Enhancing Fairtrade farmers’ resilience to environmental change

Enhancing Fairtrade farmers’ resilience to environmental change


Agricultural production across the globe is being affected by multiple environmental challenges, the most important of which include climate change, biodiversity loss and land degradation (Reed and Stringer, 2016). These challenges threaten the production and supply of foodstuffs (Benton and Bailey, 2019; Beddington 2009). Companies trading agricultural crops, as well as the farmers who grow them, are increasingly aware of the importance of sustaining the terrestrial ecosystem services that underpin crop production, as well as recognising the need to adapt to climate change (Haggar 2013, Leat et al 2013;  Rueda et al 2017).  At the same time, consumers can choose to buy food and food products that are grown to specific environmental and social standards.

Fairtrade is an alternative approach to conventional trade, based on a partnership between producers and consumers. When farmers sell on Fairtrade terms, it provides them with a better deal and improved terms of trade, and research suggests that Fairtrade certification puts them in a better position to adapt to climate change (Borsky and Spata, 2018). Fairtrade’s vision is a world in which all producers can enjoy secure and sustainable livelihoods, fulfil their potential and decide on their future. Fairtrade therefore works to provide farmers from developing countries with fairer trade conditions that allow them to combat poverty, strengthen their position and take control over their lives.

Collaborative Research Partnership

Working in collaboration with Fairtrade International in Bonn, Germany , this CASE Award project considers how climate change and losses of ecosystem services due to land degradation, are affecting Fairtrade farmers, across geographies and products.  It will critically assess the impacts on crops in the Fairtrade system, using surveys and other tools to review how Fairtrade’s current climate change projects are working, and will make recommendations to enhance Fairtrade international’s interventions to support climate change mitigation, resilience building, and adaptation efforts for affected Fairtrade farmers.

Fairtrade International realizes that secure and sustainable livelihoods cannot be achieved without addressing environmental changes at a variety of levels from farm to landscape and along the supply chain. Crops certified in the Fairtrade system that are already affected by climate change and land degradation in some locations include rice, cocoa, coffee, bananas, and vegetables such as green beans due to increases in average temperature and changes in rainfall patterns (Nelson et al 2010).  The impacts of climate change vary across crop types requiring different responses from farmers over differing time scales.  For annual crops, farmers need to develop flexible strategies to deal with the impacts of climate change, perhaps selecting different seeds or reviewing pest management strategies or harvesting periods.  For perennial crops such as tea, cocoa, coffee and fruit, there are much longer lead times which means that action is needed now in some locations (Laderach et al 2017).  Already coffee growers face challenges of less land being suitable for coffee growing due to temperature rises (especially for Arabica where quality depends on elevation), impacts on yield, and increased pest and disease pressure. For example, climate change has increased the susceptibility of coffee to Leaf Rust (Hemileia vastatrix), a fungal disease triggered by high temperatures and high rainfall. Central America was hit by a wave of Leaf Rust in 2012, with Guatemalan producers losing up to 85 per cent of their crop and the fungus appearing in mountainous parts of Colombia where previously it had been too cool for it to develop (Climate Institute 2016) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Climate Change & Coffee. Source: Climate Institute (2016:3)

The issues

Researchers are working to develop future climate scenarios and adaptation options for some crops and in specific contexts.  With respect to  Nicaraguan coffee, Laderach et al (2017) have set out adaptation scenarios which range from replacing Arabica with Robusta or other crops such as cocoa, planting new varieties or shade and irrigation to expansion to new (more elevated) areas.  In tea, enhancing the efficiency of irrigation has been recommended to enable climate adaptation in Vietnam (Hong and Yabe 2017) whereas in other locations the main challenges are exposure to new and more invasive pests.  There are challenges that might relate to very specific production sites and others are prevalent across a production landscape and require a more coordinated approach to enable resilience and potentially transformation (Mallet et al 2016; Nelson and Phillips 2018).  As the effects of these challenges become more evident, farmers need additional technical support, to monitor and adapt to the impacts in different locations. Fairtrade International is interested in enhancing knowledge on climate change and environmental degradation to inform Fairtrade standards development (Howard et al., 2015) and enhance the resilience of farmer groups (Tyszler et al 2018).  It requires more nuanced information on climate and environmental change impacts on a wide variety of crops in different locations, and adaption solutions that are appropriate for often resource-poor farmers.

Fairtrade’s  climate change work is organized into projects focused around three components: adaptation, mitigation and advocacy. Under the adaptation component, Fairtrade trains and supports smallholder farmers to carry out climate risk and opportunity analysis, prepare adaptation plans, and implement adaptation interventions through projects. The mitigation component is driven by the Fairtrade Climate Standard under whose auspices smallholder farmers are supported in implementing carbon reduction projects. The advocacy component is focused on bringing the voice of the smallholder farmers regarding climate change impacts to global events that address climate change and to advocate for financial and technical support. Fairtrade believes that in addition to creating fairer trading conditions for farmers in developing countries, it can be used as a vehicle for contributing to the global efforts on climate change mitigation and adaptation to climate change (see Fairtrade International, no date)


The project

This project aims to contribute to debates around climate resilient agriculture, land degradation neutrality, biodiversity loss, ecosystem services and climate adaptation measures (including resilient crop varieties, pest management, soil management). Findings will inform on-going climate change work at Fairtrade International.

The supervisors have a long-established relationship with Fairtrade International, who hosted a previous NERC-ESRC PhD student whose work informed the Fairtrade Climate standard.  Our partnership has also led to joint work on academic-NGO research relationships (Justice et al 2018; Tallontire et al 2020).

According to the interests and expertise of the student, and engagement with Fairtrade International and its member producer networks, the student could combine approaches such as:

  1. Mapping and quantifying climate change, biodiversity loss and land degradation impacts on key crops in the Fairtrade system, drawing on data from global and regional climate and crop models.
  2. Analysing understanding and experience of environmental changes and understanding of risks amongst Fairtrade farmers
  3. Comparing environmental change impacts experienced in different regions producing the same crop (e.g. across a rainfall gradient)
  4. Analysing trade-offs between climate change adaptation measures and other ecosystem services (e.g. impacts of new climate resilient varieties on biodiversity; impacts on water availability)
  5. Analysing environmental change that affects Fairtrade farmers at multiple scales and levels, from farm to landscape to supply chain, and the feedbacks between impacts at these different levels and scales
  6. Identifying, developing and testing key quantitative and qualitative indicators for monitoring and evaluation of adaptation measures
  7. Identifying measures that farmers, farmer groups and companies in the supply chain can undertake to enhance resilience
  8. Participatory scenario development and decision-making exercises identifying what affects the adoption and disadoption of adaptation measures that can contribute positively towards building farm resilience

We anticipate that the student would spend 6-9 months undertaking primary data collection in countries where Fairtrade crops are impacted by different kinds of climate change processes following a successful transfer viva.

In line with the collaborative nature of this project, the research approach would likewise need to be action-oriented, bringing together both excellent social and/ or natural science with applied impact. In addition to the peer-reviewed publications expected from a PhD, the student would also be responsible for delivering webinars updating Fairtrade stakeholders as to the emerging findings of their work. Once findings solidify, the student should expect to produce short, crisp, non-academic reports detailing key findings, their implications for Fairtrade’s climate change work, and recommendations for action at both the producer network and the international level. These reports will likely help inform the rollout or evaluation of specific climate and environmental change projects, assist with the further development of Fairtrade’s climate change work, contribute to the accomplishment of an EC Framework Partnership Agreement, and help the implementation of the 2021-2030 Fairtrade International strategy.

After completion of the PhD, the student will be well-situated to pursue a career in academia but likewise in international organizations or the charity development or environmental sectors.



Beddington, Sir J. 2009. Professor Sir John Beddington’s Speech at SDUK 09. GovNet Communications, Birmingham, UK. [online] http://www.gren.org.uk/resources/Beddington’sSpeechatSDUK09.pdf

Benton, T., & Bailey, R. (2019). The paradox of productivity: Agricultural productivity promotes food system inefficiency. Global Sustainability, 2, E6. doi:10.1017/sus.2019.3

Bennett, E., S. Carpenter, L. Gordon, N. Ramankutty, P. Balvanera, B. Campbell, W. Cramer, J. Foley, C. Folke, L. Karlberg, J. Lui, H. Lotze-Campen, N. Mueller, G. D. Peterson, S. Polasky, J. Rockström, R. Scholes, and M. Spirenburg. 2014. Toward a more resilient agriculture. Solutions 5(5):65-75

Borsky, Stefan; Spata, Martina (2018) The Impact of Fair Trade on Smallholders’ Capacity to Adapt to Climate Change, Sustainable Development, 26(4): 379-398

Climate Institute (2016) A Brewing Storm – Report Highlights Risk of Climate Change to Coffee, report for Fairtrade Australia & New Zealand.

Fairtrade International (no date) Climate Change, Fairtrade International, https://www.fairtrade.net/programmes/climate-change.html, last accessed 12 August 2019/

Haggar, Jeremy and Kathleen Schepp  (2012) Coffee and Climate Change Impacts and options for adaption in Brazil, Guatemala, Tanzania and Vietnam, NRI Working Paper Series: Climate Change, Agriculture and Natural Resources, 4. Chatham: Natural Resources Institute.

Haggar, Jeremy (2013)  Supporting Ecosystem Services in  Fairtrade Value Chains, NRI Working Paper Series: Climate Change, Agriculture and Natural Resources, 5. Chatham: Natural Resources Institute.

Hong, Nguyen and Yabe, Mitsuyasu (2017) Improvement in irrigation water use efficiency: a strategy, Environment, Development and Sustainability, 2017, 19(4):1247-1263

Howard RJ, Tallontire AM, Stringer LC, Marchant RA. 2016. Which “fairness”, for whom, and why? An empirical analysis of plural notions of fairness in Fairtrade Carbon Projects, using Q methodology. Environmental Science and Policy. 56, pp. 100-109

Howard RJ, Tallontire AM, Stringer LC, Marchant RA. 2015. Unraveling the Notion of “Fair Carbon”: Key Challenges for Standards Development. World Development. 70, pp. 343-356

Justice, J., Tallontire, A., Hastings, J., Mendoza, A., Kour, H (2018) Game play as a safe critical space for exploring research collaboration, SRI Briefing Paper 17, University of Leeds, [online] http://www.see.leeds.ac.uk/fileadmin/Documents/research/sri/briefingnotes/Justice_et_al.__2018_SRI_Briefing_Note_No._17.pdf [accessed 10 December 2018]

Läderach, PeterRamirez-villegas, JulianNavarro-racines, CarlosZelaya, CarlosMartinez-valle, Armando; et al (2017) Climate change adaptation of coffee production in space and time, .Climatic Change;  141(1): 47-62. DOI:10.1007/s10584-016-1788-9

Leat P, Revoredo-Giha C (2013) Risk and resilience in agri-food supply chains: the case of the ASDA PorkLink supply chain in Scotland. Supply Chain Management; 18(2): 219–231.

Mallet, P. et al (2016) How sustainability standards can contribute to landscape approaches and zero deforestation commitments. ISEAL Alliance. https://www.isealalliance.org/sites/default/files/resource/2017-12/ISEAL_Standards%20_Contributions_to_Landscape_Approaches_April16_Final.pdf

Nelson, Valerie and Phillips, David (2018) Sector, landscape or rural transformations? Exploring the limits and potential of agricultural sustainability initiatives through a cocoa case study. Business Strategy and the Environment, 27 (2). pp. 252-262.

Nelson, V., Morton, J., Chancellor, T., Burt, P., and Pound, B (2010) Climate Change, Agricultural Adaptation and Fairtrade Identifying the Challenges and Opportunities, Natural Resources Institute University of Greenwich.

Reed MS, Stringer LC. 2016. Land degradation, desertification and climate change: Anticipating, assessing and adapting to future change. Routledge.

Rueda X, Garrett RD, Lambin EF (2017) Corporate investments in supply chain sustainability: selecting instruments in the agri-food industry. Journal of Cleaner Production 142: 2480–2492.

Tallontire, A., Mendoza, A., Justice, J., Kour, H., Kaiser, J., Hastings, J. (2020)  Towards a collaborative approach between practitioners and academics: insights from an academic–Fairtrade collaboration, Food Chain 9(1) https://doi.org/10.3362/2046-1887.19-00008

Tyszler M, Quiroga G, Audet-Belanger G, et al. (2018) Small Producer Organization (SPO) Development, Strengthening and Resilience. Amsterdam: KIT, Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (KIT, Royal Tropical Institute).  https://www.fairtrade.net/fileadmin/user_upload/content/2009/resources/2018_SPOstudy_OverallReport.pdf