Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Don't buy organic instead of changing the world - do it as part of changing the world

Are there really any benefits for the farmers in developing countries that engage in organic or fair trade schemes?

A recent literature review casts doubts on the merit of "sustainability" certification systems. It includes studies of Fairtrade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance and the Forest Stewardship council. The authors Allen Blackman and Jorge Rivera note that rather few studies have a rigorous control against non-certified production, which is needed to form a scientific basis for claims that certification is beneficial for producers.

The 11 rigorous studies provided very weak evidence for the hypothesis that sustainable certification has positive environmental, social, or economic effects at the producer level. Only four of the 11 provided evidence of such benefits (Table 3). Of these four, all tested for economic effects. In two of these four studies, both on coffee, the authors remark that the benefits are either idiosyncratic or inconsistent (Arnould et al. 2009; Bolwig et al. 2009). The results of the remaining seven rigorous studies (two studies of environmental effects and five of social and economic effects) did not show that certification benefits producers.
As the authors note "the hypothesis that certification benefits the environment or producers is limited. More evidence could be generated by incorporating rigorous, independent evaluation into the design and implementation of projects promoting certification."

One of the few studies that show economic benefits is the one of Bolwig and others, The economics of smallholder organic contract farming in tropical Africa. I was personally engaged in those projects studied, in the EPOPA programme. It was successful mainly because it was designed with the explicit purpose to be commercial and increase farmers income (and hopefully because it was well implemented).It spoke less about sustainability and smallholder empowerment than most similar programs, but generated more direct results in terms of increased income, and with low costs compared to many other projects.

It is worrying, however, that there is so little result coming out of so big efforts, even more troubling considering that the vast majority of all situations with certified smallholders are in to form of "projects" where substantial external funds are used to support them. As a matter of fact, I have yet to come across any small farmer project with sustainability certification which has not benefited external support; most of them are even established by external actors.To include even more rigorous evaluations and scientific monitoring of the projects, as suggested by the authors, will make the projects even more donor dependent and consultant dependent, and decrease the efficiency of the deployment of resources substantially.

I think the jury is still out regarding the direct and indirect benefits of the sustainability schemes. But what should be clear, even without more scientific studies, is that the economic benefits, and environmental benefits are limited. And that is not because the schemes are bad. There is simply no way such schemes can shift global economic relations fundamentally. Not even Fair trade, which has this as it's focus is more than a marginal adjustment of fundamental factors such as unjust trading relations and an ongoing exploitation of smallholders; limited access to resources and therewith associated low labor productivity; and inequality. As a matter of fact there is no particular evidence that fair trade farmers have any higher income than organic ones.

Note that this study is about farms in developing countries, there are numerous studies about farms in developed countries that show environmental benefits for organic farming. When it comes to economy it is a more complex picture. But clearly, organic farms in developed countries are exposed to the same commercial pressures as non-organic and respond in more or less the same way: more specialization, larger farms, more input buying etc., because that is the logic of the competitive market economy, whether you like it or not.

My suggestion is not that we should throw the sustainability schemes overboard, but that we should realise that they will not make the Big Difference which is needed to reach a fair(er) world. Go on and buy organic, but don't do it instead of changing the world, but as part of changing the world. 

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