"If Europeans don't want pesticides in their fruit, why do European companies send all these pesticide products to African farmers in the first place?"
This was the question posed to us by a group of young men from Fotobi village in southern Ghana, who had returned from poorly-paid work in the cities to earn a living in agriculture by growing pineapples for export. Three years ago they were enthusiastic about the decent income to be made from pineapple but they were worried about their future in farming, due to the many problems they faced as independent smallholders in an export market dominated by big companies. What did European consumers really want in terms of fruit quality and production methods? Fotobi villagers had heard about the increasing market demand for organic food, for instance, but didn’t know how to produce good quality pineapple without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. How could small farmers like them get into the lucrative organic export market?
European food safety laws have got much stricter in the last five years, as governments and supermarkets have responded to food scandals and growing consumer concerns. Food quality controls on European and imported produce include legal limits on the maximum amount of pesticides permitted in fresh produce, as well as independent quality standards of supermarkets and sophisticated retail practices involving traceability from individual farm to supermarket shelf. This may be good news for European consumers but what does it mean for the livelihoods of millions of farmers in developing countries if they cannot meet these standards? In an increasingly globalised food supply chain, importers and supermarkets can simply turn elsewhere to source their produce, with devastating consequences for the estimated 45 million people in African, Caribbean and pacific countries who earn their living from the thriving export fruit and vegetables sector. Many of these are poor farm and packhouse workers, often women struggling to bring up their families alone, with few other prospects of employment.
Conflicts between food safety requirements, sharp supermarket purchasing practices and the position of small and medium-scale farmers is not just a problem in developing countries. One low price supermarket in the Netherlands, for example, recently responded to media campaigns over high levels of pesticide residues in its table grapes by cutting off relations with 600 small-scale vinegrowers in Greece and shifting its custom to a single, large scale supplier. Is there a future for small-scale and family farmers in Europe and in Africa or will the supermarkets, which dominate our food supply, simply exclude them in the quest to reassure consumers' concerns about food safety and increase shareholders’ profit?
To tackle these questions, PAN UK is starting a three year project to put pressure on supermarkets and aid agencies in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands to support African smallholders in export markets. Our partners in Africa are working with local farmer groups to train them in how to manage pests and diseases without using hazardous pesticides. In 2002, a group of smallholders in Senegal were able to export x tons of green beans to Europe for the first time, grown with much reduced pesticide use. Consumer surveys show that people are concerned about the welfare of farmers overseas- witness how much fairly traded produce we now see on supermarket shelves. What is missing is serious commitment from the food retail industry to make practical changes to help African farmers in the mainstream sector.