Food Matters – Fair Trade Produce

While the ‘Eat Local’ food movement has been growing by leaps and bounds on Vancouver Island, there still isn’t nearly enough year-round production to satisfy demand for fresh fruit and produce. And some of the fruits we crave can’t be grown here to begin with and are imported from far away. So how, especially in winter, do you find fresh produce that comes with a more sustainable footprint?

A couple of weeks ago I was shopping at the Thrifty Foods near downtown Nanaimo, and drawn as I am to bright colours, I spotted a bag of great-looking red, yellow and orange bell peppers. But when I picked it up, the label read ‘Fair Trade Certified’. I’ve talked about Fair Trade on the show before, the main concept being that the people working in agricultural industries in Third World countries get a fair price for their products. These peppers are greenhouse grown, product of Mexico, and I’d never seen fair trade bell peppers in a store before.

This is an interesting co-venture between a huge Canadian and U-S greenhouse firm called The Oppenheimer Group, and a Mexican greenhouse producer called Divemex. Oppenheimer has an office in Vancouver, so I called Cathie MacDonald, Oppenheimer’s manager of Creative Services & Marketing Development to ask about these peppers. She told me they actually hit the market last year, but this is the first time they have had a commitment from a retailer like Thrifty Foods to carry them on a regular basis so you should see them on a regular basis in all Thrifty’s. Oppenheimer was also bringing in Rainforest Alliance grapes from Chile and Brazil. Rainforest Alliance is another kind of sustainable certification program specializing in some Central and South American countries as well as Africa and Asia. You likely didn’t see these grapes, though, as they were only carried by Whole Foods stores, and we don’t have them here on Vancouver Island. Next year Cathie MacDonald says we can look forward to fair trade apples and pears from New Zealand, and I’ll return to the idea of fair trade products coming from non-third world countries in a paragraph below.

These products are fair trade, but these peppers and grapes are not organic. In the case of the greenhouse peppers, Cathie MacDonald told me that pesticides and herbicides are only used in the case of extreme infestations in greenhouses, which is the norm here in Canada as well, and with the grapes, they can’t be certified organic because as they go into the United States on any journey to Canada, they must be fumigated with methyl bromide to kill any grape mites, which would be a big problem for any North American grape producers.

My next call was to Ursula Twiss at Discovery Organics, an independent organic and fair trade distribution company based in Vancouver. Right now you will find fair trade organic produce imported by Discovery in places like the Market on Yates here in Victoria, Edible Island up in Courtenay, and distributed by grocery delivery services like Share Organics and Small Potatoes Urban Delivery, otherwise known as SPUD. Their list includes bananas, mangos and avocados, and Ursula says the best way to spot this produce is to look for a Fair Trade sticker on the fruit, in this case a sticker which shows a figure standing in front of a globe, carrying baskets, and the figure is half black and half white. Right now Discovery is asking you to seek out Fair Trade mangos at your retailers, as the sale of each of these mangos sends some money to Peru to help growers who were affected by some devastating flooding a little while ago.

Earlier I mentioned fair trade certification for a country like New Zealand, a modern country we probably don’t associate with workers being taken advantage of…this is something that both Cathie MacDonald and Ursula Twiss mentioned. We are hearing more and more reports of immigrant worker abuse in agricultural production in places like New Zealand, the United States and even here in Canada. I’m reading a book right now called Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook that details incidents of slavery in Florida where tomato pickers suffer much abuse. As a result there are more domestic Fair Trade certification processes being developed to let people know that the products they buy are not the result of workers being subjected to unsafe working conditions and unfair wages. The more I look into the food we eat, the more I realize how complicated the food system is and how we really need to keep asking questions.

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1 Response to Food Matters – Fair Trade Produce

  1. Chris says:

    Tomatoland is an amazing insight into the Florida tomato industry. Like you mention, our food system is much more complicated. Every fruit or vegetable you see on the shelf has a journey to tell you about. Glad to discover your blog (and thanks for your writing class at UBC – I did it several years ago now).

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