Here’s to building back better

COVID-19 has paralysed the world in an unforeseen way. Nonetheless, the rules and regulations which have been set in place (then) have made it possible for us to carefully start to return to our normal lives today. We need to stand still, however, and ask the questions: what does going back to normal mean for the people behind our food? How can we start to rebuild our system consciously, after COVID-19, for the sake of farmers and workers?

The consequences of the world-stopping pandemic were and are still irrefutable for the farmers who produce our food; farmers have had to face social (political) and economic instability as well as uncertainty regarding their produce. A reality which is an exacerbated version of what most small-scale farmers face in their normal lives: unfair pricing, poor working conditions and intransparent supply chains. Is it worth, then, to return to how things were before? Simply because if we put this into context, it means that the COVID-19 pandemic merely exposed a bigger problem that has infected the food supply chain for the longest time.  

Capitalism: the silent pandemic

Trade practices and industries controlled by private owners – rather than the state – with the aim of making profit: basic characteristics of a capitalistic system. A system, which from the agricultural perspective, came full circle once globalisation made its grand entrance in the food business industry. From then on, cheap transportation of raw products became beneficial for companies in the agriculture industry; companies were profiting as they also had access to “cheap labor” from all around the world. As a result, those who farmed the products were not seeing the value of such profitable business. Even customers had little to no overview anymore as to where their products came from. The consequences were catastrophic: food supply chains became long and opaque to serve the system’s profit-generating purpose.

It is these long and opaque food supply chains that still work in the disadvantage of farmers and workers to date. With no overview as to where their products end up or what was done with the raw product, farmers are excluded from the food table; they are delivering an indispensable product, yet they do not see the fruit of their own labour. An example: vanilla farmers in Madagascar earn less than 1 US dollar a day, whilst the vanilla extract is being sold for outrageous prices by retailers. With less than 1 US dollar every day, the farmer does not earn enough to generate a living income. An unavoidable vicious cycle as the farmer becomes dependent on the money.

The pandemic, however, has shown us the unacknowledged heroes behind our food: farmers. Despite not earning enough, farmers were and still are an imperative puzzle piece to keep our food supply chains working during coronatimes. “Governments have identified farmers as part of the essential services, same as the police and healthcare workers. Farmers and their team need to continue to do what they do best, that is, to produce to support the countries,” says Clarke – Executive direction of the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute.

Time for sustainable capitalism

Capitalism is not all bad – at least not the sustainable kind. With sustainable capitalism, we suppose that the sustainability of the capitalistic economy relies on our social and ecological capital; instead of focusing on only making profit, we also focus on the wellbeing of farmers, and our ecological footprint. Slowly, but surely consumers and businesses alike are realising the importance of said sustainable capitalism: “consumers are now more concerned about our climate, and social sustainability: they want to know what and who is behind their sustainable needs and practices,” says Huijgen.

This new form of capitalism should become a way to systematically resist the old traditional ways of conducting business. We have to stand side-by-side as conscious consumers next to our farmers to ensure that they get a seat at the global food table. Something that can only happen once all stakeholders in food supply chains can be, and hold others accountable for their social and ecological sustainability practices. Thus, also including actors who can directly influence our food supply chains from within, think: financial instances, governments and food businesses.

With this purpose in mind, FairTrade Netherlands and Solidaridad gathered co-signators (including Fairfood) to release a motion that calls upon all stakeholders to take responsibility for their end of the bargain. Simply put, the organisations involved want to drive the following point home: “we cannot return to the unsustainable normal. Instead we need to ensure a reconstruction which focuses on resilience, global cooperation and social, economic and environmental sustainability.”

The pandemic has uncovered major pain points in the global food system and has paved the way for real change. Now, more than ever we see the importance of social and ecological sustainability – as responsible consumers and businesses we should act on it. So, while we rebuild our system and are preparing to carefully return to our normal lives, we need to make sure that the opposite happens for the farmers and workers behind our food. They need not return to a life where their farming practices are saturated with unacceptable conditions imposed by an unsustainable capitalistic system. One thing is certain: we need to acknowledge our heroes, give them a place at the global food table, so that they also can see the value of their produce. In the end, the solution is simple, yet challenging: we need to rebuild our system. Only better this time around.  

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