Ethical Eating: Our Endangered Food Supply Chain


Stephen Brooks is the co-founder of Kopali Organics and a correspondent for Planet Green's G Word.This is his first post as a guest blogger for TreeHugger.

In this day and age we try and consider all of the certifications and seals on the packages of the food we buy. Is it organic? Fair Trade? Wild harvested? Rainforest friendly? Local? What does this all mean anyway? Who is actually growing my food and who is profiting when I buy it?

Most people do not want to contribute to destroying our planet's ecosystems, nor do people want to support child slave labor in the Ivory Coast when eating their favorite chocolate bar. Yet, somehow, these atrocities are taking place with many, many of the products we consume everyday. Now the question is: Is it possible for our food to be both affordable and not destroy the planet?

We have all heard the saying about how "Artists don't know how to sell their own work." I find that this is also true, in most cases, with small organic farmers. When it comes to caring for their soils, protecting their watersheds, saving heirloom seeds and cultivating the Earth with love and precision, many of the world's small organic farmers could be compared to Da Vinci or Michelangelo. They are true artists of the land. But, unfortunately, when it comes to understanding the market, designing hip packaging or finding the best mode of shipping, they often find themselves lacking. Thus, these heroic farmers are often taken advantage of and can barely survive.

Makes me wonder: How does this happen?

I've learned a few things about the international food industry over the years: There is clearly a limit to what consumers will pay for a desired product. The grocery chains and independent stores alike do not have very much room to bend on their margin, nor do the brands, nor do the brokers, the distributors, the shipping companies, the packaging companies or the small truckers who bring the goods to the ports. It is most often the farmers that are forced to lower their price because they fear being stuck with a spoiled perishable product or they risk losing their buyer who, driven by price, buys from another farm.

I know that people all along this supply chain rarely bend because I have been struggling for several years to see if I could get them to. I came equipped with real, beautiful and compelling stories about the plight of a dying breed of small organic farmers who work with the land as their ancestors did before them. I have told the people working for the companies along this very supply chain stories about how we have found these delicous juices from the ultra drylands of the cerrado and the caatinga in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil. This one of the five most endangered ecosystems on Earth (much more endangered than even the Amazon rain forest). These incredible fruits, like Imbu and Mangaba, are harvested by two thousand local families who actually harvest from the wild forests of this disappearing ecosystem. The forests have been destroyed to be turned into charcol for the growing aluminum industry in the area.

But at the end of the day, business is business and companies need to show big margins to their investors. Often at the end of the year these same companies will make giant donations to their favorite charities, but bend a bit on a margin, stating "It's very difficult." I often wonder if there could be a different paradigm, something in between, maybe a bit of a smaller margin but a business whose very principles are based on doing good for the planet and for all the people involved.

Stephen Brooks is a jungle tropical fruit farmer in Costa Rica, the co-founder of Kopali Organics and is the Food Field Reporter on Planet Green's G Word.

Tags: Ethical | Fair Trade | Farming

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