Cashews are the most popular nuts in Europe and the US but the industry has a reputation for exploiting producers and workers. Liberation Foods, a company co-owned by farmers, argues that to be sure of the social and eco ethics of their nuts, retailers must trace the nuts back to their source.
Despite the cashew’s growing popularity amongst consumers the industry has a bad reputation; the nuts are notoriously hard to trace back to growers. Production can be exploitative and hazardous for workers – the caustic liquid inside the nut’s shell can be particularly harmful to the women who usually do this nimble work. So how can retailers be sure of the ethical credentials of their cashews?
Well, put simply, as with all products, traceability is the key. “Liberation can trace the nuts we sell in the UK back to individual farmers and factory workers. We do everything we can to ensure that people in our supply chain are making a decent living and are working in safe conditions”, says Kate Gaskell, MD, of Liberation Foods. In addition to following Fairtrade’s rigorous certification standards, Liberation Foods is also 44% owned by small-scale producer co-operatives, and they say that puts nut producers at the heart of everything they do.
One such producer is Aniamma Roy, the vice chairperson of Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK), an organisation of smallholder farmers based in the hilly Western Ghats of Kerala. Like all of the farmers they source from she is invested in the company’s success and is therefore happy to juggle her demanding duties as a farmer and mother with additional management duties for FTAK. Gaskell explains: “I believe it is important to have a close relationship with producers and on a recent visit to Kerala I met Aniamma and heard about the achievements of empowered, female community leaders.”
FTAK offers membership to whole families of farmers, not just land owners (who are usually men) which means women automatically have a say, and the alliance also has mandatory requirements for female representation in official positions. In fact in Aniamma’s community, women were the driving force in joining FTAK and starting to supply Liberation. “After our farm land was afflicted by disease and our crops and source of income were wiped out, the men had become despondent and were looking at opportunities to sell the land and migrate to the plains where there could at least find wage labour opportunities,” says Aniamma.
The women of FTAK established women’s ‘self-help’ groups to share knowledge, discuss their problems and come up with solutions together. They recalled the farming techniques of their grandmothers and realised that having a diverse range of crops, rather than just the one cash crop, would improve biodiversity and provide plenty of food for the household. The group invested the Fairtrade Premium from the sales of their nuts in vegetable gardening and paid for cattle and poultry. As well as ensuring food security for their families, they began to increase their earnings and the enriched soil improved the flavour and quality of subsequent crops too.
“The men in Aniamma’s community were proud to tell me that women had ‘breathed new life into their homestead farming existence’” says Gaskell. The women also lead and manage a community microfinance loan scheme and organic food businesses to bolster their incomes. Aniamma has been such a force for change that last year for National Nut Day, she left India for the first time to visit the UK and told campaigners and businesses about the impact of her work. She said:
“Women assuming leadership roles in organisations in our country is always a challenge… in FTAK, balancing organisational responsibilities and household responsibilities became a big challenge. My husband played a crucial supportive role in this…I now travel to all the districts of FTAK and meet with farmers. My awareness and knowledge has increased. I represent FTAK in many meetings and have even travelled abroad on behalf of the organisation. These were not things I imagined were going to happen.”
Empowering women to make decisions had a positive impact on the whole community. The land is more resistant to climate change and disease. And Aniamma is sharing her knowledge even further, which is important for a region of farmers coping with similar problems. For example, less rainfall now in Kerala means that it is no longer viable to rely on rice as their main staple, but the women have come up with another solution and are encouraging communities to switch to indigenous root vegetable tubers instead which require less water, are rich in protein and most importantly, are free. Gaskell adds:
“At Liberation we’ve been fortunate to go from strength to strength since we first began sourcing from Kerala in 2006. Because retailers know that our nuts are good quality and fully traceable, major retailers including Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s and Waitrose stock our nuts. This demand is directly benefitting producers across the region who previously struggled with fluctuating prices.”
FTAK members benefit from the security of stable prices and orders as well as funds for investing in their farms or community projects from the Fairtrade Premium. Thanks to higher incomes, many can invest in their children’s education. Aniamma’s daughter is now training to become a nurse and her son studying for a degree in physics – this wouldn’t have been possible without regular sales of Fairtrade nuts. And as farming becomes more profitable, there are also increasing numbers of young people in the community who are happy to stay on and follow their ancestors’ paths in organic farming, rather than migrating to cities.
Away from the farms, the people who work in the factory which processes Liberation’s cashews are also getting a decent wage and are protected by Fairtrade Standards, on food quality, health and safety and workers’ rights. They are safe places to work, workers use castor oil and gloves to protect their hands and social protections are also in place; they receive breaks, holidays and maternity pay. Gaskell says:
“Our producers have access to information, power and influence, they are involved in the running of FTAK, and Liberation too so they are motivated to keep making improvements to their businesses.”
Cashews are becoming ever more popular with the public, who are increasingly seeking alternatives to meat and so as retailers look to meet consumer demand they should invest in sustainable supply. That’s the only way as customers, we can understand the impact of our purchases and make sure we know where they came from and the people behind the products are treated decently.
So for National Nut Day on Saturday 22nd October 2016, as we celebrate the achievements of small-scale nut producers like Aniamma let’s all take responsibility for the future of this precious nut, and do more to ensure our cashews are ethical, sustainable and fully traceable.