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Why we should buy more from developing countries and other tips on pro-poor shopping

March 2, 2009
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My long-suffering research team colleague Richard King has a paper out today that will hopefully ruffle a few feathers. It argues that how we shop, what we eat, and what we throw away are becoming frontline issues in the effort to tackle climate change. In the UK, we need to change how and what we consume, while helping people living in poverty around the world to improve their lives. The paper sets out four ways (‘4 a week’) in which active citizens can adapt their consumption to achieve both environmental and social sustainability and justice:

1. waste less

2. eat less meat and dairy;

3. buy more Fairtrade products;

4. buy more produce from developing countries.

No prizes for guessing which one is most likely to get some flak – buying more from developing countries. Good to see Oxfam getting stuck into debunking the seductive but ultimately dangerous allure of the food miles argument. Here’s the executive summary:

‘Food shopping may seem an innocent, even mundane, chore. But the food we buy every week can have huge impacts on people and environments seemingly worlds away from our regular dash round the shops. The futures of some of the world’s poorest people and of the global environment are intimately linked to the contents of our shopping baskets.

Our food choices can provide a vital source of income for millions of poor farmers and workers around the world. But our food choices also affect climate change – around one-fifth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK are related to the food we buy. If unchecked, climate change will increasingly undermine global food production, reverse decades of development, and increase poverty and suffering around the world. Our current use of the world’s resources is unsustainable; we are rapidly entering an age of scarcity (of fertile land, of water, of energy, and of atmospheric resources). If the world’s poorest people are to realise their right to development then rich countries will have to dramatically reassess their consumption patterns. We must all consume our food in a way that guarantees both environmental and social justice.

But what should consumers actually do? Many people in the UK recognise that changing how they consume can make a difference, but we are constantly bombarded with complex and conflicting advice on making ethical food choices. This paper cuts through the confusion to show how four simple actions every week can help guarantee a healthier planet and a better future for some of the world’s poorest people. The 4-a-week are:

1 Waste less food
Every year the UK throws away over three times more food than the whole world provides in food aid to hungry people. Much food is wasted in food supply chains, but a third of all wasted food is thrown away by consumers: as households we bin one-third of all the food we buy. Eliminating unnecessary household food waste could reduce GHG emissions by the equivalent of taking one in every five cars off UK roads.

We can all help to ensure less food is wasted by not overbuying food that we will not eat before its use-by date, and by being more resourceful with leftovers. This will save money and avoid environmental damage for people across the globe. Businesses, too, must play their part by sourcing food responsibly and ensuring their purchasing practices are not contributing to overproduction or excessive packaging.

2 Reduce consumption of meat and dairy products
Growing demand for meat and dairy products affects both people and planet. Global meat and milk production is expected to double by 2050. This is likely to reduce the land and resources available for producing other foodstuffs and push future food prices further beyond the limits of affordability for the world’s poorest people. With livestock already contributing more GHG emissions to the atmosphere than all of the world’s transport combined, reducing demand for meat and dairy produce is perhaps the most significant action that we can take to reduce the impact of food production on both people and planet.

3 Buy Fairtrade produce
Fair Trade has been an amazing success story, transforming the lives and prospects of millions of poor producers, and educating new generations of Northern consumers in issues of social responsibility and globalisation. Fair Trade pays poor producers a fair and stable price and enables them to invest in projects to support their wider communities. As a result, they are able to improve their business and marketing skills, send their children to school, and if they choose, diversify their businesses away from farming. Yet despite extraordinary growth and retailers offering an increasingly wide choice of Fairtrade products, Fair Trade remains a relatively small market. On its own, it can’t fully address the crisis faced by millions of small-scale farmers and workers whose livelihoods are threatened by volatile commodity prices and unfair competition from rich countries. For these people, access to high-value mass markets such as the UK can be vital for escaping from poverty.

4 Buy other foods from developing countries
Concern is increasingly being raised about the environmental implications of sourcing food from distant countries. While we all need to be concerned about the environmental impacts of the food we buy, we should not be boycotting produce from developing countries. Here’s why:

First, the UK imports only a small proportion of its food from developing countries, and this trade provides vital incomes for millions of poor farmers and workers – 1.5m in Africa alone. Some people argue that developing countries should be growing their own food rather than exporting it, but there is clear evidence that agro-exports improve poor people’s income and food security.

Second, the distance food travels provides a poor measure of its total environmental impact. Because emissions are generated throughout food’s lifecycle from ‘farm to fork’, and not just by transporting it, switching food sources to reduce ‘food miles’ does not guarantee a reduction in the volume of emissions; transport accounts for just 12 per cent of food’s emissions. Although labour conditions and contracts in developing countries are not always as stable or as fair as they should be, these will not be improved through boycotting food from poor countries. Instead consumers should buy produce from developing nations and pressurise supermarkets and other buyers to ensure that the rights of workers in their supply chains are protected and to guarantee fair prices, reasonable lead times on orders for produce, and stable contracts.’


  1. Of course, the problem is that the farmer receives a tiny percentage of the final selling price. Hence when you are buying a fairtrade product which has a significant premium, you have to start asking yourself whether it would have been more efficient just to give the farmer the difference rather than reward multinationals for selling something with a fairtrade mark.

    Fairtrade farmers might be better off than non-fairtrade farmers in the same country, but are still really really poor. Fairtrade is never going to make the real changes we actually want to see.

    We need to be more dependent on our own resources, and agencies like oxfam should be rather less keen on models that expose the most vulnerable people in the world to vagaries of the international market.

  2. Hello Duncan. me again. I will try to be less harsh with my comments today!

    The article above asks us to buy more from developing countries in a way to reduce poverty and tackle climate change.

    But I reckon that buying more from developing countries increases climate change (transporting the goods, production chain energy increases etc). I also reckon that buying more produce from developing countries also does not reduce poverty but allows for increases in reliance.

    Pick any “developed” country, go to their supermarket and pick up randomly any five products. Find out where it is made. It is more or less always made in the country. Duncan on your recent trip to South Africa maybe you noticed this?

  3. Great post.
    It is fundamental to make most of these things clear to the consumers of developed countries.

    Even if fair trade is vague and not at all a serious solution.

    I believe that fair trade is a foolish thing result of total alienation of consumers to what is sold in their markets. A sort of guilt tax paid by rich consumers that on the end gives more money to European fair trade certification companies than to producers.

    What is a fair in a trade? How can you say or I say what is a fair price? What is fair in summer is not fair in winter. It is so wrong to defend fair trade as solution for anything.



  4. Hi Shupiwe

    You may ‘reckon that buying more from developing countries increases climate change’ but the evidence doesn’t support your opinion and I’m much more interested in what actually causes climate change and addressing that, than what people (wrongly) perceive causes climate change.

    Perhaps you should read the report.

  5. Sorry Rachel, I am obviously not intellectual enough for you. And you obviously are keen to close debate on the causes of these problems seeing as you already know what is right.

    I will keep my humble African opinion away from this blog in future.

  6. Joe: the most vulnerable people in the world aren’t exposed to the ‘vagaries of the international market’ – I’m sure many of them would love to have access to higher value markets – I don’t see how turning our back on poor farmers is going to help make ‘the real changes we actually want to see’ – quite the opposite.

    Joe & Claudia: The Fairtrade premium paid to farmers doesn’t necessarily result in higher in-store prices, farmers are guaranteed their premium whatever retailers choose to charge – this factsheet from the Fairtrade Foundation is useful. If you’ve got any suggestions for a ‘more efficient’ mechanism, it’d be good to hear them.

    Of course FT will never be the whole solution, as the report seems to suggest, but it’s a concrete and ‘serious’ start that many farmers have seen huge benefits from.

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