Kenyan Farmers Versus Euro Environmentalists

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Evelyn Hockstein / Polaris

Fresh baby corn is unloaded and prepared for shipment to the UK in Kibwezi, Kenya

In his shabby T-shirt and flip-flops, Peter Ndivo looks an unlikely combatant in a battle with environmentalists thousands of miles away. Yet, Ndivo's three-acre farm in rural Kenya is in the front line of a dispute that pitches eco-minded Western consumers against poor African communities: The consumers, concerned by the global-warming effect of burning jet fuel to fly produce from distant lands to European supermarkets, are pressing supermarkets to curb such imports; the farmers see flying fashionable baby aubergines and mange tout peas to Europe as their ticket out of poverty.

"We have seen big changes," says Ndivo, taking time out from tending his crop of baby corn. "Some now are able to pay school fees, to save money and they can manage their homes in a way they couldn't before."

Ndivo is typical of Kibweze's farmers. Three years ago he pulled up his tomato and onion plants, replacing them with baby corn — a crop he had never seen, much less eaten. His crop is purchased by a distribution company, backed by the charity CARE, which sells the produce to British supermarkets.

Exporting boutique crops to Europe has more than doubled the income of farmers like Ndivo, who now takes home 20,000 shillings ($300) a month from his three acres of land. It is enough to keep his daughter in school and buy another acre for development.

The signs of Kibweze's newfound prosperity are everywhere. Two banks have opened branches, shiny bicycles fill the dirt tracks that criss-cross the village and new buildings are appearing everywhere. Vegcare, the company that collects the produce and sells it on to Britain, estimates the trade is worth $46,000 to the village each month. And the same effect is visible elsewhere, as fresh flowers, fruit and vegetable now make up two-thirds of exports from Kenya to the European Union, according to the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya. Half of this goes to British supermarket shelves and is worth $200 million each year to Kenya, where it supports 135,000 jobs.

But the trade is under threat from Britain's environment lobby. Several supermarkets, including Tesco and Marks & Spencer, have already responded to pressure to reduce their "carbon footprint" by using an airplane logo on flowers, fruit and vegetables that have been air-freighted to alert environment-minded shoppers.

Last month Britain's Soil Association, which certifies produce as organic, toughened its rules for air-freighted food. Suppliers must show evidence that farmers in developing countries are being paid a fair price, and that there are no local markets for their produce. Anna Bradley, chair of the Soil Association standards board, explained: "It is neither sustainable nor responsible to encourage poorer farmers to be reliant on air freight, but we recognize that building alternative markets that offer the same social and economic benefits as organic exports will take time. Therefore, the Soil Association will be doing all it can to encourage farmers in developing countries to create and build organic markets that do not depend on air freight."

The people of Kibweze are baffled by the air-miles debate. They have certainly noticed the effects of climate change, with the traditional wet and dry seasons now becoming flood and drought seasons. "But I don't think it's my fault," says farmer John Muyu. His argument is supported by research at Cranfield University in the U.K., which found that the carbon footprint from flying flowers grown in Kenya to Britain can be less than one fifth of the figure for flowers grown in Dutch greenhouses.

Few farmers here can afford fertilizers, pesticides or electricity to heat greenhouses; most use environmentally friendly methods because they have no alternative. And then there's the development argument.

"It's about moving away from aid toward trade," says Jane Ngige, of the Kenyan Horticulture Association. "It is amazing the impact it can have producing more dignified and decent work for many rural people. It also serves as a conduit for bringing roads, power and so on."

Kenyan farmers are trying to hit back with a "Grown Under the Sun Campaign," using the label to remind shoppers in the West that the country's fruit, vegetables and flowers are produced with few inputs other than Kenya's plentiful rain and sunshine. Ngige says consumers need to have the whole supply chain not just one step. "To look just at air freight is short-sighted," she says.