SOS Dairy: British farmers against throwaway prices

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website on 10 August 2012.

Photo thanks to markhillary.

 

Fairtrade is typically seen as something done by the West for the ‘developing world’, but a recent crisis in British dairy farming has raised the question of whether a similar concept should apply closer to home.

Since July, a campaign has been gathering pace, led by a coalition of farming organizations including the NFU and the grassroots Farmers for Action (FFA), for a fairer price for milk.

The main message, aimed at milk processors and retailers, is: pay farmers more for each litre of milk they produce. From 1 August 2012, the main companies supplying British retailers were preparing to reduce the price received by farmers to below the cost of production, which is about 30 pence ($ 0.47) per litre.

On 11 July 2012 over 2,000 farmers protested in London. Other actions have included women bathing in milk in town centres and blockades of processing plants in Leeds, Shropshire and Leicestershire.

Public reaction has been largely positive and the #SOS Dairy hashtag has been a common sight on Twitter. A poll last month by YouGov and The Grocer magazine found that an impressive 83 per cent of the public were aware of the farmers’ protests, with 67 per cent thinking they should be paid more, even if it means milk becomes more expensive to buy.

But British framers have been here before. In 2010 there was a similar crisis after the collapse of the Dairy Farmers of Britain co-operative in 2009, and the loss of more than 1,000 jobs. A campaign was started by the newspaper Farmers Guardian calling for Fairtrade for British Dairy Farmers with a 50,000 strong supporting petition.

Lucy Dunne from the World Development Movement (WDM) pointed out in a recent blog: ‘What is interesting in this debate is that supermarkets agreeing to at least meet the cost of production is hailed as a “victory” for farmers.’ She calls for the current dairy campaign to feed into a bigger and more sustainable, global movement.

The Fairtrade Foundation questions whether their mark or something similar is the answer for British farmers. On their website they recognize the obstacles British farmers are facing, but say farmers in developing countries are likely to have less infrastructural support, social security or other ‘safety nets’ available.

Amy Horton, food justice campaigner at WDM says there is a growing movement that supports Fairtrade, as well as food sovereignty. She uses the example of the Cumbria Fairtrade Networkwhich has been promoting ways to align the principles of Fairtrade with supporting local food producers and local markets.

‘Fairtrade has played an important role in strengthening the movement for trade justice,’ says Horton. But she argues that it doesn’t change the structural and political problems in an unjust food system, and will not bring ‘the more radical overhaul of the food system demanded by the movement for food sovereignty’…

Read the rest at the New Internationalist website.

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The dark side of soya: how one supercrop lost its way

This article was first published in the Ecologist on 1 May 2012.

Once credited with power to prevent cancer and combat high cholesterol, over the last few years, evidence that soya is far from a superfood has begun to emerge. And it’s not just the potentially negative health impact of the bean that has former supporters up in arms: it’s the environmental impact. In the UK we rely heavily on soya, or soy, and it’s not just for vegetarian food. It is a hidden product in many foods and everyday items such as soap. It is a cheap source of protein for people as well as animals and according toGreenpeace, 80 per cent of soya worldwide is used for the livestock industry.  WWF add that the UK consumption alone requires an area the size of Yorkshire to be planted with soya every year. So how did soya go from super crop to super bad?

Deforestation and slavery

Brazil, the second biggest grower and the biggest exporter of soya, is such a big player in the industry that there are major concerns about how this is affecting the Amazon Rainforest. According to Greenpeace, in 2005 around 1.2 million hectares of soya was planted in the Brazilian rainforest. Sarah Shoaka from Greenpeace’s Forest Network says that deforestation has been decreasing on the whole in Brazil since 2008. This is mainly because of the enforcement of a soya moratorium that bans soya produced as a result of deforestation from entering the market place.  However, Shoraka warns that this positive trend may be changing…

Read the full article here at the Ecologist.

No such thing as a free ride

First appeared on the alt.cardiff website on Thursday 14 December.

People on controversial work placements in Wales are working unpaid while unemployed. Critics see this as unfair but supporters argue getting experience is vital

Person working in Primark

In the ‘big society’ there is no place for those who don’t pull their weight, but in Wales there are now 137,000 people unemployed, a record amount.

Jobcentres arrange a variety of work experience to get people back into employment. One of these schemes is Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), where people undertake compulsory unpaid placements, or lose their benefits.

People can be referred to MWA at any time but they have usually been receiving jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for at least 13 weeks. Placements are up to 30 hours a week, for four weeks.

Specialist providers such as A4e and Rehab JobFit are contracted to deliver placements through a variety of businesses and organisations. Since June 2011 Rehab JobFit has provided placements for 349 people in Wales. Over two thirds of these are in South East Wales, for organisations including YMCA and Wales Air Ambulance.

While some see MWA as work people should do for benefits, others see it as slave labour. Public Interest Lawyers have begun legal action against MWAdescribing it as “unlawful forced labour”.

Wasted skills?

It has been reported people doing MWA are forced to work in shops like Poundland and Primark, despite any other skills or experience. But some have managed to get placements suited to them.

Katie Simpson, 23 and living in Cardiff, has done two unpaid work placements during two years of unemployment. She said the first, compulsory and arranged through A4e, was for 13 weeks. She was expected to do 20 hours of work a week and five hours job hunting, but says she did get an extra £15 in JSA. She was also able to work for the Youth Offending Service where she already volunteered.

Bronwen Davis, also living in Cardiff, had been unemployed for 18 months when the jobcentre told her she had to do a work placement. She arranged her own with a music studio. “I don’t think a lot of people realise you can do that, but it can be a good opportunity to go and try something you’re interested in,” she said.

She said through running drumming workshops she learned more about working freelance and became more confident about self employment, which is her aim. “I did feel exploited though,” she said. “The company was getting hundreds of pounds a day and I wasn’t getting paid.”

Learning on the job

Katie’s second placement was with a claims management company and although it wasn’t compulsory she was told she had a strong chance of a job if she took it. “I was pretty reluctant to the idea, the placement was full-time. If I worked there I’d struggle to find any time to search for other positions,” she said.

It went well initially and Katie began to apply for jobs at the company but, “By week six the pressure of the job, with an income of £53 a week, started to take its toll and I took a couple of days off sick,” said Katie, who suffers from depression. When she returned she says she was given a disciplinary.

Katie was given the opportunity to sit on the team she had recently applied for a job with but the manager questioned her on her absences. “I knew this wasn’t strictly legal,” said Katie.

After three months another manager confessed to her that she had no chance of a job. “She said that for every application I had applied for there were more experienced individuals applying,” said Katie.

Katie doesn’t feel the placement was worth the work experience. “I had been talked down to nothing,” she said. “I felt incredibly depressed about my abilities. It’s an experience I would rather forget.”

Katie McCrory, media relations manager for A4e, said, “Lack of experience is one of the main reasons why people get turned down for jobs they apply for.”

Rob Fitt from Rehab JobFit, another provider, said MWA helps people, “establish the discipline and habits of working life, such as attending on time or regularly.” But many people have had previous employment.

Boycott Workfare campaign against compulsory, unpaid work experience. A spokesperson said MWA does not tackle unemployment successfully. “We haven’t received any news of people being offered full time paid positions,” he said.

He says they have no evidence people are being matched with relevant skills. “It seems where retail companies are concerned, people are being mandated to stack shelves,” said the spokesperson.

MWA can be seen as a way for businesses to get free labour at the expense of the state, and taking on paid staff, but some argue it is fair that people should have to work for their benefits. Employment minister, Chris Grayling,has said about work programmes: “No one should expect to be able to sit at home doing nothing.”

But with employment levels at a record high in Wales, and austerity measures taking hold, there is increased frustration that in the ‘big society’ hard work counts for nothing.

The Great Cotton Stitch Up

First appeared at Ctrl.Alt.Shift on December 6 2010

Money given to help EU and US cotton farmers is ruining the chances of the West African cotton industry and distorting the global cotton market, according to a report released last week by the Fairtrade Foundation called The Great Cotton Stitch Up.

The report focuses on four West African countries referred to as ‘the C-4’ (cotton four): Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali, which all rely on cotton more than any other country to make money from exports.

Although the EU only produces 2% of the world’s cotton, its farmers get subsidies of $2.51 per pound of cotton, which is more than the market price. The US and the EU have spent $31.45 billion over the past nine years, which has led to what Fairtrade calls a ‘dampening down’ of cotton prices and reduced demand for West African cotton.

According to Fairtrade the ‘stitch up’ is that, although cotton is the most used natural fibre in the world, countries where it is cheap to produce remain poor and dependent on aid. the reprt claims this is largely down to subsidies to farmers in richer countries. Cotton should be something that helps lift countries like Chad and Mali, where 40% of the population depend on the cotton industry, out of poverty. Fairtrade says this is more likely to happen if the C-4 are on a level playing field with the EU and the US.

In 2001, the Doha Development Round (DDR), negotiations which aimed to create global trade rules that would simulate growth in opportunity and wealth for developing countries, began. However, little has been achieved over the last decade.

Fairtrade admits that if subsidies were eliminated production would decline in countries like the US, but that it would rapidly expand in other countries like the C-4. This argument could lead to criticisms from the ‘we-look-after-our-own’ brigade: why shouldn’t the EU give an advantage to their own farmers? The answer to this would be that EU and US aid to developing countries could be reduced if Southern countries had more economic independence.

The report accuses the EU and US of taking the easy option: giving aid to countries instead of reforming the systems that keep people trapped in poverty. The document states that the original aims of the Doha Round have been ‘glossed over’. It’s well known that a fundamental power imbalance is one of the major issues in the fight against poverty, but Fairtrade hope that the C-4 coalition will strengthen the position of these countries in global negotiations, along with support from countries like India.

The Indian government came under criticism from the US after its government introduced the Minimum Support Price for its cotton farmers after thousands committed suicide over debt. This is, however, despite the fact that the average Indian government assistance is 15 times less than that given to US farmers.

Fairtrade and eliminating subsidies are not the solution to a fairer global system, but they are a good place to start. The power that certain countries have over others is not only unjust but also unsustainable. Radical and lasting changes need to be made to combat global inequality, but while we are pushing for these to happen, any step towards equality is a good thing.

Words: Amy Hall

Download the full report here.