Thursday, 28 January 2010

Where are all the flowers from?

This wonderful animation brings to life the social and ecological impacts of flower farms in East Africa. The workforce is predominantly female, and Women Working Worldwide campaigns to improve poor working conditions, which include forced overtime and sexual harassment. Protection from toxic pesticides is inadequate, and health effects of overexposure can include harm to female reproductive system, which is ironic with sales of flowers about to skyrocket for giving to women to show love on Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.

Pesticide residues pollute water systems which are depleted by the flower farms. A flower is about 90 per cent water, so UK shoppers in indoor malls sheltered from the rain in one of the wettest countries in the world are buying flowers, an inedible and purely ornamental product, from one of the driest. Drought and high food prices led to a World Food Programme appeal for emergency food aid for 3.8 million Kenyan people, where dependency on grain imports is rising. Recent rainfall in the region only promises a late and partial respite from the long standing drought. Thirty enormous flower farms around Lake Naivasha have diverted water from desperately needed food crops and livestock, and drained the lake to half its previous size. Water is even used to clear dust on the loose surface roads along which the flowers are transported to airports for export.

About 80 per cent of Kenya’s flower exports are to Europe, with almost half of this sold in the UK. Kenya is the world’s biggest flower exporter, earnings from horticultural exports more have overtaken earnings from tourism or remittances from working abroad. But the industry is precarious. Kenya’s flower exports are declining, and are expected to be down from a record high of 93,000 tonnes in 2008, to 80,000 tonnes in 2009. While this is a minor decrease compared to the contraction of other industries, flowers can only be so cheap in supermarkets with low pay for farm workers, and lowering social and environmental standards. The effect of price pressure on producers due to supermarket buyer power is evident, as Kenya’s 2008 record volume of flower sales actually brought lower export earnings for Kenya, which fell about 7 per cent to $504.4 million. In the UK and many other European countries, flowers are established as a cheap and cheerful everyday purchase, relatively resilient to recession where people cut back on big-ticket items like expensive electronic products, furniture and holidays.

The entrances of UK supermarkets are, as usual filled with brightly coloured roses. Some of the bouquets are of roses of different colours, some are mixed with other types of flowers, others are bunches of identical roses. Many of the bouquets are labelled as produce of Kenya, but I notice that an increasing proportion are labelled ‘More than one country’, so the customer has no idea where the flowers are from. I can understand this with mixed bouquets where different types of flowers are assembled into bouquets at the main hubs for the world flower trade like Schiphol in the Netherlands, although it makes a mockery of supermarkets’ attempts to place the onus for sustainability on consumer choice enabled by labelling, which in many cases obscures rather than reveals the country of origin and other important aspects of the supply chain. But this is a photo of a bouquet of identical bright pink roses with the ‘More than one country’ label.

Customers in the UK are urged by some development organisations and the DFID (Department for International Development) to buy Kenyan flowers to support the livelihoods of flower farm workers, pretty impossible if there is no country of origin on the label? But the real pressure on Kenyan producers is not fickle consumer preferences. If a retailer stops stocking Kenyan flowers this is more likely to be because they are sourcing similar flowers from a country with lower production costs. Flower farms in Kenya face cut throat competition from other countries, and the 'race to the bottom' for lower production costs is evnident, two major flower farms have recently relocated to Ethiopia due to lower costs there. Ethiopian flowers are sold in the UK, but I have yet to see ‘Produce of Ethiopia’ on flower bouquet labels, so it seems this is not something that retailers wish to highlight.

Going back to the social impact of flower farms, the label states that the roses are guaranteed for 5 days. For other bunches of flowers the guaranteed vase life is longer - 7, 10 or even 14 days. This is longer than the time frame for an assured livelihood for many of the women working on African flower farms, who work on a casual basis with no contract of employment. I’ll get my mother some fair trade chocolate for Mothers’ Day, at least it’s edible rather than useless, and offers some guarantee of fairness to workers in producing countries.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Olives in sunflower oil

When I bought these Kalamata olives I assumed I was buying olives marinated in olive oil, as it said extra virgin olive oil in big print on the label. When I got home I read the label properly. It actually says -

“Olives Kalamata
Marinated in (2%) extra virgin olive oil and oregano”

On the back of the label the ingredients list the second ingredient after the olives is sunflower oil. The 2 per cent extra virgin olive oil is listed after the salt. I imagine the label meets legal requirements, but it is still misleading. Buying in a hurry we make assumptions based on what is customary, the extra virgin olive oil is used to sell the product in big letters on the front of the jar, when it only contains a minimal amount.

You will find sunflower oil lurking high in the ingredients list of many Mediterranean style foods. It is never announced on the front of the packaging, but a look at the ingredients lists shows that it is, entirely or to a large extent, replacing the traditional olive oil in pesto, marinated vegetables like artichokes, sundried tomatoes and jars of olives and capers.

Apart from the misleading labelling there is the problem of lack of information about food processing. Pale, bland tasting sunflower oil is not just the result of pressing sunflower seeds. In his book Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, which was actually published in 1993, Udo Erasmus, exposes the many stages of processing such as bleaching, de-gumming and deodorising, involving high temperatures and chemical treatments which systematically remove nutrients like vitamin E and lecithin, and alters the molecular structure of oils in order to create a bland oil with long shelf life. Some doubt Erasmus's credibility as he does have a product line of eye-wateringly expensive vegetable oils which have been cold pressed and are sold in small batches with a limited shelf-life (I just eat the seeds containing the beneficial oils). But whatever your view on these products, he has actually done the work to research and expose the hidden processing of vegetable oils and the harmful health effects.

The harmful health effects of trans fats is in the news again today, but the hydrogenation, process which hardens liquid oils for products like margarine which produces these trans fats, is just the tip of the iceberg of vegetable oil processing. It is very difficult to find vegetable oils which have not been processed in this way. If sunflower, or any other, vegetable oil is cold pressed rather than subjected to the usual processing it will be sold as such, prominent on the front of the label and at a premium, like the extra virgin olive oil which is a minor ingredient in this jar of Kalamata olives.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Afghanistan’s escalating fruit exports

In the midst of escalating conflict and worsening hunger in Afghanistan, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) agricultural programmes are increasing fruit exports. Programmes to rehabilitate fruit orchards destroyed by the war, to replace opium crops, are linked with export supply chains complete with transportation, storage, processing, packaging and marketing. Pomegranates are a key crop, and Afghan varieties, with dark red juice and acid taste as well as sweetness, are widely regarded as the best in the world. Pomegranates are hailed as a ‘superfood’ full of antioxidants and fetch a high price in the US, Europe and Middle East and Asia. Afghanistan’s pomegranate exports increased 10 per cent in 2008 compared to 2007, totalling 45,000 tonnes, about half of a total pomegranate crop of 96,000 tonnes.

Pomegranate exports are set to rise further, with the USAID funded Omaid Bahar fruit processing factory in the outskirts of Kabul. The centralised fruit juice factory, a converted textiles factory from the Soviet era, a convergence of military intervention and development aid with a ‘high wall topped with razor wire’, and ‘heavily guarded iron gates’ is hailed in the Independent newspaper as a ‘beacon of hope’ for the future of Afghanistan farming. The key flagship product is pomegranate juice and the factory aims to buy fruit including pomegranates, apples and apricots from 50,000 Afghan farmers. About 5,000 tonnes of fruit were expected to be processed by the end of 2009, with plans for 25,000 tonnes in 2010. The factory has contracts to supply India and several countries in the Middle East, and is negotiating to supply Europe and the US.

The USAID supported Badam Bagh Demonstration Farm in the north of Kabul trains Afghan farmers in ‘modern’ farming methods, such as how to use gas powered insecticide spraying machines and protective equipment when working with poisonous pesticides. The farm does showcase some small scale techniques like different methods of drying fruit, but the emphasis is not on rehabilitating the varied traditional skills of Afghan farmers, but transplanting modern agribusiness into Afghanistan, with all its problems such as fossil fuel dependency, input intensity and large scale infrastructure, such as irrigation with a single 10 cm pipe from Kargha Lake 10 kilometres to the west of Kabul all the way to the farm.

The farm has an export centre with fruit including pomegranates, grapes and apricots flowing in from nearly every province of Afghanistan. An agreement has been made with India to supply 3,000 tonnes of apples from the Wardek and Paktika provinces, with the first shipment delivered in November 2009. The emphasis is on exports, not supplying fresh produce to malnourished Afghans. An article on the USAID website highlights a delivery of produce including watermelons, broccoli and sweetcorn from Badam Bagh farm to refugees in Camp Hilmand in Kabul to 110 families, but this fresh produce was a one-off exception to their usual diet based on bags of flour.

At the time of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 the US declared that the country would regain its self sufficiency in food by 2007. Yet Afghans are suffering worsening food insecurity due to a complex of factors including the war, drought conditions and high food prices. By 2009 7.4 million people, a third of the Afghan population, are unable to meet their basic food needs, 54 per cent of children suffer stunted growth and the World Food Programme was aiming to feed 8.8 million people. A BBC article highlights people living in Parwan, a relatively peaceful province with fertile land, as particularly badly affected by malnutrition and hunger. Food aid supplies are inadequate, and not reaching the people who need it. Even farm workers in Parwan are suffering from hunger. Yet in a two-week period in July 2009 $110,000 worth of cherries, apricots and melons were exported from the Kandahar, Wardak and Parwan provinces via Badam Bagh farm to India and the UAE.

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