More Say for Smallholders Will Help Standards Address Poverty

Author: Sara Elder

Having a say in the decisions that affect their lives is critical for poverty reduction among smallholder farmers, and the case of voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) is no exception. At IISD, we recently took a close look at how VSSs contribute to poverty reduction among smallholders by assessing how they address three crucial dimensions of poverty: access to resources, opportunities and choice, and power and voice.

We examined 13 widely adopted agricultural standards and found that VSSs can help producers access resources (e.g., via increased crop income, soil and forest conservation, and social capital) and opportunities for training, employment, and sustainable farm management. But we also saw that these standards fall short in enhancing farmers’ power and voice, a gap highlighted by farmer representatives speaking at the report’s global launch webinar.

VSSs are making some progress to include the voice of producers through grievance mechanisms that provide an avenue for worker input, as well as by opening consultations when designing or updating a standard. These are encouraging developments, but they do not always reach smallholder farmers and are not yet standard practice. Many smallholders still lack all the information on VSS requirements, processes, and implementation and have limited say in VSS design, decisions, and governance systems. This represents a missed opportunity for standards to bring smallholder voices into value chains.

“Normally, the standards … are developed by value chain players, then they are pushed onto smallholder farmers.”

Norbert Tuyishime, Program Officer, Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF)

“Lack of consultation leads to a huge range of standards not always adapted to local conditions, and not always built on farmers’ needs and priorities, not always matched to their capacities. They need to be built on these and adapted to local contexts,” said Marike de Peña, Chair of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Fair Trade Small Producers and Workers and Director of the cooperative Asociación de Bananos Ecológicos de la Línea Noroeste (Banelino).

Power asymmetries in global commodity markets disempower smallholders in both conventional and VSS-compliant commodities alike. “Normally, the standards … are developed by value chain players, then they are pushed onto smallholder farmers,” said Norbert Tuyishime, Program Officer with the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF). “They will adopt them, forcefully, because they know at the end of the day [if they don’t] they will not have anywhere to offload their produce.”

“VSSs may be voluntary for buyers and end-consumers, but understanding the not-so-voluntary dynamics facing small-scale farmers is important.”

Sara Elder, Policy Advisor, IISD

VSSs may be voluntary for buyers and end-consumers, but understanding the not-so-voluntary dynamics facing small-scale farmers is important. Going forward, smallholders must be recognized as key value-chain players and have a say during discussions and decision making around standards. “We need to analyze how we can improve the leverage and marketing power of farmers within their own country and vis-à-vis a supply chain system buying from them,” stressed Henk Gilhuis, Manager, Research, and Impacts with Rainforest Alliance.

There are many ways VSSs can better support the direct involvement of smallholders, ensuring they have information as well as a greater share and power in decision making. For instance, VSS bodies could support farmers’ access to VSS-related knowledge (e.g., requirements, processes, and complaint procedures) with materials provided in farmers’ language and in an accessible medium, such as local radio. They could facilitate regular community-based consultations and involve local smallholder delegates in VSS decision-making processes and ensure small-scale producers have votes as well as veto power in standards governance bodies. 

The good news is that there is already progress underway to make VSSs more inclusive and shift the balance of power toward farmers, such as the emergence of local standards and living income benchmarking.

In some cases, international standards are being adapted to local contexts, so they are less costly and aligned with farmer priorities, making it easier for them to participate and helping to ensure the standards meet their needs. For instance, in several countries, national good agricultural practice (GAP) standards have been developed (e.g., KenyaGAP, ChileGAP) that are benchmarked against international GLOBALG.A.P. standards. In other cases, alternative local standards are being developed, such as Trustea (India) and EcoMark Africa. There are also participatory guarantee systems that certify organic production for local markets, which promise to be more inclusive and accessible for farmers.

Some VSSs are starting to incorporate criteria addressing a living income—one that would enable producers and their families to meet their basic needs based on their actual cost of living. VSS bodies could play a role in calculating living wages and product prices, which could then serve as a reference to support broader wage and price increases. Standards are well placed to coordinate with authorities, buyers, traders, and producers to do so while involving and encouraging all value-chain actors to support living incomes for farmers.

Our research shows that standards can contribute to poverty reduction by offering farmers resources and opportunities. But smallholders still need a greater voice in the value chain and a seat at the decision-making table, and VSS bodies must continue to take steps toward inclusive practices that increase the power and augment the voices of farmers.

The author would like to thank David Perri and Cristina Larrea for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this blog.