Fair Trade Kenyan Green Beans – net good thing?

Mavis the Fat Fairy asked:

“Always intrigued about fair trade green beans from Kenya. The fact that they are flown in from Kenya scores negative points for environmental impact. But they are fair trade, so doesn’t that mean I should support them, and encourage more fair trade in supermarkets, but what if land is given over for fair trade cash crops that should be used for more sustainable farming….So fair trade Kenyan green beans, are they a net good thing or not?”

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Not just yummy, Green Beans are one of your five a day
Photo used with permission by Samuel Cheney (Via morgueFile)

The straight forward answer is – it is a personal choice, depending on what is important to you; so consider these four factors and work out the net ‘goodness’ from your own perspective.

  • Carbon aka climate change
  • Development
  • Water
  • Fair Trade

Go straight to the summary

Or to have your question answered go to ‘What should I write about‘.

Carbon aka climate change

(Note I will use Carbon to mean Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Dioxide Equivalents, as it is easier on the eyes)

Yes, flying beans from Kenya creates a lot of Carbon and if carbon impact was as simple as food miles then Carbon would be a clear negative for imported green beans.  But, the food miles debate is one-sided and distorts our understanding of Carbon impact, it is now largely discounted (did you know it was initially promoted in the UK through a campaign by the Farmer’s Weekly magazine?).  It is not enough to consider how far food has travelled because food production in the UK, indeed all Western nations, is Carbon intensive.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/49/Flag_of_Kenya.svg/200px-Flag_of_Kenya.svg.png
The Kenyan flag
Via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The Carbon arguments for food imports from developing nations

In the West we use oil powered equipment vs In Africa most farms depend on manual labour

In the West we use hydrocarbon based fertilisers vs In Africa most farmers use the free fertiliser produced by cows (both produce Nitrous Oxide which is about 300 more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, but the cows were doing that anyway)

In the West ‘out of season’ foods are grown in heated greenhouses vs In Africa the sun is enough

In the West growing seasons are prolonged with the use of polytunnels vs In Africa the sun is enough

The Carbon arguments against food imports from developing nations

In the West crop yields are three to four times greater than in Africa

Airfreight is sometimes in the ‘belly’ of passenger planes, thus reducing the cost of, and encouraging more, flights

Can we be more scientific about this?

To be scientific we need to compare the Carbon produced by both the UK and Kenyan supply chains, but this is difficult for two reasons, so even though I provide a number here, you might choose to take it with a pinch of salt.

  • When calculating Carbon we have to decide how to manage the data.  In the Netherlands two studies using the same data about importing flowers from Africa drew opposing conclusions because they used the data differently.
  • In his book ‘How Bad are Bananas’ Mike Berners-Lee discusses when to stop attributing Carbon to individual items, in his example he asks whether to add the Carbon produced in the manufacture of the paper clips used in an office, to the Carbon calculation for the output of a factory.  In the case of Green Beans we could debate endlessly whether to include the personal carbon footprint of the farmer.
beans_energy
The energy required to grow, package and transport Green Beans – UK vs Kenya

In 2011 PIP, a European forum, issued a report about Food Miles, Carbon and African Horticulture, this report shows that 59 MJ more energy is used to produce Kenyan Green Beans than UK Green Beans.  This is equal to 12 Kg of Carbon per Kg of Kenyan Green Beans.  As mentioned earlier, you might disagree with some of the assumptions made and want to take other factors into consideration.

It is worth noting that for other food stuffs the Carbon arguments are different, for example apples in cold storage in the UK create more Carbon emissions than apples flown from New Zealand.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Star_Air_%28Maersk%29_767-200F_OY-SRL.jpg
Air Freighter
Via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons

Other Carbon thoughts

Carbon trading; in Africa the average Carbon emission per person is 1/30 of that in the UK.  In a Carbon trading scheme – if all else remains equal – Africa could trade the Carbon emissions of flying food to Europe and still produce less Carbon per person than the amount that damages the environment.

There are many other ways of reducing your Carbon foot print which are much more effective than avoiding Kenyan Green Beans, here are a few examples*:

  • In 1996 agriculture bought 0.1% of airfreight capacity – banking and finance bought 157 times as much – ask your bank what they are doing about airfreight
  • A kilogram of beef releases 36.4Kg  of carbon – eat less meat
  • Flying to Barcelona from London releases the same Carbon as 420 packets of Green Beans (250g), flying to New York from Liverpool uses the energy that could fly 1,200 packets of Green Beans – fly less
  • The Carbon released by one packet of Beans will fuel 12 school runs – pool with other parents or educate your children nearer to home
  • Driving 6.5 miles to the supermarket emits more CO2 than airfreighting one bag of beans from Kenya – car share or buy on-line
  • According to the World Bank flying in 1st class has three times the Carbon emissions of Business, which in turn has three times the emissions of economy – if you have to fly, fly in economy
  • Sea freight uses much less energy than air freight, but vegetables are refrigerated and will still not be as ‘fresh’ when they arrive (it was never going to be an easy choice)

*All these numbers and their sources can be found in the links throughout this article or in the additional reading below

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Octeto.png
Structural diagram of Carbon Dioxide
Via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons

Development

The UK has a policy of trade not aid, when you read stories about the way that aid is sometimes spent irresponsibly or stolen this seems like a logical approach.  Countries like Kenya welcome trade and, unlike aid, the money paid for Green Beans goes directly to the farmer.  Once farmers take on an export licence they start to buy their own food from other farmers.  Taken positively this ensures that money trickles down the community; from a negative perspective farmers are forced to displace subsistence crops for cash crops.  Both arguments are valid, though the latter is mitigated by Fair Trade.

Another positive for development is that farmers are encouraged to find better ways of producing food from their land.  The exporting farmers share the techniques and skills developed to grow Green Beans with other farmers and use the same skills to improve farming for other crops.  Our demands for static, if not reducing, food prices produce the downside of development.  To reduce transaction costs some Western buyers of food promote the development of ‘Industrial Estate’ farming, this disengages small farmers from the market (and increases Carbon).

Water

The UK uses 189 million litres of African Water to get its out of season vegetables.  Given the impact of lack of water and poor sanitation has on people in all developing nations, it would seem that a good way to balance our use of their water would be to support one of the many charities that are seeking to make sure that everyone in the world has access to clean water – for example WaterAid or Toilet Twinning

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/77/SiphonTubes.JPG
Irrigation – the primary use of water in agriculture
Via WikiMedia Commons, public domain

Fair Trade

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/R%C3%A4ttvisem%C3%A4rkt.jpg
The Swedish Fair Trade logo
Via WikiMedia Commons, Public Domain

In Mavis’ question she asked if land was being given over to cash crops that should be used for sustainable farming.  Cash crops are those grown only for sale and in many developing countries the allure of cash crops has resulted in subsistence farmers relying on the income.  When the income fails people can lose their land and could starve.  At the same time cash crops are necessary to buy goods, services (eg health care) and education.  Fair Trade was founded to counter balance the potential for harm that comes from cash crops – in the words of the Fair Trade Foundation (UK).

“Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives.”

Malawian farmers can be seen here talking about the impact of Fair Trade on their lives and communities.

While Fair Trade doesn’t impact the carbon effects of flying food from Africa, it does make sure that the positive benefits of trade are genuinely delivered, including environmental benefits.  It is worth noting that many farmers involved in Fair Trade comment on the improved availability of water and sanitation.

In summary

Carbon aka climate change impact

  • Negative, seek to reduce your footprint elsewhere to balance this factor

Development

  • Positive, will definitely remain so for Fair Trade farmers

Water

  • Negative, offset by supporting a water charity

Fair Trade

If you have a burning question and not enough time to find the answer, post your question here ‘What should I write about‘.

Additional reading

The Independent newspaper reports Kenyan Green Beans arriving in UK supermarkets for the first time

Waitrose and PIP show the source of the food on Waitrose shelves

A handy Carbon equivalents calculator – limited input units

Convert energy units into kilowatt hours so that you can use the calculator above

Pictures from WikiMedia Commons and morgueFile

By the way, this is what the Fair Trade foundation says about local vs Fair Trade

“Some people say ‘buy local’ rather than ‘buy Fairtrade’. What is the Fairtrade Foundation’s response?

The Fairtrade Foundation recognises that many farmers in the UK face similar issues to farmers elsewhere, not least ensuring that they get a decent return for upholding decent social and environmental standards in their production. We therefore support the promotion of sustainable production for UK farmers but our specific role will continue to be supporting farmers from the developing world.

Fairtrade isn’t in competition with UK farmers and the purchase of locally produced and Fairtrade products are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Fairtrade focuses by and large on tropical agricultural products such as coffee and bananas that can’t be grown in temperate climates or products that can’t be grown in sufficient quantities in the EU e.g. grapes and oranges. For some items such as honey and flowers, local supply is not able to meet the total demand – it has been estimated that both UK flowers and honey account for less than one-third of the UK market – and so imports are necessary to keep up with consumers’ shopping preferences. Other products, such as apples, are seasonal in both the UK and places like South Africa, and for as long as shoppers want to buy apples out of season, there is a demand for fruit from other countries. Often the choice facing shoppers is not necessarily between local honey and Fairtrade certified honey but between Fairtrade honey and conventional honey imported from, say, the US or China. It is up to each person to weigh up these choices and shop accordingly.

Ultimately, it is up to each person to do what they see as being in the interests of people and the planet. What is important is that we all try to make informed choices wherever possible. The Fairtrade Foundation is committed to raising awareness of ways in which buying products carrying the FAIRTRADE Mark is empowering and strengthening the future for disadvantaged producers in developing countries.”

If you have a burning question and not enough time to find the answer, post your question here ‘What should I write about‘.

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4 thoughts on “Fair Trade Kenyan Green Beans – net good thing?

  1. It’s fab. Thank you so much. And interesting point about the apples – thought I was doing so well avoiding NZ / South African apples, I honestly thought the UK ones were just sitting in a barn somewhere.
    Oops, still good intentions! xxx

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  2. Glad you found it useful Mavis. Re apples, I was also surprised (though American novels about the pioneers always describe stored apples as wrinkled, so I guess I should have known!), don’t forget the UK apple season runs from September to May, so do buy British then.

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    1. Sorry I didn’t get back to you Sam, I wasn’t working on this site for a while. You asked two great questions:
      Approximately, how much green beans are imported from Kenya. To answer this I turned to gov.uk, it has lots of statistics although it can be a bit frustrating finding good data.
      According to Defra, in 2013 the UK imported £449 million of fresh and chilled vegetables. (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/overseas-trade-in-food-feed-and-drink). It does not break this data down further, but major food groups are counted separately, so I think this is the kind of veg we get from Africa. Now while we are a big customer to Kenya, it is not a major exporter to us. So only a tiny chunk of that money will be Kenyan Green Beans, however, the same principles apply to all this food.

      You also ask if I can list the advantages and disadvantages to buying green beans from Kenya.

      Advantages to the UK
      Out of seasonal food
      Cheaper food

      Disadvantages to the UK
      Carbon emissions and air borne pollutants such Nox

      Advantages to Kenya
      Income (in a hard currency)

      Disadvantages to Kenya
      While the Kenyans grow food for us, they are not growing food for themselves

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