12 October, 2018

CEO Blog: Farmers deserve a seat at the table

Tea growers in China
by By Molly Harriss Olson, CEO of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand

Farmers are the people who put food on our plates. So it’s only fair they get a seat at the table when the future of agriculture is under discussion.

In September I attended ‘Grow Asia’, part of the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN summit in Vietnam. 

The day-long seminar in Hanoi was attended by business leaders and influential figures from across Southeast Asia, addressing the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how technological innovation in food production - Agriculture 4.0 - could be a windfall to the benefit of all farmers worldwide. 

There are already some fascinating examples of these cutting-edge developments, such as Blockchain’s capacity to increase the transparency of supply chains, and farmers using 3D printing to create good quality tools, quickly and cheaply. 

The market for drones has expanded rapidly as farmers use them for planting, crop spraying and irrigation, as well as real-time monitoring. Mobile communications, meanwhile, can improve farmers’ understanding of the land they farm and the markets they sell to, while also allowing them to communicate with and learn from each other. 

Digital technology and communications are vital enablers for producers to consolidate bargaining power in ‘digital cooperatives’ - collectively negotiating better prices and improving the flow of goods and services.

It was a great session, however it also bears mentioning that developing and transferring technology alone will not necessarily tackle yield gaps, reduce waste, or empower smallholder farmers to improve their livelihoods. 

A significant proportion of the world’s food supply is produced by 500 million smallholder farming households.

Some of these farmers live in absolute poverty, while many others are trapped in a vicious cycle of absent opportunity. Smallholder farmers are often the last to access innovation. Therefore we can’t expect them to take up all of these technological advances quickly and on their own. Fairtrade works to change that. 

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds, we need to focus on how the benefits are shared with the most disadvantaged and marginalised people in the world, the ones who most need access to new opportunities and innovation. 

With this in mind, I noticed something was missing during the seminar: there was not a single farmer in the room. And the voice of farmers is critical to the success of transforming these systems. 

We were using the right words, and talking about the right issues, but if we want to achieve the right outcomes, and enable discussions like these to be truly transformative, we also need to get the right people at the table.

Fairtrade already seeks to fundamentally change the conditions of trade that perpetuate poverty and inequality. More than a trading partnership, Fairtrade is itself an empowerment mechanism that is 50 percent-owned by producers.

The Fairtrade system enables farmers to become active agents of their own development; and it is the only non-government, globally scaled trade framework that has transparency and consequences for breaking the rules of the system. 

For these reasons, the Fairtrade approach is underpinned by many of the ingredients essential to enabling smallholder farmers to engage with the opportunities Agriculture 4.0 affords and we will continue to work with farmers to help ensure they have access to emerging technologies, information and opportunities for the benefit of all producers worldwide.

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