COMMENT:

Almost 80 per cent of New Zealanders purchase Fair Trade products 'some, most or all of the time' in an attempt to live more sustainable lives.

The Colmar-Brunton Better Futures Report released in January lists many good initiatives, including recycling (97%), using energy-efficient appliances (95%), buying locally produced or grown products (93%) and giving up plastic bags (83%).

Good intentions do seem to be having an effect on plastic bag use, with the encouragement of supermarkets.

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In other intentions, however, price is still a major factor in the purchasing decision.

Colmar Brunton suggested that in order to enable mainstreaming of behaviour, being sustainable must also be affordable and easier.

Fair-trade bananas currently cost approximately twice as much as other bananas.

Coffee and tea range from twice as much to the same, depending on brand and 'special'.

And in the supermarket online search, no other comestible appears in the 'Fair Trade' category. This does not make basic shopping easier.

The bigger issue is the concept of Fair Trade itself. The World Fair Trade Organisation defines Fair Trade as 'a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalised producers and workers – especially in the South'.

Ten principles govern Fair Trade, and amongst the points about child labour, forced labour, and gender equity is 'Fair Price'.

It includes a fair wage and a fair profit so that 'fair prices represent an equitable share of the final price to each player in the supply chain'.

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Farmers around the world are wondering why this doesn't apply everywhere and to all products.

Some countries are trying to make progress in the fair-trade direction while at the same time supporting their farmers through what New Zealanders term 'subsidies'.

French President Macron promised a fair deal to farmers (currently receiving over 18 per cent of gross farm receipts as 'support' from the government) as part of his election campaign.

Parliament has backed the new Agricultural Bill which is designed to deliver 'fairer remuneration to farmers' whilst delivering on 'consumer expectations of quality and sustainability'.

The Bill was announced last month with 'promise kept' but the French Senate has already rejected it on the grounds that it doesn't go far enough to protect the interests of farmers.

And French retailers have argued that consumers will be hit in the pocket because food prices will increase.

In Switzerland, where over 50 per cent of gross farm receipts come directly from the government as 'support', the consumers were surveyed about preferences.

Through two national polls, the Swiss were asked about their willingness to support a Food Sovereignty Initiative designed to boost ethical food production and local farming.

At heart was a vision of diversified and sustainable local agriculture based on family-operated farms, free of GMOs, with an emphasis on job creation and competitive wages. Fair prices for farmers was the foundation.

At the same time, the Fair Food Initiative focused on imposing strict environmental standards and social standards on both domestically produced and imported food. In the lead up to the vote, people were in favour of the changes.

When it came to the actual vote, however, both initiatives were rejected because of concerns over the impact of price, competitiveness and trade.

Conscience indicates one thing for the world, but the wallet is personal.

Meanwhile the debates continue in New Zealand, where farmers are not subsidised to farm, and people continue to be concerned about food prices.

The data from StatsNZ indicate that in the year until June 2018, average median weekly income increased by 4.0 per cent. Food prices increased by 0.2 per cent, driven by a 3 per cent increase in ready-prepared and restaurant food, reflecting the increased costs in labour.

Dairy, grocery, meat, fruit and vegetables actually decreased in price. Yet farmers and producers are facing increased costs including those associated with increased compliance.

Fair Trade has been associated with farmers in developing countries, where extortion has occurred.

France is trying to show the path for developed countries and Switzerland has shown the potential problems.

The overall problem is that food is a smaller proportion of discretionary income in developed countries than it has ever been – and it is the farmers who are being squeezed.

Fair trade should be for everybody – that's what makes it fair.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth has a PhD in Soil Science and has been analysing agri-environment interaction for several decades. She has a 5 per cent share in a family-owned 56 ha dairy farm in the Waikato.