News Update

Spice Up Your Life with Fair Trade

Posted November 25th 2009

“Small World” Column Article for Brandon Sun, Saturday, November 14 2009

By Zack Gross

A recent survey by Fair Trade Manitoba and Probe Research determined that the next food products that most Manitobans wanted available as Certified Fair Trade were bananas and spices. Now, bananas are actually Canada’s most popular fruit – surprisingly for me, a huge apple fan! And you can find fair trade bananas more and more outside the big metropolitan areas like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Fair trade spices are still, however, not easy to find.

There is no denying that spices make eating more interesting. Without a pinch of this or that, potatoes, cabbage, carrots and meat wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying an eating experience! Along with improving taste, especially during the colder months of the year, warming spices such as ginger boost circulation and help us to combat flu and colds.

Scientific study in recent years has led to new discoveries about turmeric’s anti-cancer, immunity-boosting ingredient curcumin, and the fiery painkilling properties of the chili pepper’s ingredient capsaicin. Other top medicinal herbs, say leading East Indian natural health advocates, include cinnamon, for digestion, and saffron for spleen, heart and liver. And it is these Indian spices – cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, pepper and turmeric - that have become the most popular fair trade choices. Not only are packets of such fair trade spices becoming available now, but so also are products such as pastries, that have fair trade spices in them!

In Canada today, one can find certified fair trade and organic spices, but not easily. Equita, Oxfam Quebec’s fair trade outlet, sells a few. But, fair trade spices are already big-time in Europe so it is only a matter of time before they reach Canada. Steenbergs Organic, a family firm established in 2003 and headquartered in Britain, markets 400 fair trade spices, herbs, curry mixes and blends. The Fair Trade Labeling Organization in Europe certified these spices in 2005. Building long-term relationships with producer communities overseas and putting a supply chain together from nothing were the first order of business.

Companies like Steenberg’s not only pay “fair trade” prices, rather than lower “free” market prices, but they also contribute a 10% fair trade “premium” to producers that helps with local education, health care, loans, and improvement of equipment and machinery. The company also ensures, says the Ecologist on-line, that all organic procedures are followed. For instance, as no chemical fumigation or irradiation is done, spices must be cleanly grown and steam sterilized if necessary after testing for microbe levels. The Steenbergs plant also features recycled newspaper insulation, triple-pane windows and low impact machinery to make the whole operation more environmentally sensitive.

The Western World’s discovery of spices dates back to Marco Polo and the caravans of other adventurers traveling from Europe through the Middle East to China, India and back. The control of the spice trade has always resided in the hands of just a few companies, including today McCormick & Company and Tone Brothers. While most spices have been grown by small landholders, these producers – in supplying the big firms – have been vulnerable to fluctuating prices caused by weather patterns, production levels and consumer preferences. As the number of suppliers has grown, the price paid to the producer has dropped, and farmers have found it increasingly difficult to earn a livelihood growing spices.

As an example, due to the introduction of recently booming Vietnamese black pepper production into the market, the price for pepper is now lower than it was in 1990 and indeed falls short of production costs. While some may think of this as a boon to Western markets, we need to realize that a world where food producers are being starved cannot sustain itself.

In the new fair trade producer reality, farmers are organized into cooperatives or associations which they own and govern democratically. A minimum guaranteed price is paid directly to the producer co-ops. Environmental standards restrict the use of agrochemicals and ban genetically modified plants. Pre-harvest lines of credit are given to producer cooperatives if requested, up to 60% of the purchase price. A fair trade premium supports community and cooperative needs and initiatives and no forced or child labour is allowed.

Fair trade is an idea whose time has come! More and more companies are embracing fair trade and more products are now available that support equitable human development and avoid harming the environment. It is up to us, as consumers in Canada where availability of some fair trade products lags behind, to ask our merchants to source these commodities. By championing change, we can make our world a better place and enjoy tasty, healthy foods at the same time.

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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)

Government of ManitobaGlobal Affairs Canada