Update from the Executive Director

6 May 2013

Five Fairfood Hotspots in full swing

This year, Fairfood International continues its advocacy watchdog role in the food and beverage industry by focusing on particular food sectors in specific countries around the world where our research partners have identified critical food sustainability issues. We refer to them as food issue “hotspots”: pineapples in the Philippines, tomatoes in Morocco, vanilla in Madagascar, sugarcane in Nicaragua, and shrimp in Thailand. At the moment, we are engaging in investigative research with partners and field visits with producers and workers in these hotspots. We aim to not only ensure that the voices of vulnerable people in these hotspots are heard, but that together we encourage food and beverage companies to address the social, environmental and economic issues associated with their products’ supply chains. Follow all the latest news from our hotspots on Facebook and Twitter

In the Philippines, our campaigners are working hard to encourage greater transparency and accountability from the handful of big food companies who control the pineapple sector in Mindanao. Direct engagement with these companies (e.g. Dole, Del Monte, Itochu) is commencing. Amongst other issues, our campaigners will be focusing on ensuring fair income and conditions for pineapple plantation farmers and workers in Mindanao, as well as the elimination of toxic chemicals that affect the rich biodiversity of Mindanao and the health of its people. While intensive agriculture ensures that the pineapples they sell to consumers in European and US supermarkets are very cheap, this comes at the expense of both the people and the local environment of this beautiful island. Farmers and workers remain trapped in a cycle of poverty due to insufficient income and income insecurity. This is unacceptable.

Together with our partner research team in the SoussMassaDrâa region of Morocco, we are investigating the working conditions of tomato workers producing the fresh tomatoes we buy from our local shops. We have already learned that workers in this region are paid pitifully low wages, they work long hours with little or no safety equipment and reside in derelict housing. Furthermore, workers involved in labour unions are often subject to threats, harassment and dismissal. Our campaigners seek to highlight these critical labour issues and encourage the predominantly European food companies sourcing from these production units, to improve those conditions.

Following a successful two-week visit to partners, producers and workers in the Sava region of Madagascar where vanilla is grown, Fairfood has gained startling insight into the poverty and hardship endured by farmers and workers in this hotspot. Most of the vanilla used in the profusion of products available in our supermarkets is sourced from Madagascar. In addition, while vanilla farmers are trying to make a living on the island, unfair trade activities threaten to decimate the market. In many cases, vanilla substitutes are used but products are mislabelled and sold as 100% vanilla to unsuspecting consumers. This is a very contentious issue for farmers who produce high quality vanilla and get very little money for their produce despite the fact that vanilla is the second-most expensive spice in the world.

Our Nicaragua campaign team has also commenced its investigative research into activities in the sugarcane sector in Nicaragua and other Central American countries. We already know that sugarcane workers receive very poor wages and suffer unhealthy and unsafe working conditions such as unreasonably long working hours in extreme heat which causes dehydration. Another key issue is Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) which is currently afflicting and killing sugarcane workers in Nicaragua and throughout Central America. While there is still no scientific confirmation, it is suspected that the disease is a result of a continuous exposure to heat stress and dehydration during heavy work in a hot climate. Precarious workers involved in harvesting are the hardest hit by this disease. These workers receive low wages and endure appalling working conditions, lack of social benefits and the denial of their trade union rights. Estimates show that 85% of field and 40% of the refinery workforce at one of the four big milling companies in Nicaragua consist of precarious workers.

I am also very pleased to share with you that our team is now actively working on ensuring sustainability in Thailand’s shrimp industry. Part of our campaign team is based in Bangkok, close to the province of Samut Sakhon, the heartland of the Thai fishing industry. Thailand accounts for the majority of shrimp imported by EU and US food companies. In fact, Thailand exports roughly around USD 2 billion annually. ’The land of smiles’ is one of the largest shrimp producers in the world but the industry is also associated with social and environmental issues, such as bonded labour and pollution. In the coming weeks the research team will dive in the sustainability issues of the Thai shrimp industry and keep you posted about what they get their hooks on…

In the coming period, all our campaign teams will update you with more insights into their work in the hotspots. We will also need your active support to bring about change in these sectors and other new ones, therefore I encourage you to please join us and keep in touch with our work and campaigns via Facebook and Twitter.