Spices: the true cost of a kitchen staple

From habitat loss to human rights abuses; as Jeff Holman discovered, your pepper, saffron and turmeric aren’t quite as innocent as they seem

Turmeric, saffron, nutmeg and ginger are just some of the spices that many of us use on a daily basis. The health benefits – from easing heartburn to soothing an upset stomach – are widely known but the spices available in supermarkets aren’t always produced in ethically sound or environmentally friendly ways. Although organic versions are becoming increasingly available, the majority of spices are grown in monocultures while many more originate from dubious sources. Take saffron for example. With more than 80 per cent of the global supply grown and processed in Iran, a country notorious for human rights abuses, the kind of problems facing the spice industry become clear.

Axel Steenberg, a Fairtrade spice merchant based in the UK, says that the main issues facing the spice industry relate to the welfare of the spice processors. He goes on to describe the ways in which African women are exploited while producing our chillies, how child labour is employed during the vanilla harvest in Madagascar and the toll that market fluctuations have taken on the finances of Indian vanilla farmers. The common denominator in all these examples is poverty and lack of a voice with which to strike back. It’s for this reason that Fairtrade and organic choices are so important when it comes to purchasing spices. Fairtrade means that minimum standards on pricing for farmers and producers have to be upheld. Without them, third world farmers are completely at the mercy of the market, which can have dire consequences for those communities who depend on spice production as a source of liveable wages.

Responsible spice companies such as the Netherlands-based, Verstegen, work closely with organisations like the Fairtrade Foundation as part of their efforts to boost corporate social responsibility [CSR] into their business model. But it isn’t just CSR that counts; paying fair prices to suppliers also creates a fairer business model, as David Baily, sales manager at organic spice importer, Wayfairer, points out. ‘Growers who are generally the most exploited part of the supply chain can find a route to market while receiving a fair farm gate price for their produce,’ he says. Baily also says that it’s worth looking for the FLO-CERT stamp when buying spices. FLO-CERT is a third party company that inspects every stage of a product supply chain, from the producer to the store shelf, ensuring that a product certified Fairtrade, really is. According to Steenberg, this type of business model is good for everyone – from CEO to grower and consumer. ‘This positive cooperation between the people in the developed world and those countries like India, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar is vital,’ he comments. ‘It allows us to obtain a better product for ourselves, while also helping the communities and countries of origin address issues like poverty, education quality, living and healthcare standards, and financial security.’

What’s more, Steenburg and Baily aren’t alone in their recognition of the fact that a more sustainable spice trade means better spices for all. A report on the benefits of investing sustainable spices entitled Could You Pass Me The Sustainable Pepper, Please was published last year by the Dutch Federation for Spice Trading [NVS] and their NGO partners. The report confirmed that favourable trading conditions for spice farmers had the potential to result in a number of different benefits, including ‘economic, social, and environmental sustainability.’ By purchasing Fairtrade spices we create capital that can be invested in a better system of production though enriching the producers in the developing world. This creates a cycle of positive reinforcement that creates stronger ties between farmers and first world consumers.

This positive reinforcement is also a boon for the planet. The Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative lists loss of biodiversity as a key issue associated with spice production. According to the NVS report, loss of biodiversity along with other environmental issues such as short-sighted agricultural practices that degrade soil and create more pollution, could be avoided. It suggests increasing Fairtrade spice production as a way of getting more capital to farmers, enabling them to make necessary environmental changes to their growing practices. Currently, because of their vulnerability to volatile markets, farmers struggle to grow enough crops to generate a profit. ‘Farmers receive little incentive to produce spices according to better agricultural practices,’ says the report, ‘or to the social and environmental norms that prevail on the European market if doing so will cost them liveable pay. Farmers who are fairly paid for their spices can afford to be more eco-conscious when it comes to their crops, as that safety net provides them with greater economic security for themselves and their families.’

But biodiversity loss isn’t the only problem with the spice industry. As commodity prices have flatlined, farmers have been put under increased pressure to boost their yields, which has led, inevitably, to increased agrochemical use. The field, though, isn’t the only place where chemicals are to be found. According to Kumud Gandhi, founder of The Cooking Academy and The Saffron House, many generic spices found on supermarket shelves have been boosted with artificial dyes or flavouring, or diluted. ‘This,’ she adds, ‘is bad news for consumers because such processes negate the full health and flavour benefits the spices might otherwise offer.’ The solution says Gandhi is to buy fresh, directly from the producer. Not only do fresh spices taste better but they also last longer as their purity allows you to use them in smaller amounts each time you cook.

Buying directly from the producer might not be practical for everyone but buying Fairtrade and organic should be within everyone’s grasp. That a food with such culinary and health-boosting benefits should be contaminated with dyes and produced in a system that facilitates human rights and environmental abuses is surely a tragedy. Happily, it’s not one that we have to accept.

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