Squeezing money from geography

Travel often brings with it a taste for foods that consumers encounter while they are away from home. This broader view of food and drink gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th century, as shoppers started asking for avocado pears, a wider range of pizza and pasta products, not to mention a tidal wave of Asian foods that have been greeted with open arms and either adopted or adapted to British tastes. Many Indian foods have found their way to Britain over the centuries and some, like tea, became national institutions.

It is time to look at the historical context of moving food around the world and look at the topics of food security and self sufficiency. During the latter years of the twentieth century, Britain was about 50% self sufficient: the official headline figure was closer to 65%, but since UK food manufacturers import a variable proportion of their ingredients, these shipments should be taken into account. The impact of two world wars on the domestic economy of Britain leaves a residual malaise and feeling that the UK “…ought to do better…” at producing its own food, notably among older generations.

There is an array of variables that define the economic environment in which food is produced, some of which can be covered now. The first is the colonial plantation paradigm in which overseas territories are ruled and exploited solely to produce commodity crops for colonial powers. Britain, Holland, Spain and Portugal come to mind as historic colonisers, shipping plant material and slave labour in to strategic locations, usually between the tropics. Feeding the work force was a low priority, but was usually a part of the operational model.

Down the intervening centuries this practice continued, developing into what is now referred to as landgrabbing. The topic is extensively documented by Fred Pearce, author of The Land Grabber. The 2012 book can be bought as a paperback or a download here. As the name suggests, land is bought or leased and fenced off. This has been practiced by countries such as China and a number of Arab states. The enclosed land is brought into cultivation usually by nationals from the states concerned and the crops are shipped to these countries as they are harvested. Local populations are excluded from these holdings, which are often of the highest quality available locally.

While this is a modern, pernicious practice, it is not without historical precedent. Irish Quaker and philanthropist Joseph Fisher was a poor law commissioner during the Irish potato famines of the 1840s. From his family home, overlooking the approach to Cork harbour, Fisher recalled seeing ships setting sail bound for English ports. These vessels were laden with grain grown and harvested by starving labourers in the surrounding counties. Fisher went on to write the 1865 book Where Shall We Get Meat? As it happened, shiploads of cheap grain started crossing the Atlantic, as the American railroad system reached the eastern seaboard and started a sea change in European livestock sectors. The entire history of North America to that point is itself dominated by a high profile land grab in which indigenous American peoples were marginalised by settlers and farmers.

The buying power of remote markets can have an immediate impact on the food security of rural populations. This is a measure not of aggregate harvests, but their availability for local communities.

Stiff fines no deterrent

Sea cucumber. Pic: public domain.

Criminals fishing for sea cucumber to the south of Japan are ignoring the increasingly harsh penalties for their coveted catch. Japanese police arrested five poachers with a 625 kg catch of sea cucumbers last week. Valued at around 10,000 pounds, the haul was one of the largest in recent years. Sea cucumber is an overfished delicacy that faces sharp declines in population if current levels of exploitation continue. Unfortunately, there is no reliable way of calculating the sustainability of surviving stocks.

The Indore project

Sir Albert Howard,
pic Wikimedia

Between the wars, Sir Alfred Howard was the director of the Institute of Plant Technology Indore. Later hailed as a guiding spirit of the organic movement, Howard’s vision of agriculture was one of interlocking sub systems that functioned as an integrated whole.

Between 1924 and 1931, Howard perfected the Indore process, naming it after the state in Central India where he had been working. The Indore process takes animal and/or human waste and combines it with vegetable waste to generate field-ready humus in just four weeks. The process runs at such a high temperature range that bacteria and insect larvae are literally cooked to death.

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FairTrade week

Yes, this week is FairTrade week, when a growing number of ethically-traded products take centre stage in retail premises up and down the country. To be sure, the FairTrade movement works hard and has achieved a lot for growers all over the world.

Many of the core FairTrade range of products were first grown on plantations, the building blocks of forced labour. British-owned tea plantations in the 19th century responded to the abolition of slavery by ejecting former slaves and bringing in cheap, indentured labour from China and elsewhere in Asia. Slavery by another name, it can be argued.

The much-argued over compensation that was paid out in the years following slavery’s abolition went to the slave-owners, to compensate for their lost profits. At that time, nobody thought to compensate the former slaves or their families for the upheaval and loss caused by the wholesale removal of men and women with working lives ahead of them, who were taken halfway round the world to work on sugar plantations or the like.

The building of today’s FairTrade movement marks a welcome change in how the world views food producers. It would be easy to overlook the origins of so many products before the the widespread recognition of ethical trading as a commercial policy in its own right.

pic: FairTrade

There are more than 10,000 small-scale banana growers around the world, for whom FairTrade premiums earned GBP 31.8 million in 2020. The large-scale plantations of Latin America and elsewhere can still make economies of scale that get them preferential terms for everything from growing costs to shipping and distribution. But their existence is not a direct threat to FairTrade growers on the scale they once were, during a time when the average asking price for bananas in UK supermarkets dropped from 18p to 11p apiece.

There are 1.9 million FairTrade food producers around the world, earning a living growing tea, coffee, cocoa and a wide range of other agricultural products. In 2020, 1,880 producer organisations earned GBP 169 million in FairTrade premiums. The visibility of FairTrade products make it a successful brand with a strong appeal to consumers.