Living income

Realising a living income for all

An image of a table fills the screen. “We are all gathered around one large table,” begins spoken-word artist Kwame Kondor. “If you look closely, we see there are seats missing at the table. Some get kicked under the table. Some people decide who gets the seats at the table. Or not. How can we take the table?”

Kondor continues. “I want to ask you today. Why are some people always poor? And others always rich? Does it help to send a few cents extra? Does that make it fair?” 

Millions of people who work worldwide in the agri-food chain live below the poverty line. Ensuring a liveable wage is fundamental to securing a decent standard of living for all, including food, water, housing, education, healthcare, transportation, clothing and other essentials. How can we realise a breakthrough in achieving a living income for all?

Living Income: Empowering farmers 
For farmers, encouraging self-organisation and a focus on identity creation strengthens their voices at the negotiation table and helps them secure livable incomes.

Challenges and approaches
“Living income is part of fairness,” says Marie-Ange Vaessen of EOSTA. “It’s very central to how we do business.” EOSTA is a distributor of fair fruit, and works with farmers and growers on various continents to sell to retailers in Europe. Eosta uses a sustainability flower framework to enhance the sustainability performance of its growers.

Marie-Ange believes the main challenge to securing living income is retailers. “The supermarkets in Europe buy our mangos at a higher price,” she says, “but they don’t want to commit long-term or they don’t want to communicate about it to the consumers. the system gets stuck when you don’t educate the consumers, who would be willing to pay ten cents more for a living-wage mango if they were informed.”

Michel Scholte, Director of the Impact Institute and True Price, calls for urgent action to tackle the underlying inequality. “The world is unequal. We can fix that,” he says. “It’s a matter of choice and budget allocation.” 

“We need to move on from good intentions. We don’t have a food crisis,” he says. “Sustainability isn’t really a crisis, there’s no climate crisis, not even a poverty and equality crisis. We have a hypocrisy crisis.” 

Pop singer The Weeknd was recently named a World Food Programme Goodwill Ambassador, and is worth 200 million. “A percentage of his income could alleviate this situation for millions of people. Alone in the US there are 3,200 billionaires. It’s obscene. How on earth can we take plans seriously if this is happening?”

One of the pathways to tackle inequality in the system is via ‘True Cost’ accounting and ‘True Pricing’. These help redefine value in food systems and integrate the costs of externalities i.e. negative effects on people or on nature, into the food price. Applying these principles is expected to vastly reduce the environmental and health costs of the food system, while making food affordable to all. True Price is currently building an international coalition on True Price Food, which received a lot of traction at the UN Food Systems Summit. The next step is to broadly socialise and mainstream the concept. Data, technology, software and education are needed, which help to take concrete steps including generating living wages and income.

No choice for farmers
Rachel Kurian, Lecturer of International Labour Economics at the Institute of Social Studies, says farmers have limited choices, in part because of debt repayment conditions. When asked why the bargaining position of farmers is so weak, Rachel cites the impact of the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the IMF and the World Bank in the 1980s/1990s, which pushed the commercialisation of agriculture at the cost of local food and nutrition security. These only served the interests of certain groups, in particular the big multinational companies.  

“Under the conditionalities, it states that you have to move more towards market-orientated reforms,” Rachel explains. “There is an emphasis with lenders that if a country wants to borrow money, they have to marketise. The reality is, of course, that there is a push towards creating products that can be exported and which have a certain commercial value. You need the export push to repay your debt. This is often at the cost of food security at the local level.”

The big question: Who should make a bold move? 
There was no clear consensus on this. “I think consumers can do the most, as long as they are also not struggling to get by,” Michel says. Marie-Ange partly agrees. “Within Europe”, she says, “there’s always a big push from the government. Government can do more to educate consumers.” 

“The perspectives differ on who should make the first bold move, but if no one does, how can we make a change?” says Rachel. In conclusion she points at the need for more civil society organisations and labour organisations to hold people accountable. She quotes Amartya Sen, an Indian economist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on hunger. “He was asked to sum up his work,” and he said, ‘I only need one word, and that word was avoidable’. I agree. As long as there is no political will, you will not be able to recognise that food is a basic right that should be given to all.”

Living Income: Empowering farmers 
For farmers, encouraging self-organisation and a focus on identity creation strengthens their voices at the negotiation table and helps them secure livable incomes.


“No voice at all”
Louie is struggling. A trade negotiator of a Latin American small island state, Louie is in a position to negotiate with producers, exporters and international public and private partners. He works with various stakeholders to structurally improve jobs and incomes, and make space for secondary and tertiary jobs. But he finds himself in a too weak negotiating position to secure a living wage for the farmers in his country. 

He has one central dilemma. “I need to make my negotiation position stronger” he says. But Louie is also facing other challenges, including;

  • Low prices at odds with living income.
  • Power imbalances when negotiating contracts and in outcomes.
  • The primacy of financial targets over socio-economic and ecological targets.
  • Uncertainty - are consumers in the West really prepared to pay more?

Louie, who is part of the Trade Committee of his island’s government, takes part in international trade negotiations and helps inform national practices. “I want people in the food sector in my country to earn a decent living,” says Louie, a 53-year-old public servant. “Not just sometimes, or a few cents more, but more structurally.” 

After deliberating on various pathways to securing living incomes and solving Louie’s problem, participants determined during the breakout that the best way for farmers to improve their livelihoods is to self-organise and put themselves more in the driver’s seat.

Bram Peters of Cordaid, who took part in discussions to propose pathways to solving Louie’s problem during the afternoon breakout session, summarised the conclusions as follows:

“We tried to put ourselves in the shoes of Louie, to secure a living income for the farmers in his country. We had a very good collaborative discussion and came up with two ideas. Louie needs a living income for the farmers because he wants them to have a decent life. He wants to be emboldened by having a vision of what is a quality and sustainable food system for his island. He needs a vision that can also help him to link different ideas on how to promote a locally-driven food system that’s beneficial for the consumers on the island, as well as the farmers themselves. 

Bram continued, “secondly, prioritise the idea of self organisation, especially focusing on farmers. How can farmers organise themselves? It can be about producing business models, developing export orientations, as well as generating quality improvement. Louie can help facilitate that by mobilising resources whilst incentivising local collaboration by enhancing education for instance. Local procurement can also be encouraged. In the end, it’s about how we translate this vision towards really empowering and self-organising these farmers, so they can achieve a better income and a realisation that farming can also be socially rewarding?”

In providing her feedback, Wilma van Esch, Head of the Food Security and Nutrition division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands commented, “I think this idea is great.” Wilma further observed some of the discussion leading up to this solution, and was just as impressed by the process as she was the conclusion. “It was pretty amazing. The goal was to choose one of four different ideas and choose one, but the group resisted that. They said it can’t be one of the four, you need all four ideas, and that’s the essential part, it’s a system. You need all the different elements, you cannot focus on just one.”

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