Global trade summits must focus on achieving fairer, more sustainable trade

Comment from Alexander Carnwath, Fairtrade Foundation’s Head of Public Affairs and Media Relations

As the World Trade Organization (WTO) gathers in Abu Dhabi this week for its latest ministerial meeting, there is, unfortunately, little sign that the global summit will lead to much tangible benefit for some of the world’s poorest farmers and their families.

In the WTO’s draft text relating to agriculture, there is an acknowledgment of the need to allow countries to support low-income or resource-poor farmers, but that’s about it.

As the Fairtrade Foundation prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ‘FAIRTRADE Mark’ in the UK, there is much to celebrate about the ways in which the British public have played a part in supporting over 2 million Fairtrade farmers and workers to tackle poverty and climate change across Africa, Asia and Latin America – helping them to secure more value from their trade and strengthen their communities.

The scale of the challenge remains huge, though. During Fairtrade’s 30 years of working with those at the end of supply chains, we have seen time and again that the current global trade system is not working. Farmers consistently identify a fair price for their produce as the most important factor in improving their lives. Faced with fluctuating costs and global commodity prices, farmers frequently have to sell at below the cost of production.

The unfair distribution of power within food supply chains is the root cause of these low prices for farmers. A lack of information, collective bargaining power, and access to a range of buyers has made smallholder farmers groups dependent on a small number of buyers and retailers in wealthy countries, who trade with them on terms which deny them a fair value for their produce. The voice of farmers and plantation workers is simply not being heard at high-level talks such as the ones taking place in Abu Dhabi this week.

Meanwhile, crises such as the war in Ukraine and the global pandemic, have exposed the fragility of the food supply chains, leading to empty shelves and food price inflation, without a subsequent rise in income for farmers. These events have revealed to consumers in the UK what has long been a stark reality for farmers:  the unsustainability of the current system. There is an urgent need for change: the future of farmers’ livelihoods, and the availability and affordability of the food that we consume, is at stake.

We need a fair price for farmers that supports the resilience and sustainability of their livelihoods, and their ability to meet their families’ needs, plan for the future and live with dignity. And we need a transparent and equitable system where the rights of farmers to choose how they farm and to critique and set the terms of trade are upheld.

The UK Government has no published trade strategy, while its strategy on agriculture and development dates back to 2015. At Fairtrade Foundation, we urge the Government to create a new trade strategy. We also urge it to use its influence to push for global trade negotiations, such as this week’s WTO summit, to focus less on further liberalisation, and more on how we can achieve fairer, more resilient and more sustainable trade that benefits us all.