Last updated: April 2016
Grains of Change
Why are there so few fair trade rice products? Zenen Santana-Delgado at Traidcraift explains why.
There are several different factors at work here. One issue is likely to be the strong trading relations between Europe and the USA, particularly with long-grain rice, which is subsidised by the US government and therefore a difficult market in which small farmers can be successful.
A second issue is perhaps the history of the fair trade movement itself. Fair trade was built significantly on relationships with co-operatives in Latin America, where exports of coffee and bananas are important, but rice is not.
Manee Kananji, member of the Nam Om rice cooperative, Thailand. Photo credit: Zenen Santana-Delgado
Asian farmers, in contrast, are only just beginning to develop relationships with the fair trade movement and adopt patterns of organising farmers that have been so central to developing fair trade supply lines in the past.
Likewise, rice has not been as much of a priority for the European fair trade movement as coffee, chocolate or bananas because its consumption in Europe is relatively low. The European Union buys less than 2 million metric tonnes of rice per year, which is a very small fraction of the 500 million metric tonnes of rice that is produced per year globally, 90% of which comes from Asia.
That said, rice consumption in Europe is growing and the more its importance as a commodity grows the more opportunities there are for Fairtrade certification to have an impact among consumers and to make a difference for farmers and their communities.
So the issue isn’t with rice as a crop, it’s more about the kinds of relationships that fair trade builds?
For various reasons, Asian small farmers have not had the same opportunities to organise and work together as farmers in South America or Africa. Small farmers are often exploited by local traders, who are often also money-lenders. The high interest rates on such loans sometimes mean that farmers must hand over their paddies to the local trader at the end of the season in order to cover their debts.
Traidcraft helps small farmers to organise themselves into associations or cooperatives, which can then borrow money collectively to invest in land, farming equipment or other agricultural supplies. Traidcraft is also a buyer for their crops (at a fair price, plus the Fairtrade premium), yielding profits that can go towards improving the quality of life of farmers and their families, or can be reinvested in their own businesses.
Traidcraft supported a farmer to create a pond filled with fish in the middle of the rice paddy. At night the pond would be lit by a small light, powered by a solar-charged battery, in order to attract insects from the surrounding area, insects that would normally be feeding on the rice plants but instead became food for the fish.
In Thailand, for example, one bank, the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), lends only to cooperatives or farmers’ associations, not to individuals. Until Traidcraft helped rice farmers there organise together as a group they didn’t have access to those funds. Now they do. In other places where farmers’ associations have no access to responsible lenders, Traidcraft itself provides funds to the association, funds which can then be loaned out to members for investment in their rice operations or used to buy rice paddies outright.
This breaks the exploitative relationship between local traders and small farmers, and opens up a sustainable route out of poverty.
Is there a tension between buying Fairtrade rice (or any rice at all) and the environmental impact of transporting rice across the world?
I can understand concerns about consuming rice rather than staple crops grown closer to home, such as potatoes or wheat. But an increasing number of people are allergic to wheat gluten and these people are often turning to rice as an alternative. So it’s a growing market and it’s important to ensure that the market is sustainable for the farmers who are actually producing the rice.
At the same time, though, when you buy Fairtrade rice you are also supporting more environmentally sustainable production methods.
A key pillar of Traidcraft’s work with rice farmers is educating them about the detrimental effects of pesticides and fertilisers, and offering alternative methods for reducing pests and improving productivity that do not involve harmful chemicals. One technique is to keep the area around rice paddies clear of vegetation, reducing the habitat of insects and small animals that would otherwise feed on the rice crop.
Traidcraft basmati rice
Traidcraft sources its basmati rice from family farms in Haryana state in India via the company Agrocel. Agrocel has organised some four hundred farmers and taken them through the Fairtrade certification process. Over time the project has grown to cover over 2,000 acres and the farmers’ association has used the revenue from its premium Fairtrade sales to purchase high-tech agricultural equipment to further enhance their productivity.
Agrocel now provides a one-stop-shop educational and business service, where farmers can get free technical guidance, agricultural supplies and a buyer for their crops, all with the aim of increasing the net earnings of farmers and supporting sustainable agricultural practices.[1,3] In the process it has helped to develop not only Fairtrade rice producers but also Fairtrade cotton, raisin and cashew producers across India.
Traidcraft is currently working with rice farmers in Myanmar to become Fairtrade certified.
Video about Traidcraft's Myanmar work: