This program was made possible with financial support of the Government of Manitoba,
and was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada (GAC)
Posted March 18th 2009
Rice is one of our planet’s staple crops. Three billion people – half the population of Earth – depend on rice, with 400 million metric tonnes produced and consumed every year. A billion people in rural areas of developing countries are involved in rice production and only Antarctica, of all the continents, does not grow rice. Yet, until recently, like many other important globally-traded crops, such as coffee, tea and sugar, rice has been associated, where it has been produced, with poverty and environmental destruction, rather than wealth and health.
The average North American eats about twenty pounds of rice per year, but this statistic is growing as the wealthy parts of the world become more multicultural and consumers discover the many varieties of rice (jasmine, basmati) that they were unaware of previously. Overall, rice consumption accounts for 20% of humanity’s caloric intake, yet rice producers often cannot provide a decent living for their families. As with other commodities, this has led to the growth of the fair trade system in order improve economic, social and environmental conditions. Fair trade means a fair wage to workers, safe and clean working conditions and no child labour, and minimized harm to the environment.
By far, most rice – 90% - is produced for domestic use. It is produced on small farms by hand or with relatively unsophisticated machinery. With the growth of “globalization” in its worst sense – exploitive trade policies that give the rich an insurmountable advantage over the poor - the shipment of cheap American and European rice into the Global South has greatly threatened the livelihood of millions of subsistence farmers. Genetically modified varieties of rice (GMOs) have also been replacing traditional varieties, making life for small Third World farmers that much more difficult.
Farming with chemicals, particularly in countries with few safety regulations or training, causes the health of workers, their soil and their water to be sacrificed. Fields are sprayed while workers are vulnerable to the effects. Concerns, from rashes to cancers, are a constant concern. As more than 50% of fair trade rice is organic, the health of both producer and consumer is more assured. As well, fair trade rice is not genetically modified.
Today, on International Women’s Day, it is important to say that the world’s women are, along with their children, the most negatively affected by conventional production. Whether it is in rice fields or coffee plantations, women are overworked and underpaid, vulnerable to sexual abuse, and powerless to defend themselves in traditional societies. It is no different in industrial and urban situations, where they might be making clothing, carpets or sports equipment. The fair trade system is designed to give women a shorter work day, better pay and treatment, and a say in the affairs of their workplace.
Fair trade also addressed the issues that small farmers face within the commercial system. Dealing with “middlemen” and loan sharks, rice farmers are subject to short-weighing of their shipments and other forms of corruption. Small family farms are organized into cooperatives or associations owned and governed by the farmers themselves. Producer groups demand a guaranteed price, with up to 50% of the purchase price often paid as a pre-harvest credit. As well, they may have their own mills, scales and other equipment, allowing them to control their business.
A “fair trade premium” means that 10% of the selling price for rice or any other commodity is designated for community projects. This may include the building of schools or health centres. It is also often used for community loans in fair trade rice production, so that farmers can buy machinery or buy seed in order to expand into new crops. Ultimately, what all Third World producers want is to ensure that they, their children and their communities are progressing economically and sustainably, and providing health care and education.
Fair trade rice is a new product on many store shelves in the “developed” world. It is not always easy to find and still is relatively expensive. However, along with dried fruit and nuts, flowers and grains - as well as what are commonplace fair trade items today (coffee, tea and chocolate) - a niche market has grown from seemingly nothing, and soon will start to crowd out those “other brands” as fair trade sales continue to grow at 50% annual rates.