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May 14, 2007

Kenyan farmers worried over food miles campaign

by Chido Makunike

The food miles campaign, particularly in Britain, has caused a lot of concern in countries like Kenya, where export horticulture is an important part of the economy. In Kenya and many other countries, thousands of small holder farmers have benefited from being out-growers to exporters. Apart from the "traditional" horticultural export crops in demand in Europe and the US, there are efforts to encourage farmers to tap into new niche markets such as those for organic and fair trade crops. The farmers are told that meeting the stringent requirements of these markets is worth it because of huge, growing and unsatisfied Western markets offering good premiums.

Given all the efforts that have been invested over the years by farmers to produce for export horticulture, the worry over the food miles campaign runs deep and wide. Although it is not exactly unheard of for once lucrative markets to collapse for one reason or another, the pivotal role that export horticulture has assumed in the economies of countries like Kenya, and others trying to emulate it, means that the food miles campaign would have wide-ranging and disastrous consequences for them if successful.

In an excellent article summarising the concerns over the campaign from the point of view of farmers in Kenya, Emmett argues that food miles campaigns that try to steer consumers away from third world produce are aiming at the wrong target. She says, " Oversimplifying the food miles debate to discriminate against developing country farmers is at best naïve. At worst, it is becoming a poor and over-used excuse for self-interest and misguided protectionism."

She goes on :

The perfect snow peas, mange tout, and fine beans on offer on shop shelves in the UK are the new engine for rural economic growth in Kenya. Economic analysts say the export horticulture business in developing countries reaches the parts that other trade or aid initiatives cannot reach. The careful attention to detail required to produce such perfection means most of these crops are grown by small out-growers, not large farms. A million new livelihoods have been created and related employment provided for three million more. Surely they should not be denied this opportunity?

News of how campaigns on food miles are being used to dissuade shoppers from buying air-freighted fresh vegetables is met with dismay by farmers in Kenya. Small-scale farmers have spent years investing time, effort and money in meeting, and even superseding, retailer specifications like Nature's Choice and Field to Fork.

To say Kenyan farms are not run to as high standards as in Britain is ludicrous. The construction of chemical stores and grading sheds, systems of record-keeping and adhering to precise protocols of production with passion and professionalism means their produce is as safe, traceable and nutritious as any UK crop. Developing country farmers' lifestyles, livelihoods and production methods emit a tiny fraction of the pollution pumped out in the UK. And whatever global warming brings, it is likely that Kenyan farmers will be affected far more and sooner than farmers in temperate regions.

The claim that "it would be better if they grew food to feed Kenyans" doesn't take much demolishing, either. Many farms, often less than an acre, already grow more than a dozen crops and export plots are rotated with carrots, cabbages, maize and potatoes that are all for Kenyan consumption. Time and again farmers explain that export crop income pays for education, health care and investment in further development of the farm.

Russel Ng'ang'a, chairman of a group of 200 farmers growing mange tout and sugar snaps, says, "I think the food miles campaign is very unfortunate. Think about the millions of small-scale farmers whose livelihood depends on the production of the peas and beans. In my view this issue of global warming has lots of angles to it. Something much should be done to make sure that the emissions of carbon dioxide are reduced by other means than stopping sales of our produce. For groups like ours, now certified to meet European standards, there has been a lot of training and we are monitored and audited to check we comply.

Initially, when we started out to meet the European standards, we believed it would mean that we would enjoy better prices and stability. Unfortunately that has not turned out to be the case and this has led to a lot of disillusionment. Something needs to be done. If the costs of production have to rise to meet everything that buyers want and consumers expect then more money has to trickle back to the producer."

Lydia Njuguna, senior agronomist with the Kenya Horticultural Development Programme, asks, "What do Europeans want? To see us all stay in poverty? To come to Europe looking for jobs? I don't think so. Because the beans and snow peas we export to Europe are high value the farmers can at last earn more and be able to invest in better lives and further developments. It's important that we get away from just subsistence agriculture."

They worked hard with the language and the techniques to do everything the European consumer wants and then now they have achieved it all, suddenly the consumer says that they are concerned about air freight. Will they stop going on planes on holiday? Where is their heart?"

Virginia Mwai, quality assurance and food safety, Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture : "Our farming contributes very little to global warming. We use people to weed the fields. We don't use tractors to produce the food that is exported. I wonder whether stopping the export of our produce to Europe would stop the planes flying and whether that would really reduce the carbon emissions."

Maina Kanene, green bean farmer : "Growing for export has taught me so much about good agricultural practice which I now put in use for all my crops. I grow better quality crops and my wife and I very closely supervise the use of fertilisers and pesticides.
Although there is a feeling that the campaign has begun to lose steam in Britain since the beginning of the year, with some reports suggesting sales of imported Kenyan produce in UK supermarkets have actually risen somewhat, the issues that caused the campaign in the first place are not so easily dismissed. ShoCheck Spellinguld and does a consumer in Europe or the US pay attention to anything more than some hard-to-pin-down combination of price and quality? If so, will he tend to lean towards loyalty to the cause of supporting local farmers, or would Emmett's arguments for supporting the efforts of relatively poor but hard-working farmers in far-away Kenya hold sway?

Even if the debate is quietening down, it is not likely to go away.

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