4 March, 2014

Vince Cable: Will you help Make Bananas Fair?

by Tim Aldred, Head of Policy and Research at the Fairtrade Foundation

As Business Secretary Vince Cable has a run in with some human bananas this week, Tim Aldred, Head of Policy and Research at the Fairtrade Foundation, urges government to act to Make Bananas Fair. 

Vince Cable‘Are you with the banana event?’  the policeman at the entrance to Parliament asked me when I arrived earlier this week. When I said I was, he told me with a smile that ‘a large number of bananas went through here earlier on!’ I’d arrived to spend the day with Albeiro Alfonso ‘Foncho’ Cantillo , a banana farmer from the Magdalena region of Colombia, who was meeting MPs at a special event organised with the help of ‘fairandfunky’, a Fairtrade business based in Yorkshire.

I knew that many MPs support Fairtrade but this was something else. A steady stream of MPs, 50 in all, came up to the meeting room. They were all very interested to meet Foncho and discuss the problems he faces due to low banana prices here in the United Kingdom.

I’d first met Foncho in January, at his one hectare banana farm in 32-degree heat. Now in a wood paneled room in Westminster, he explained to MPs why he’d come to support Fairtrade’s campaign to Make Bananas Fair.

He told them how low prices had been threatening to put him out of business until an opportunity to sell Fairtrade bananas two years ago turned things around. Now a Fairtrade producer, the ability to invest money back in his farm means that Foncho produces nearly three times as many bananas as before and can pay for his children to complete their education.

WestminsterAt Westminster, I was, I confess, rather nervous. Would our campaign make sense to busy MPs used to the tough world of politics? But I need not have worried. Across the political spectrum they understood why the crash in the retail price of bananas over the past 10 years, alongside the doubling of costs of production for farmers like Foncho, was squeezing out the farmers who grow the hundreds of millions of bananas we eat every year in the UK alone. There was agreement that it wasn’t right and needed to change. Most signed our petition to Stick with Foncho and Make Bananas Fair.

With this in mind we are looking forward to a formal response from Vince Cable, Head Honcho at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Fairtrade campaigners are calling on him and his department to help Make Bananas Fair.

The campaign has reached him and other Ministers.  We sent him this letter and a copy of our policy report and followed this up with a bunch of human bananas who spent a morning outside his office last week handing out leaflets.

But just to make sure, on Monday morning [March 3] the human bananas struck again, just as Vince Cable was on his way into another meeting in central London. We managed to persuade him to stop for a chat and gave him a copy of our report.  

BISHave we convinced him to take action? News reports earlier in the week quoting Vince Cable’s department did tell us two things: 
Firstly, BIS doesn’t think it is their job to get involved in ‘price setting’. That’s okay mind you, because we’re not asking them (or anyone else) to do that.

Secondly, we learnt that BIS thinks that if there are problems with the banana retail market, then the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) should investigate. That sounds good – a headline recommendation of our policy report is that the OFT should do just that.

We know we’ve put some complicated issues on the table and that change can take time. However there is a lot that Vince Cable could do – some of it very quickly – to show his support for Foncho, along with the thousands who are signing up to our petition.

So far over 13,000 people have signed the petition and more than 300,000 viewed our ‘Foncho’ campaign film on YouTube and Facebook, so we know the public are right behind us. What’s needed now is government action.  Among the other suggestions in our report, the Business Secretary  could take these first steps:

  1. He could ask the OFT to start a market study into the banana retail market. This would mean government departments and supermarkets look into the problems properly and come up with long-term solutions
  2. He could call on supermarkets to raise their game and set out public and independently verifiable commitments to pay the farmers and workers in their supply chains – farmers like Foncho – the cost of sustainable production and living wages. 
  3. He could call on supermarkets to stop driving the price wars.

Of course, solving the banana price problem is not all down to the Business Secretary. Other government departments – the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – can help too, as our report explains.

Decisions that supermarkets make are also obviously crucial for farmers like Foncho, which is why we asked Ethical Consumer to research a Supermarket Scorecard for bananas. Clearly our supermarkets could seize the moment. Among the other suggestions we make in our policy report, they could make public promises to:

  1. Pay the cost of sustainable production to banana farmers.
  2. Make sure that banana workers get living wages and have fair terms and conditions of employment.

Supermarkets would need to make these commitments transparent and independently verifiable – because private promises that no-one else can check don’t often result in much progress.

We are ready to work with the Business Secretary’s team to turn recommendations into reality and I am looking forward to hearing from him. As he reads through our report and reflects on his chat with our brilliant banana bunch, I hope he will see an opportunity to help alleviate the price pressure that is putting the squeeze on Foncho and the tens of thousands of other banana farmers and workers around the world.  

The message from Fairtrade supporters is that we want our government to Stick With Foncho this Fairtrade Fortnight and in the months ahead. Could Vince Cable be the minister who Made Bananas Fair? 

Find out more about the campaign and sign the petition at www.stickwithfoncho.org.uk

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