Over the Christmas-New Year period, I was reading the Economist magazine and read an article about the negative aspects of “organic” and “fair-trade” produce.  It argued that supporting these initiatives was actually making the situation worse.  (A gin and a warm afternoon on the porch produced the following.)

In their defence, it must be said that I can not disagree with the assertion that “organic” production requires significantly more land to produce the same quantity of produce.  (More on quality later.)  But I do have some reservations about the assertion that “fair-trade” by giving higher prices to primary producers, encourages them to stay in production when the real problem is over-production.

Now when I look at “fair-trade” as it is applied in the coffee industry here, I see a different picture.  In a perfect world, these “over-producing” farmers would switch overnight into producing something more “valuable”.  They would go to the bank and convince the bank to give them a loan which would start paying them back in (say) 3 years.  They might mortgage their land, do some re-education on their new crop etc. etc.

But what if you don’t own the land (so have no asset), your house is a hut made from palm trees, you only went to school for 2 years when you were a kid and you barely have enough food to eat as it is.  And you have never seen a bank and your government is in no position to help you out.

So “fair-trade” offers you a 5 cents per pound premium on the free market price – hardly a rip-off if this amounts to way less than 1 cent for each coffee in a “free world” coffee shop.  And because it is called “fair-trade”, somebody else markets it that way and actually gets a 20% premium on the final bean price.  So in order to get that 5 cents to the producer, you are probably paying a middleman many times that.

The reality is that the typical coffee producer is low-paid, lowly educated, poorly fed and a totally unworldly part of the supply chain and as a result, is shafted by the big middlemen.  I will guess the banana industry is just the same.  In other words, the Economist argument applies in a “perfect market” – one where the cost of fair entry to that market is closer to equal.

So what’s this gotta do with tomatoes.  This will be subject to a later article, but basically, the tomatoes you buy here in Dili are gnarled unevenly coloured and often soft or split specimens.  They are organic as use of artificial fertilisers is almost unknown here.  They are not products of carefully controlled irrigation systems, not in hot houses and are probably wrenched out of dry scabby soil.  But they taste like real tomatoes.  They are exquisite.  Not the cardboardy equivalents seen now in the western world – products of automated systems, hot houses and controlled temperature warehouses.

One day, I can just imagine western kids getting a taste of a Dili tomato and complaining “yuk, this is not a tomato … it’s not perfectly round … it’s got yukky green bits and some spots … it’s rubbish”.  And to think tomatoes are rejected in the western world if they are not uniform in size, colour, firmness and cardboard taste.

Yeah, lets get rid of those unproductive coffee farmers, the unproductive tomato growers and while we are at it, all those unproductive art galleries and who needs those unproductive musicians who are not in the top 100 chart – they are just dragging down the more efficient artists.

I have nothing against the Economist bringing some of the issues to the table but the full picture would sometimes make it easier for us dumb readers to make our own decisions.  So if I want to pay more for Mexican re-fried beans over ordinary baked beans, I will – presumably because I attain more satisfaction doing so.  And if I want to eat gnarly old mis-shapen tomatoes over the cardboard variety, I will.

Should I respect any dry economic theorist who listens to classical music subsidised by the public purse.  Now that would be a travesty wouldn’t it ?

3 thoughts on “Tomatoes

  1. I heard about your blog from a friend in Dili… We met because you made reference to my blog in yours 🙂 Just want to say that your blog is quite nice. You write very well and I very much appreciate to read someone else’s view about ET. Obviously you have been there for quite some time. At least more than I have. Too bad you decided to be an anonymous writer. Anyway, keep going! I am curious to read about the traffic lights as I am not in ET at the moment… Take care.

  2. Squatter,
    It was in East Timor that I learnt a whole lot more about ‘organic’ agriculture and ‘fair-trade’ for that matter than I ever knew before. By saying that ‘I can not disagree with the assertion that “organic” production requires significantly more land to produce the same quantity of produce’ you have, to some extent fallen for the Economist’s propoganda.
    Organic production does not simply mean using no fertilizer or pesticides. It means learning how to make them from things at hand, sowing vegetables and fuits together so that pests can be combatted organically and, in general, designing your farm in a much more sustainable way so that brain-power substitutes for chemical power and you can get better yeilds.
    Where did I learn all this? From a Timorese named Ego Lemos, who runs an NGO called HASATIL. You should visit him soon in the former Naval headquarters (with anchors on the front gates) accross the road from the Farol Primary School as I think he might have to relocate soon. He has just published a massive book on how Timor can convert to intensive diversified agriculture that is sustainable and overcome food shortages and malnutrition. It is beautifully illustrated by some of the Arte Moris people and deserves to be better known around Timor. Its in English and Bahasa Indonesia at the moment, soon to be in Tetum and Portuguese. You’re right about the tomatoes. I have even tasted chicken in TImor that remind me of what we used to have in Australia before they were mass produced.

    You are basically right on Fair Trade, it produces more profits for those in the middle and at the top, than those at the base of the commodity chain, unless it is done in a way which brings the primary producer closer to the final customer. There are groups in Timor working on this too, but its difficult due to lack of real competition.

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