressing need to ensure the presence of genetic diversity in banana crops. This is where the wild relatives come in.
Ellie Wilding, former Technical Officer, Crop Wild Relatives Project

Agroforestry is a great way to store carbon and preserve thriving ecosystems alongside our food production, but we also need to protect existing forests to ensure the future of our food supply. 

More than one fifth of plant species worldwide are threatened with extinction. That includes bananas, coffee, tea and many other domesticated crops, says Ellie Wilding, former Technical Officer at the Crop Wild Relatives Project at Kew Gardens. Ellie says: ‘The bananas we find on our supermarket shelves are seedless, relying on self-pollination to reproduce, and are therefore genetically identical to each other. This lack of genetic diversity makes entire banana plantations highly susceptible to outbreaks of pests and diseases which have the potential to wipe out the entire crop.’   

This was seen in the 1950s, Ellie says, when the commercially dominant Gros Michel banana was almost entirely wiped out by Panama disease. Ellie adds: ‘Industry turned to the Cavendish banana which, whilst resistant to the strain of Panama disease that devastated the Gros Michel, is a monoculture and still lacks the genetic diversity to fight off disease.’  

Ellie was part of the Kew project, leading a huge effort across the globe to collect seeds from the wild relatives of bananas and 28 other key crops. Each of these seeds will be tested for properties such as drought tolerance and resistance to disease. If they show promise, scientists can crossbreed them with their domesticated relatives to develop new, improved crop varieties that stand up to climate extremes and pests.  

Pictured, a wild relative of the banana taken at a capacity building workshop in Malaysia.

A wild relative of the banana taken at a capacity building workshop in Malaysia. Photo credit: Luis Salazar/Crop Wild Relatives Project/Crop Trust

A wild relative of the banana taken at a capacity building workshop in Malaysia. Photo credit: Luis Salazar/Crop Wild Relatives Project/Crop Trust

Ellie explains: ‘The 211,379 banana wild relative seeds that have been collected and sent to the Millennium Seed Bank could not have come at a more crucial time as banana plantations across Asia, Oceania, Africa and South America have tested positive for Panama disease – threatening the security of the Cavendish banana industry.’  

The Millennium Seedbank Atrium

The Millennium Seedbank Atrium. Photo credit: Jim Holden/RBG Kew/Wakehurst

The Millennium Seedbank Atrium. Photo credit: Jim Holden/RBG Kew/Wakehurst

Seed banks are a lifeline for the future of food. But not all species can be saved by a seed bank. Cocoa seeds, unlike banana seeds, cannot survive the drying process that would allow them to be stored in a bank. So when it comes to preserving genetic diversity in cocoa, the only option is to conserve a wide variety of live cocoa trees in plantations and in the wild, another argument for preserving our forests’ natural biodiversity.

At Fairtrade, we're supporting a different kind of seed-breeding effort – one focused on producing hybrid natural cotton seed to future-proof organic and Fairtrade cotton farmers. In India the vast majority of cotton farmers rely on genetically modified (GM) varieties in the hope of increasing yields and incomes. In reality, farmers are tied into buying expensive seeds, which require synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation, each year from multinational companies amid concerns that yields actually decline after initial gains. There is a 95 percent monopoly by multinational companies, who only sell GM varieties, on the Indian seed market, making it almost impossible for small-scale farmers who want to cultivate Fairtrade or organic cotton to source non-GM seeds, which limits their access to a higher income and forces their hand to use toxic chemicals, spoiling the local environment and their health.

Our relationship with the Earth and the environment needs to be one of respect, as nature had always intended it to be. Without that, we cannot expect to have healthy soil and water bodies. It is also important to future-proof organic and Fairtrade cotton farmers, especially in these difficult times.
Subindu Garkhel, Senior Cotton and Textiles Lead at the Fairtrade Foundation

Fairtrade is working on a project, funded by TRAID, with Pratibha Syntex, a green-thinking manufacturer of knitted textile, to develop new non-GM hybrids that have the exact cotton fibre parameters that the fashion and textile industry needs. The breeding programme is led by a professional seed breeder and has already produced some strong results following the initial pilot phase, when around 1,500 cotton farmers were given access to 9,200 organic seed packets produced by their own co-operative. Bred to be pest-resistant and drought-tolerant, the seeds are 30 percent cheaper than GM versions and has led to a 25 percent reduction in overall costs for farmers.

Cotton flowers from the new non-GM hybrid variety (TRAID)

Cotton flowers from the new non-GM hybrid seeds

Cotton flowers from the new non-GM hybrid seeds

Agricultural technology is on the rise

Producers Direct and Climate Edge works with farmers to install on-farm weather stations

Producers Direct and Climate Edge works with farmers to install on-farm weather stations

Producers Direct and Climate Edge works with farmers to install on-farm weather stations

As prices for technology begin to drop for many tools and uptake in smartphones is on the rise across rural areas where we work in East Africa and Latin America, we can expect that agtech (agricultural technology) will continue to be made increasingly available to smallholders. However, many of these will continue to fail quickly. The successful ones will not be simply marked out by their innovative use of technology, although this will play a big role, but by the way in which farmers are engaged in how that technology is applied in their specific circumstances.
Sam Webb, Information Manager, Producers Direct

Collecting and testing wild relatives could provide us with a plan B if the worst happens. In the meantime, many in the tech world hope to slow the spread of fatal plant diseases through innovative early detection devices and on-farm monitoring equipment. 

Prof Bob Doherty, York Management School and lead of four-year food resilience research programme IKnowFood, and Dr Dan Bebber, Associate Professor of Biosciences at University of Exeter, are excited by a new technique being researched that will help farmers detect coffee leaf rust early. It involves adapting a technique commonly used in astronomy called multispectral imaging. They say: ‘Using drones, this allows the collection of image data at different frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum, including frequencies beyond visible light such as infrared. This allows the identification of initial signatures for detection of coffee leaf rust prior to visible symptoms, thus allowing farmers to remove infected plants early to avoid disease spread.'

According to Prof Bruce Grieve, N8 Chair in Agri-sensors and Electronics at the University of Manchester, the adoption of early and accurate pathogen detection technology such as this will also avoid the preventative bulk application of pesticides on the land, which is expensive for farmers, ecologically damaging and can help pathogens build tolerance to these chemicals. 

Agricultural technology can also offer farmers greater insight into plant behaviour through sensors that detect moisture, disease and nutrient levels; drones that can provide valuable real-time information to farmers; and automation, which can reduce labour-intensive activities. This technology is growing ever more sophisticated and precise, but whether these developments will benefit smallholder farmers depends on how they’re designed and the size of the price tag. 

Producers Direct, an enterprise led by farmers across East Africa and Latin America, have worked with Fairtrade farmers for the last decade and know better than most which innovations work well for farmers and why most solutions tend to fail. Sam Webb, Information Manager at the organisation, explains that most of the new technology offers may be very good at solving a challenge in the supply chain but fail to get pickup among farmers.  

To succeed, new technology must make a difference to the lives of the farmers, especially as adopting new tools isn’t always easy. New tech must also be sensitive to the literacy of their users. The average age of smallholder farmers is 60-plus and many will need training and follow-up support. 

‘Many of the tools being spun out onto the market are approaching the problem at a couple of stages removed from the levels at which the farmers operate,’ Sam says. ‘Data or information is being extracted for use by actors further up the supply chain. This results in no real shift in the status quo for the farmer.’ 

Sam also points out the issue of data ownership. ‘By seeking to extract information from farmers, even to their eventual benefit, many digital tools do not seek to empower farmers as the owners, controllers and managers of their own data.’ Unfortunately, this isn’t easy to do and requires ‘working closely with farmers for them to begin to value their data as an asset.’ It is, however, extremely important that farmers own their data so they can benefit from the information as well as for privacy reasons.  

Training seminar with leader wearing a 'By Farmers For Farmers' t-shirt

A Producers Direct training seminar

A Producers Direct training seminar

For instance, if multinationals own the drones that capture data over smallholder farmers’ plantations, these companies now own footage of farmers’ houses and images of their family’s lives. For truly empowered farmers, drones need to be affordable enough for individual farmers or co-operatives to own them.  

With farmer-owned data in mind, Producers Direct designed Wefarm, a farmer-to-farmer digital platform, to share tips and ideas that can be accessed via feature (ie non-smart) phones. Wefarm now has a global reach of almost two million smallholder farmers. Machine learning analyses a farmer’s question sent by SMS, for example on tackling soil erosion, and then matches this question with a group of relevant farmers who then submit their responses. Wefarm then sends the responses back to the farmer. Users don't need to speak English to use the technology – the tool supports many languages and its algorithms correct typos and understand nuances in dialect and literacy.  

Farmers learning how to use WeFarm

Producers Direct are also piloting Climate Edge’s on-farm NEXO weather stations in Kenya and Uganda, which use sensors to provide real-time data on air temperature, light intensity, rainfall, soil temperature and other conditions. The NEXO is fitted with a GPRS module and transmits the data via the 2G cellular network. Sam describes how the NEXO benefits farmers, saying that ‘discovering how farms over a relatively small area differ in terms of their temperature and rainfall has immediate benefits.’ Sam adds: ‘Farmers have seen how extreme temperatures (over 30°C or below 5°C) can affect their farms and have begun to look at techniques for reducing these effects.’ 

NEXO weather stations

Climate Edge have set up their NEXO weather stations on farms in Kenya and Uganda

Climate Edge have set up their NEXO weather stations on farms in Kenya and Uganda

Sam concludes: ‘By combining weather data with financial information from farmers’ own records we can make the business case to farmers for, for example, investing in water harvesting equipment to maintain productivity throughout dry periods.’  

Climate Edge have also installed five NEXO weather stations for Fairtrade producer groups in Asia.

Fairtrade, along with a coalition of certification schemes promoting safer pest control, have also added to the suite of technological solutions available to farmers. The free Pesticides and Alternatives app supports the reduction of highly toxic pesticide use, bringing a wealth of scientific knowledge directly to the phones of farmers and plantation managers in developing countries so they can identify the least toxic pest control methods for their crop and typical pests. 

The playing field will need levelling for men and women 

Women in CAYAT co-operative, Côte d'Ivoire
To achieve a better future, all women in agriculture will enjoy equitable access to resources, incomes, and support for their skills. As smallholders they will have better access to land, contracts, finance and payments for cash crops. As smallholder hired labour and contributing family labour, their rights will be respected and they will receive better remuneration in recognition of their contribution. As wage-workers in larger commercial farms and processing plants, women will enjoy equal access to decent work, voice, benefits, training and promotion. 
Prof Stephanie Barrientos, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester 

Empowering smallholder farmers with the tools, data and the knowledge to farm in our changing climate will help rebalance power in the supply chain and secure our food supply in the turbulent years to come. But there are a few more factors to consider. Just as data ownership is a concern when it comes to technological advances, land ownership is historically a concern for farmers. Women, who play a key role in growing our food, often lack ownership of their land, which means they can miss out on proper remuneration for their work.  

Professor Stephanie Barrientos, expert on gender and global value chains at the University of Manchester, says that women’s contribution ‘has long been undervalued and often unrecognised, especially in traditional food crops such as tea, coffee and cocoa.’ In 25 years, this needs to have changed, Stephanie says ‘otherwise, farming will no longer be sustainable economically, socially or environmentally.’ That’s not all. The UN estimates that closing the gender gap in agricultural yields would reduce the number of undernourished people by up to 150 million. To achieve this dramatic reduction in food poverty, women in rural areas would need the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men. 

Take cocoa farming. In Côte d’Ivoire, women play an essential role in farming cocoa, contributing 58 percent of the labour involved, and yet the Africa Development Bank estimates that they earn just 21 percent of the income generated. This gap could potentially be explained by the fact that only 25 percent of cocoa-growing land is owned by women. Even when women do own their own land, their farms tend to be smaller, less fertile and more remote and they may face more restrictions in accessing credit and training.

We need to put women at the heart of development. We need women at the heart of the economy because women can change the world.
Awa Traoré, Director General of CAYAT co-operative, Côte d'Ivoire, pictured below
Awa Traoré, Director General of Cayat co-operative in Côte d'Ivoire

Women have been historically excluded from land tenure. In Ghanaian Akan households, land would pass from a deceased husband to their brother or nephew over their wife. Women cocoa farmers who don’t own their own land but labour alongside their male partner or relative are often not recognised as cocoa farmers by the cocoa industry and policymakers. This lack of visibility means they struggle to join farmers’ organisations such as Fairtrade co-operatives and miss out on training and other benefits that could potentially improve their access to resources and agency.

Along with labouring alongside male relatives, women tend to take on the lion’s share of domestic tasks, farming subsistence crops, looking after livestock, cleaning and washing, plus childcare. R. Vargas Hill and M. Vigneri estimate that women spend on average 1.5 times more time on domestic (unpaid) work than men. Considering household and farming and other non-farm tasks together, women’s working hours exceed those of men by 29 percent.

Edith, a land-owning Fairtrade cocoa farmer in Côte d’Ivoire, knows only too well the struggles faced by women in cocoa. ‘What I do not like in the life of a woman, is that you go to the field and you have to do everything – pod-breaking and bean drying. But when you arrive at the door of the co-operative, the men will say, ‘Madam, your work here is done.’ It’s as if what she has done is worthless. It must be known that women get up and get going. They go to the fields with their husband to become autonomous one day. You won’t always depend on your husband. They tell you to be available to the needs of your family and help your husband. But if you do more than your husband does and he just manages you then that’s not worth it.’ 

operative in Côte d’Ivoire

Kouame Ehui Edith Laure, a cocoa farmer and member of SCAEK co-operative in Côte d’Ivoire

Kouame Ehui Edith Laure, a cocoa farmer and member of SCAEK co-operative in Côte d’Ivoire

Edith adds: ‘When women don’t have their income in their hands, and it’s the men that make the money, they are not autonomous. If they need to buy something they must go to their husbands, and they can’t be sure that they will get it. It’s a danger, it’s not good.’ 

Fairtrade is working to help men and women become more equal. The Women’s School of Leadership, co-funded by the Co-op, Clipper and Compass UK & Ireland, is an initiative that has helped reach some of these women including Edith. The school, based in Côte d’Ivoire, offers training to women in cocoa farming to overcome some of the barriers they traditionally face by becoming more financially independent and leading other women to bring in more household income.

Inspired by the Women's School of Leadership, Edith and her friends put their money together to rent some land, separate to their cocoa farms. They were able to get seeds to grow vegetables on their community farm. They have already found a buyer in Abidjan for their tomatoes. They are also growing peanuts to sell, and learning how to process them. The women spend every Wednesday and Friday there, tending their crops, singing, talking and laughing as they do it, and the rest of the time on their cocoa farms. The income they receive from these crops is very important in keeping their households afloat. Other Women's School of Leadership graduates have gone on to lead their local women’s associations and co-operatives, and set up projects such as cassava mills and community farms.

Farmers need a decent income if food is to be truly sustainable

Ebrottié Tanoh Florentin, Cocoa Farmer and General Secretary of his co-operative, CEAA

Ebrottié Tanoh Florentin, Cocoa Farmer and General Secretary of his co-operative, CEAA

Ebrottié Tanoh Florentin, Cocoa Farmer and General Secretary of his cooperative, CEAA

Due to its partnership approach with producers combined with economic premiums for farmers, the Fairtrade certification system is an appropriate mechanism to invest in these types of approaches to support farmers in dealing with the increasing magnitude of shocks and stresses on the food system.
Prof Bob Doherty, University of York, and Dr Dan Bebber, University of Exeter 

If farmers dedicated to growing valuable crops such as coffee and cocoa can’t afford a decent standard of living from their earnings, global food supply chains will never be sustainable, rural communities will suffer and the environment will suffer the consequences.

As fears of a long-term economic downturn increase, a living income becomes more relevant than ever. Defined as sufficient income for a decent standard of living, a living income covers essential household needs such as food, water, housing, education, healthcare, transport and clothing, plus a little extra for savings and unexpected events – clearly needed at times like these.

Prof Stephanie Barrientos hopes for a future where, ‘All farmers (women and men) will equitably capture more of the value generated in agrifood value chains that generate billions of dollars annually. This will ensure all engaged in farming receive a living income, sufficient to support their families and communities.’ She adds that, ‘Fairtrade has a critical role to play in helping to achieve a more equitable future that provides a sustainable basis for farming in the global south.’ 

Fairtrade has always been at the forefront of the fight for living incomes for farmers, and living wages for workers. We’re currently in year two of a three-year campaign to fight for living incomes. We work with companies to identify and address weak points in their supply chains through programmatic interventions, in women’s empowerment, or literacy, for example. 

In 2019, Fairtrade produced a revised calculation of the price per tonne that cocoa farmers would need to earn to achieve a living income. For Côte d’Ivoire this works out to US$2,200 per metric tonne of cocoa. Already, pioneer chocolate brands such as Tony's Chocolonely have committed to pay this price for all or a range of their chocolate products.

‘People everywhere deserve to live a decent standard of living for all household members,' says David Taylor, Policy Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation. ‘Including a nutritious diet, clean water, decent housing, education, healthcare and other essential needs, plus a little extra for emergencies and savings.’

It’s not just the right thing to do morally. Without a decent income, food production won’t be sustainable. When farmers are trapped in poverty, they can’t afford to invest in more efficient or productive farming methods to improve their income. They can’t pay their workers a decent wage, or worse, they may resort to using children for cheap labour. Some may turn to illegally clearing forests or growing illicit crops in an attempt to earn more. Others abandon their land altogether in search of alternative livelihood opportunities in cities or abroad. Things can’t carry on as they are. 

At the heart of a food system that works must be a fair deal for the people who raise the crops we rely on. 

Looking to the future

Banana workers, COOBANA Co-operative, Panama

Banana workers, COOBANA Co-operative, Panama

Banana workers, COOBANA Co-operative, Panama

There’s no doubt that the challenge to feed us all and protect a planet that can continue to support life will mean rethinking many of the ways we approach food and farming. But if there's one thing the global pandemic has reminded us of – it's how interconnected we all are. And so any effort needs to be a collective one.

Many of the issues touched on in this piece fit into the UN's 'blueprint' for a better world – otherwise known as the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs or Global Goals. These set out 17 key areas to tackle by 2030, and include ending poverty and hunger, fighting inequality and addressing the urgency of climate change. While 150 countries have signed up to the Goals, and progress has been made since they were kicked off in 2015, there is recognition that it is ‘nowhere near enough’ to achieve them by 2030. And with COVID-19 still holding the world in its grip, who knows how their achievement will be impacted in the next decade? But perhaps as the virus has shone a light on the fragility and inequality of global supply chains, it has also pulled people together, and shown what we can achieve when there is a very real and urgent threat.

Given the tightly woven nature of the threats to our food and farming, the changes we make have to be as wide reaching as they can be. But with an eye to justice for the most vulnerable – and of course, protection for our planet.

There is a lot we must do. And as Kath Dalmeny at Sustain points out, it is no mean feat – to provide healthy food for everyone, fair wages and conditions for food and farming workers, and decent livelihoods for farmers, in perpetuity. ‘But it is up to us all to make the great task of our generation to achieve this.’

Buying, asking for and stocking Fairtrade is one way to support farmers and workers to maintain an income. Your choices support Fairtrade to help them tackle economic, social and environmental challenges.


With thanks to our contributors: Prof Stephanie Barrientos, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester; Dr Dan Bebber, Associate Professor of Biosciences at University of Exeter; Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of non-profit Sustain; Prof Bob Doherty, York Management School, University of York and Lead of IKnowFood, a four-year interdisciplinary research programme on food resilience; Antonie Fountain, Managing Director, VOICE Network; Prof Bruce Grieve, N8 Chair in Agri-sensors and Electronics, Director of the e-Agri Sensors Centre, University of Manchester; Sam Webb, Information Manager, Producers Direct; Eleanor Wilding, former Technical Officer on the Crop Wild Relatives Project.

NB: Research for this article was carried out in October/November 2019.

Authors: Heather Nicholson, Jenny Tither, Sebastian Lander

Photography: Chris Terry, Peter Caton, Ian Berry, Eduardo Martino, Producers Direct, Crop Wild Relatives Project