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The first casualty: the fair green banana?

There was an audible sigh of relief on primetime morning radio a couple of days ago. Someone from the commentariat was predicting the demise fair trade, organics and all that, as the financial crisis migrates to the 'real economy' in Britain.

After all, when you're driven to abandon your pets because you can't afford to feed them, you're not going to pay extra for a fancy fair trade banana. And after you have lost your home, you're scarcely going to give a toss about a pricey organic banana - let alone the two in one.

Not necessarly so. In theory at least, this is precisely when the organic fair trade banana comes into its own.

Long-term fair trade commitments between consumers and producers are intended to replace the short-term speculative price fluctuations of world commodity markets. When the price fluctation is down, below even the cost of production - as it had been for a generation or more - then fair trade pays producers more. But when the price fluctuation is up - as it is now - then the long-term fair trade deal should actually cost consumers less than the 'market' price.

Equally, as the cost of producing cloned bananas on subsidized, petrochemically poisoned deserts in places like Guatemala rockets, so the skills of growing organic bananas in places like the Windward Islands become more desirable, their cost relatively lower.

Imagine that! Who in their right mind, having been driven from their pets and their home, is going to pay over the odds for their poisoned Chiquita banana - and on prinicple, because free trade is better than fair trade? Surely, organic fair trade wins hands down!

Well, sad to say, not necessarily so either.

Even fair green banana growers (like all commodity producers) still live too close to subsistence for comfort. It is hard if not impossible for them to avoid the blandishments of a better short-term free-market price offered by the dreaded local dealers or 'coyotes', who never quite go away for good. It is certainly a lot harder for fair green traders to convince new producers to sign up for a lower-priced but longer-term deal and satisfy the potential worldwide demand for fair green bananas that are actually cheaper.

If fair green traders think of their Unique Selling Point as in some way charitable, then it won't look right to be selling their bananas at below market prices to relatively prosperous consumers who thought they had been doing a fair green deed by supporting the label. Or, if fair traders think of themselves as variations on a familiar entrepreneurial theme, then they can scarcely do differently from what their more orthodox colleagues, like supermarkets or transnational corporations, have always done - hike up the price differential of the fair green banana and pocket the difference.

So it will, indeed, be entirely predictable if short-term profit wins out over long-term sanity, sending the fair green banana to the wall. That's what undue reliance on market mechanisms, on price as the only measure of value, will eventually do for everything. To be otherwise, the fair, green, co-operative producers would have to be matched by fair, green, co-operative shippers, insurers, financiers, processors, distributors, retailers and governments, who gobble up most of the price actually paid by consumers.

That takes us into political territory which charitable endeavour tends to shun - and entrepreneurial endeavour tends to think it already owns. But it does so at a time when financial crisis is only one aspect of something a lot larger, out there in the 'real' world, that is making the long term for climate change and global justice a lot shorter. The fate of the fair green banana depends, as indeed it should, on a lot else besides.

To find out more about what happens to bananas take a look at the NI back issue

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