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Whether it's biting into the first strawberry of the summer, or wrapping up warm to share festive treats at Christmas, for me food is deeply personal and full of memories.
Across the world, food is how we express our culture and history; is integral to our celebrations with friends and family; and is how we experience the seasons.
However, for many of us, what happens before our food reaches our supermarket shelf is a bit of a mystery. How do we know if the farmers who grew our bananas received a fair price for their crop, or whether the people who fished for our prawns experienced human rights abuses? The truth is that we don’t. At the moment it’s incredibly difficult for us, the customers, to know whether the food we buy is free from human suffering.
That is why today Oxfam is launching a new campaign to call on supermarkets and governments to ensure that people who grow, pick and package our food don’t have to work in dangerous conditions and can earn enough to provide for their families. Only with decent work and fair wages can people escape poverty.
To accompany the campaign, we have published the new report Ripe for Change which highlights some of the issues in food supply chains, as well as how supermarkets can be part of the solution.
After all, none of us want to feel guilty when we do our food shopping.
Here are some of the uncomfortable truths which lie behind the barcode:
1. Small scale farmers don’t earn enough for a decent living.
Supermarkets have huge buying power in comparison to the many small scale farmers who grow our food, meaning they can put pressure on those at the bottom of the chain. While big companies accrue vast profits, farmers often struggle to make ends meet and are sometimes barely able to cover their costs of production. In fact, some green bean farmers in Kenya only earn 53% of what is considered necessary for a decent standard of living.
2. The people who produce our food are going hungry.
Whilst we are buying food to share with our loved ones, many producers around the world often can’t put meals on their own tables. According to a survey in 2017, 85% of rice farmers in Pakistan were considered to be extremely food insecure. And 75% of surveyed women workers on Italian fruit and vegetable farms said that they had cut back on the number of meals in the last month because their household could not afford enough food.
3. Women are the hardest hit.
As is the case with most issues, women face distinct challenges in food supply chains. Whether they are denied the right to own land, or have to do lots of unpaid care work, the inequalities in the food industry combine with deep-rooted gender norms.
This means that women often take on the most insecure and lowest-paid jobs. In less than five days, the chief executive of a UK supermarket earns the same as a woman picking grapes in South Africa will earn in her entire lifetime.
4. People in supply chains face horrendous working conditions.
This headline is particularly hard to stomach. On top of not having enough money in their wallet, workers on fishing boats and in seafood processing plants in Southeast Asia face terrible conditions.
As Cho, a seafood processing worker says, “On the boat, I was beaten by my supervisor and employer if I was sleeping in bed due to sickness and could not work. And I was beaten if I made a mistake during my work.”
Violence like this cannot be justified and should certainly never be an ingredient in the food we buy at the supermarket.
5. Not a single supermarket is doing enough to help stop this.
We’ve scored 16 top supermarkets in the UK, the US, Germany, and the Netherlands on their policies to keep workers safe and ensure they earn a fair wage. Not one company scored above an amber in any of our four categories, meaning they currently don’t have the adequate policies in place to give the assurance that they protect the growers, pickers and packers who we all rely on.
6. A different future is possible.
We need a better deal for the farmers and workers, and the time for change is now. Companies are increasingly conscious of their social impact and could have a transformational role by implementing better policies whilst altering their sourcing practices.
We pay enough money for our food for supermarkets to make a healthy profit without causing human suffering. This not only makes business sense by keeping us, their customers, happy but could also help to lift millions of people out of poverty.
How can you get involved?
Watch this video to learn more about Behind the Barcodes and take action to stand with the people who produce our food. Supermarkets rely on customers to stay in business – let’s use the power we have to help end human suffering.
This entry posted by Olivia Paine, Oxfam Campaign and Policy Officer, on 21 June 2018.