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Ravdeep Jaidka

Farmer Protests In India: A Movement for Democratic Control of the Food System

The largest protest in human history has coalesced in India around the passing of three new agrarian bills that farmers fear will devastate their livelihoods. The new bills passed in September 2020 aim to deregulate the agricultural market and open the sector to increased corporate control. In protest, hundreds of thousands of farmers arrived at the border of the capital, Delhi, in November 2020 in trailers and tractors, accompanied by provisions to remain in place for months to come, demanding that the government repeal these laws.

Over half of India’s 1.3 billion people are involved in agriculture, with a majority of those classified as small farmers.1 

What do the farm bills propose?

Collectively, the three agricultural bills aim to alter the landscape of the Indian agriculture sector by deregulating the agricultural market. The bills loosen regulation around the purchase, sale, and storage of crops, thereby eliminating essential protections for farmers.

Currently, most farmers sell their crops to government controlled wholesale markets, or mandis, at assured floor prices. Under the new bills, farmers can sell directly to private players, without any guarantee of minimum prices. While initially the private sector could offer competitive prices, farmers fear this will eventually open the door to exploitation at the hands of the private sector. The new bills also remove restrictions on stockpiling commodities and limit litigation avenues in the case of contract breaches by the private sector.

While the government claims that these reforms will modernize the agricultural sector by increasing private sector investment, farmers fear this will come at the cost of their livelihoods.

Where does this stand now?

Three months later, farmers are still camped at the outskirts of Delhi, battling the bitter winter of Northern India. Negotiations between the farmer unions and the national government have yielded no results thus far. 

The situation escalated further after a large march on January 26th, India’s Republic Day, resulted in violent clashes with the police. The Indian government has since responded with egregious human rights violations, imprisoning journalists and blocking internet access. The recent escalation has brought this issue to the attention of international groups such as the Human Rights Watch and the United Nation Human Rights Council. The democratic right to peaceful protest is now under threat in India.

Why is this important?

Equal Exchange was founded in 1986 to give small farmers a platform in the global marketplace. 35 years later today, small farmers continue to be exploited at the hand of intermediaries and corporate behemoths. The protest in India is about small farmers exercising democracy against corporate control of the food system, an issue that lies at the core of Equal Exchange.

According to Tomy Mathew from the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala, Equal Exchange’s organic cashews partner in India, the current protests are “a uniquely Fair Trade movement.” As Tomy writes on the Fair World Project blog, “Minimum Support Price is near akin to the Fair Trade Minimum Price in trade justice parlance.” While Fair Trade offers certain protections to farmers, the inequities in the global food landscape are still set up to marginalize small farmers.

The fight for small farmers is a global one, with protests, such as the one in India, having ripple effects across the global food economy. Equal Exchange has always advocated for small farmers having a greater platform within the global food system. This is no different. Equal Exchange stands in solidarity with Indian farmers protesting for democratic control of the food system. 

1Agriculture Census Indian Experience, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 

Why Peruvian Avocados Matter

If you’re a U.S. consumer, 8 out of 10 times your avocado will come from Michoacán, Mexico. There are various reasons for this Mexican dominance of the U.S. avocado market: geographic proximity, ease of trade restrictions due to NAFTA, and a fairly long growing season that extends from August to May. However, as consumer demand has continued to boom, Mexico has struggled to keep pace with the burgeoning demand.

In order to diminish the gap between supply and demand, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cleared Peru for export in 2009, cleared Colombia for export in 2015, and has been pushing to open the Mexican state of Jalisco. While Mexico may still continue to be the biggest player in the U.S. market, it has become clear that other origins are needed to provide a stable and reliable year-round supply for consumers.

Peru Emerges As An Avocado Player

Peru has emerged as a prominent player in more recent years. It is important to mention that Peru has a thriving agricultural economy. Peruvian coffee and cacao are well known in specialty markets. More recently, the coastal region of Peru has emerged as major hotspot for produce production. Peru has become a produce powerhouse, accounting for a large percentage of asparagus, grapes, and mangoes imported into the U.S. For this reason, it comes as no surprise that Peruvian avocados are gaining a bigger share of the U.S. market.

A major advantage for Peruvian avocados lies in their seasonality for exports, which roughly extends from May to August. This serves as a good complement to the Mexican export season, which lasts from August to May. This timeline has provided Peruvian avocados with a tremendous window of opportunity, as Peru has been able to supply avocados when sparse product has been available on the U.S. market.

To shine some numbers onto this growth: In 2010, the USDA reported 300,000 pounds of imports from Peru, while in 2018 Peru imported an impressive 180 million pounds of avocados (USDA ERS). In 2018, Peruvian avocados accounted for 8% of all avocados imported into the U.S. While conventional Peruvian avocados have been a large percentage of that growth, organic and/or Fair Trade Peruvian avocados are a more recent addition to the U.S. market.

LaGrama Avocados Sunset
An avocado farmer with some of his harvest for the day, against the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset in the Andes mountains.

 

Equal Exchange Enters The Peruvian Market

In 2018, Equal Exchange launched its Peruvian avocado program in partnership with LaGrama, a Peruvian company providing essential services to small scale farmers in Peru. Equal Exchange saw the opportunity to bring in a Peruvian program during the summer months, when supply of organic, Fair Trade Mexican avocados is fairly limited. More importantly, Equal Exchange’s mission has always been to create space for small farmers in the global marketplace. This has been true in coffee, tea, cacao, and bananas.

As the Peruvian avocado market expands, we saw the need to give small farmers a share of that growing market. The Peruvian avocado industry is young, dynamic and developing. We have an opportunity here to include small farmers into the mix at the very onset of this emerging industry. After extensive research with industry partners and a sourcing trip to Peru, we were thrilled to find partners like LaGrama that align with our mission and vision for change in the avocado industry. This summer, we are excited to be offering a second season of small farmer grown, Fair Trade, Organic Peruvian avocados.

Oscar Estela, Fairtrade, talk to producers Adapo cooperative.
A LaGrama team member talking to avocado farmers about best practices for avocado production, part of essential technical services provided by LaGrama to avocado farmers.

Lessons Learned One Year Later

Building a successful program takes time and patience. After our first season of Peruvian avocados, we now understand that there are some inherent differences between Mexican and Peruvian avocados and given the Mexican dominance of the U.S. market, retailers and consumers are more familiar with the characteristics of a Mexican avocado. This understanding was part of our learning curve during the first year of the program.

While both the imported Mexican and Peruvian avocados are Hass varieties, there are crucial differences in the climate in which these avocados are grown. Mexican avocados are grown in semi-warm or temperate climates with natural rainfall patterns. In Peru, avocados are grown in an arid climate with the help of intensive irrigation infrastructure. Since avocados are not native to Peru, Peruvian avocados are under constant climatic pressure.

Some of the perceivable differences between the Mexican and Peruvian avocados, such as the texture of the skin and difference in color, are a result of these contrasting climates. Other factors come into play as well. Because of the geographical proximity of Mexico, Mexican avocados can be harvested at a much higher oil content, as dictated by USDA regulations. Peruvian avocados, on the other hand, are harvested at a lower oil content due to the longer transit time. This means Peruvian avocados require more handling as they need more time to ripen.

We now understand that it will take some time for consumers and retailers to familiarize themselves with Peruvian avocados, especially within the organic and Fair Trade market. We strongly believe that with more education and exposure, the U.S. consumer base will become more accustomed to Peruvian avocados. Until then, we will continue to provide the information and tools needed to build a small farmer movement in Peruvian avocados.

EE Staff in Peru
Equal Exchange team members, Jessica Jones-Hughes and Ravdeep Jaidka, during a trip to visit LaGrama in March 2018.

Being part of an alternative business means not only responding to demand, but actively creating demand for alternatives that lead to positive change in the food system. Equal Exchange did not get into small farmer, Fair Trade bananas because there was a demand for it. We got into bananas because there was a need for it. We are here to do the same with small farmer grown Peruvian avocados.