Friday, August 17, 2007

The Kikuyu dilemma

This is a long post, sent to me by my friend Annie (many thanks Annie). It is excerpted from a longer article which can be found on

See excerpts after my comments.

The article is extremely interesting because it raises many crucial issues:

1. The contradiction that can exist between local food systems (consuming locally) and sustainable farming (organic) and other socially responsible approaches such as Fair Trade. I have blogged about this earlier (use the search function). The gist is that we are nowhere near solving the issue of "local but self-serving and conventional" to "imported but organic and fair trade". Clearly one of the problems with import is the carbon footprint: food miles. And one of the benefits of import is that it can contribute to poverty alleviation (if it is Fairly Traded, which is not automatic with organic). Which do we chose? What is more important: carbon footprint or support to producers in developing countries? As the article says: it is not the organic produce of the Kikuyu that is responsible for the carbon emission of the world, it is the lifestyle of people in the North and in some countries of the Middle East. The Kikuyu and other inhabitants of poor countries have accumulated so much carbon credit (by not contributing to global warming) that they could argue for exporting their produce in supersonic jets, one carrot at a time.

2. It also raises the issue of producing export food that local people do not eat, either because they cannot afford it or because they do not desire it. This is akin to using cheap labor in poor countries to produce commodities required only by the West and which are then exported. Forget about the organic bit for a moment: exporting rarely benefits the poor, because of the economy of scale needed to keep prices competitive. The management methods required to satisfy an overseas client in a highly competitive environment are also beyond the reach of the poor. It is much worse for food, because it cannot be stored for long periods of time and has to be flown out immediately and therefore requires high level logistics. Moreover, the idea of producing what you cannot afford to consume is instinctively repulsive to many (myself included). Additionally, and because land and labor are limited, production of export-oriented crops will replace local production of food. Food has then to be imported. The free trade governments love that (Lebanon's government is a great champion of this approach), but this is the surest way to undermine food sovereignty and food security of people and country. Whether what is being produced for export is organic or not is beyond the point.

3. The article also seems to imply that this issue of carbon footprint of organic produce from Kenya is not a trade barrier created to favor UK farmers, but a genuine environmental concern. I beg to differ. The fact that this campaign has been initiated by the Soil Association, the organic labeling body of the UK does not automatically mean that this is a "clean and ethical" fight. The soil association and Prince Charles himself have been facing problems in providing produce to the local UK supermarkets because of quality and price issues. How convenient that this footprint barrier should crop up at that same time to prevent entry of organic certified produce from Kenya, and therefore place supermarkets in front of a fait accomplit: they will have to take UK organics if they want to satisfy consumer demand.

Herein lies the great dilemma: we want to simultaneously save the environment, protect local farmers and support farmers from developing nations. All are very worthy causes, but they seem to be mutually exclusive, at least in some aspects. If we cannot have them all, which do we chose?

Article begins

The Kikuyu in Kenya have been making remarkable progress of late. They have been nurturing organic vegetables and flowers for sale to Europe. According to the Observer Newspaper in the United Kingdom, '…[O]rganic produce is the fastest growth area of Africa's horticultural industry, together with cut flowers and other high-value products like dried herbs and essential oils'. This applies as much to the Kikuyu in Kenya as to other groups in Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia.

Is this a call for a celebration? Well perhaps not just yet: this week the Soil Association in the UK, the body that certifies produce as being 'organic' and suitable for sale under that label in the UK, and to whose specifications the Kikuyu tailored their organic produce, are considering banning Kenyan and other such African produce.

The justification this time is not the usual excuse that inevitably crops up in terms of the EU's unfair trade practices vis-à-vis the farming industries outside the UK. No, this time the justification is a whole lot more politically correct: it is to do with 'air miles' and 'carbon foot-prints'. The discussion over climate change, motivated by the powerful film that is the result of the efforts of former US Vice-President Al Gore, (An Inconvenient Truth), has hit home the reality of the threat that climate change poses. It has at the very least instigated a discussion on the importance of combating climate change. The argument central to the film is that society needs to make fundamental changes to adequately address the extent to which it is contributing to climate change.

The other reality is that when looked at in the context of the net contributions made to climate change, the measure is grossly skewed. According to World Bank estimates, an average Briton emits 9.4 tonnes of carbon in comparison to a Kenyan who emits 0.3 tonnes. This means that the average Briton emits more than 30 times that of a Kenyan: and it is not because the average Briton is queuing up to buy Kenyan or other African produce.

It is clear that climate change is an issue that society needs to tackle on a war footing. In fact it is quite clear that were the 'war against climate change' fought with as of the intensity that some States are employing in the so-called 'war' against terror, the results would already be noticeably different. Yet into this debate there is a fundamental question to be asked about the role of human communities. If we are to tackle climate change globally, we cannot do it on narrow nationalistic lines. It is not enough for the Briton to feel that he has made his contribution by not buying Kenyan produce under the mistaken belief that it is more heavily loaded on carbon emissions. Rather, issues like climate change by their very nature need to be tackled on a transnational basis. Thus it is crucial to look at the big contributors to climate change: uncomfortable facts about the use of vehicles and petrol consumption lie at the top of that list, with organic carrots from Kenya considerably lower down, if existent at all, on that scale.

Meanwhile many of the Kikuyu farmers are close to despair: for the last five years these farmers have worked hard to gain certification that would enable them to export under the 'organic' label in the UK. The process involved verification of standards prior to certification. Once this was achieved the profits of the community soared and resulted in the creation of much needed infrastructure: schools and health care facilities, but also pride in being part of a global community. Now after having played by the rules, they are being told that there is a new rule, and according to this rule they will not be allowed to play at all: or if allowed, they will have to start with a very big handicap.

Another potential dream example of 'globalization' could come crashing down around us. With the same winners and losers as in every other 'global' game of this nature: do we truly hope to build a global community through such measures? One that is willing to tackle climate change?

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