20 February, 2015

Beyond cash for access, who is really calling the shots in EU trade policy

Fairtrade sugar farmer in Malawi
by Barbara Crowther, Director of Policy and Research at the Fairtrade Foundation

Today, to mark the start of Fairtrade Fortnight, we launched our Sugar Crash report, highlighting the potentially disastrous consequences of recent EU sugar reform for hundreds of thousands of small scale sugar cane farmers and their families.

Little did we know, when preparing our own report, that on the same day, the news would break that a prominent former cabinet minister would admit his role lobbying for changes in EU sugar regulations on behalf of the commodity trader ED&F Man.

Without going into the cash-for-access questions themselves, corporate influence in EU policy making should come as no surprise. Fairtrade’s report examines the EU decision to abolish all sugar beet production quotas by 2017, in the context of three years of falling global sugar prices. Our report outlines that the Council of Agriculture Ministers and the Commission took the decision despite a strong vote by Members of the European Parliament to delay reform until 2020, and despite compelling evidence in a report commissioned by the UK’s own Department for International Development of the hundreds of thousands of people who could be pushed deeper into poverty as a result.


Among those lobbying to end the cap was the Brussels-based Committee of European Users of Sugar (CIUS), whose members represent large food manufacturers and associations responsible for 70% of European annual consumption of sugar.  They argued that the restrictions on sugar beet, which were in place in order to meet commitments on market access for around 18 sugar producers in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, were keeping sugar prices high. This, they contested, was reducing their own profitability and competitiveness, and that of smaller companies too. Now we could argue that in an era of increasing obesity, higher sugar prices may not be a bad thing at all, but that is for another day.


What is clear, and was the focus of a recent Observer feature from Jamaica, is that many of the ACP countries and the small-scale family farmers who have sold their sugar cane to EU countries including the UK, for generations, now face a deepening crisis. This morning, I met Alexia Ludford, a 32 year old sugar cane farmer and project manager at Worthy Park sugar cane association in Jamaica. In just two years of Fairtrade certification, Jamaican farmers have become organised, phased out use of the dangerous chemical Paraquat, increased their productivity and funded road repairs and scholarships to help children stay in school. Now all of that is at risk. "Sugar is the backbone of our economy and the source of our income,” says Alexia. “If we hadn't the sugar industry... children would not be able to go to school, shops would close; it would affect every individual."


Sharing the farmers’ concerns is the Secretary General Designate of the ACP States, Ambassador Gomes. “The major impacts are the sharp decline and severe volatility in price arising from the expanded production of sugar from EU beet growers in a market that is already over-supplied,” he says. “It is the livelihood of millions that depend on cane sugar cultivation and production that is being threatened. This is unfair.”

Politics and politicians have already failed these sugar cane growers. But that doesn’t mean that we as citizens or shoppers should. Nor businesses for that matter. “We don’t believe that people would want to buy sugar that costs a penny or two less per bag, if they knew that the cost was hundreds of thousands of people being pushed into poverty,” says Fairtrade’s CEO Michael Gidney. “We cannot stand by and watch as thousands of sugar cane farmers in developing countries, who have supplied the UK for generations… lose their livelihoods.”

So, here’s what we can do:

  • This week, go out and choose Fairtrade sugar, or if you can’t find it, ask your shop manager why they don’t stock it – make it easy by ordering our handy ‘Stock It’ postcards if you like.
  • Next week, look out for our new campaign calling on the EU (and the UK Government as a member) to convene a new initiative to support the ACP sugar producing countries and farming communities, including 62,200 Fairtrade cane growers, to adapt to the brave new world of low cost sugar.




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