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Finding a Sweet Spot for Fair Trade Sugar Farmers

Where would Americans be without sugar? Fair Trade labeling sweetens the opportunity for sustainability and better working conditions for workers.

Following Fair Trade: Even the most locally minded eaters tend to consume some foods and beverages that only grow in distant regions—usually the hot and tropical ones—and many of those areas are also home to some of the world’s poorest populations. To ensure people at the origin of global supply chains receive just treatment, adequate pay, and access to health, education and a good quality of life, the Fair Trade standard was created. Fair Trade regulations often have positive environmental consequences, but at the root protects people—facilitating farming practices and trade relationships that empower farmers and their communities.

The human predilection for sugar is one of our most essential characteristics. When we talk about truly enjoying life, it often boils down to eating dessert first. As a commodity, sugar is an important agricultural product. Because it is derived from both sugar cane and sugar beet, it can be produced in a range of climates, including parts of the U.S. If you purchase fair trade sugar, you are almost certainly buying crystals made from sugar cane grown in South America.


Sugar represents a massive percentage of the global food ingredient trade. As with bananas, the sugar industry in the U.S. is consolidated among a small number of corporations, so transitioning farmers to fair trade means involving some large, mainstream companies in reshaping the supply chain.

Paraguay has been one of the largest fair trade sugar suppliers to the U.S. since 2006. The country ships 45 percent of its national sugar production to America and comprises more than 85 percent of all of the U.S.'s fair trade sugar imports. Other fair trade sugar import countries include Malawi, the Phillippines, and Costa Rica.


Companies that make everything from ice cream to iced tea are eager to align their brands with a more sustainable image and are helping to boost the demand for fair trade ingredients in other markets. In Mexico and Belize, organizations have been recruiting conventional sugar farmers to take up fair trade practices in order to meet the demand.

Recruitment generally involves engaging farmers in long term contracts that give them the reassurance that they’ll get a good price for their product over time, even in the event of market fluctuations. The additional benefits of health care, education and community improvement go a long way toward convincing farmers that this is a good alternative to the conventional way of running their operations. Typically, small farmers have no bargaining power or even access to market information that would allow them to negotiate according to industry fluctuations. The low prices farmers are able to secure during the short sugar cane harvesting season are often not enough for most to sustain their farms or even a livelihood for their families and communities.

But with the additional funds made from fair trade labeling, one Paraguayan sugar co-operative was able to repair a bridge and acquire heavier equipment including a tractor and trucks to improve production efficiency and boost worker productivity.


The majority of fair trade sugar comes to us as packaged sugar or as an ingredient in pre-made consumer foods like chocolate and candy, canned drinks, ice cream, and jams.

This post is in partnership with Ben & Jerry's

Image 1 (cc) from Flickr user Public Domain Photos

Image 2 (cc) from Flickr user kmacelwee

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