Giving Spice Producers a Fair Shake

Consider murgh makhani, better known in Canada as butter chicken. The dish, first whipped up in a small Delhi restaurant to save leftover chicken from spoiling, is now a fixture on the global menu—a prime example of the world’s seemingly effortless culinary cosmopolitanism.

The story is in the spices. Once almost impossible to obtain in Europe or North America, now the ingredients of a good butter chicken are commonplace. We open our cupboard and see black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, and countless others clattering around in old mismatched jars, their origins either forgotten or never thought about.

But the story of spice is as fraught as ever. Disassemble your butter chicken and search out the sources of its parts, and you will find a host of troubling issues: precarious livelihoods, struggling communities, crooked traders, poisons, even death. There are also stories of hope, growing prosperity, and a healthier and more sustainable path forward for spice producers and consumers alike.

What’s in that pepper shaker, anyway?

Let’s take pepper. No good butter chicken can do without black pepper, and, indeed, not many dishes can. But where, really, did that pepper in your butter chicken come from? Once, it would likely have originated on a small farm plot in India. Today, however, the majority of black pepper imported into Canada is grown at large plantations in Vietnam. Smallholder Indian farms that have grown spices sustainably for generations must now compete on unequal footing with large-scale, lower-priced competitors with far better access to international markets.

Today, even pepper that claims to be premium-grade Indian pepper might actually be from somewhere else, with unscrupulous traders importing cheaper, lower-quality pepper into India, repackaging it, and selling it as a product of India.

“Most of the pepper that people have been consuming as Malabar pepper isn't actually Malabar pepper,” says Christopher Jared, owner of Peter Piper Pepper, a Canadian fair trade spice company that works with growers in the Malabar region of India. Reached by phone in his snow-caked office in Mississauga, Ontario, Jared continues with a note of exasperation. “So you're a small family farm, and you've got one edge on the world, and it gets ripped out from underneath you by this kind of activity.”

A blocked path to prosperity

Small-scale Indian spice farmers, like other smallholders in India, don’t need any extra hurdles thrown into their path. The Indian agricultural sector, of which 80 percent is made up of small and marginal farms, has experienced sluggish growth in recent years, and individual farmers and their families regularly face hardships around their basic livelihoods, food security, and indebtedness to informal lenders. In recent years, price fluctuations, drought, and chronic indebtedness have also contributed to a soaring suicide rate among Indian farmers, often by ingesting the pesticides they use to spray their crops.

For spice farmers, as with other small farmers, a key economic disadvantage is their inability to access international markets and get a fair price for their products.

“Before fair trade came along, what would they do?” asks Jared, referring to his fair trade–certified partners in India. “They’d put their spices in a burlap sack and ship them off to the local trading company. They wouldn’t get even the international price.”

A fairer way forwardpepper

In a mountainous region of Malabar, home to an elephant reserve, jungle-like mixed-crop organic farms carve through the sloping landscape. It is here that Jared’s company has created partnerships with local farmers, paying a fair trade price that exceeds the international standard, as well as a premium that recognizes the value of the farmers’ organic spices. The company also pays an additional Fairtrade Premium to the local co-op, money the co-op members have used to expand their spice-processing capacity—a significant upgrade that has roughly doubled their revenue. The processing facility also provides jobs to the local community.

Another benefit of fair trade, says Jared, and one that is often overlooked, is the dialogue that takes place between producers and their fair trade partners. In the case of his Malabar partners, the co-op is now using its new processing capabilities—as well as marketing knowhow picked up from Peter Piper Pepper—to sell its products on the local market.

A global ingredient list, a model that works

Black pepper is, of course, just one ingredient that composes our fictional butter chicken, and India is just one country that contributes significantly to the world supply of spices. But the issues faced by small-scale Indian spice farmers are not unique. In neighbouring Sri Lanka, for instance, spice farmers also suffer from the same poor market access, likewise leaving them at the mercy of profit-skimming middlemen. Sri Lankan farmers also grapple with the destabilizing effects of inconsistent harvests, shifting international prices, and a lack of local infrastructure.

Contrast this with the case of the Small Organic Farmers’ Association (SOFA), a Sri Lankan Fairtrade-certified co-op whose members include over 1000 smallholder spice farmers. Through the Fairtrade system, SOFA members earn both a fair price for their goods as well as a Fairtrade Premium, through which they have created a preschool, a water project, farming management training programs, and school scholarships, among other programs and benefits.

Yes, butter chicken is delicious, but what goes into the dish reaches far beyond our taste buds. It can enrich middlemen, large plantation owners, and dishonest traders, or it can provide stability and a better life for smallholder farmers and their communities. It can give producers a leg up, or it can help shove them down into poverty. It’s a choice we make with every bite.

The trouble with cinnamon

One crop, Ceylon cinnamon, also known as true cinnamon, aptly illustrates some of the wider problems faced by small farmers in the spice industry. In North America, labels on most ground cinnamon products don’t distinguish Ceylon cinnamon and cassia—a cheaper spice that contains high levels of coumarin, a naturally occurring chemical compound that has been linked to liver damage. And thanks to international competition from producers of cassia, “true” cinnamon producers, like those in Sri Lanka, struggle to make ends meet.

“Ceylon cinnamon is a very labour-intensive crop, which must first be carefully harvested and then even more carefully peeled and rolled into quills,” says Marise May, director of operations for Sahana Ayurvedic Products, a Canadian company that markets fair trade–certified spices under the Arayuma brand. “This is highly specialized work, and in a conventional trading scenario the cinnamon peeler will not receive fair compensation.” By contrast, under a fair trade model, hired labourers such as peelers are guaranteed a fair wage. As an added bonus, consumers of fair trade cinnamon also know they’re getting the real thing.

The toxic side of spice

As with other non-organically-produced crops, spices are commonly grown and processed with the use of pesticides and other chemicals that can leave residues on the finished products.

One example is ethylene oxide, a commonly used spice decontaminant. Ethylene oxide destroys mould, yeast, bacteria—including salmonella and E. Coli—and other pathogens. It’s also a known carcinogen. Another potentially harmful agrochemical is the herbicide glyphosate, more commonly known as Roundup, which has been linked to a chronic kidney disease epidemic among Sri Lankan farmers.

Fair trade–certified spices, by contrast, are subject to environmental standards that limit the use of agrochemicals in harvesting and processing, and demand safe handling and application. Instead of ethylene oxide, for instance, fair trade processors use steam. Fair trade producers also receive training on Integrated Pest Management techniques, a pest control system that uses monitoring, crop rotation, pheromones, and natural predators. IPM practices allow for controlled pesticide use, but only as a last resort.

Author: Will Richter | Will is a freelance writer living in Vancouver

"Giving Spice Producers a Fair Shake" was orginally published in the Summer/Fall 2015 Edition of Fair Trade Magazine