Standing with Small-Scale Farmers: An Interview with Fair World Project’s Dana Geffner

Small farmers produce over 70 percent of the world’s food on one-quarter of the planet’s farmland. This may not be possible for much longer. With the pressure of globalization, unjust competition, lack of access to information and changing climate patterns, small-scale farmers around the world are struggling to sustain their livelihoods.

So, what can each of us do to help ensure we have enough food to feed the world going forward? How can we support small-scale farmers, who are bearing the brunt of the impacts of our economic system?

Grow Ahead interviewed Dana Geffner, co-founder and Executive Director of Fair World Project (FWP), an NGO that advocates for fair trade policies that foster a just economy. She is also on Grow Ahead’s board of directors. 

In her interview with Grow Ahead, Dana tells us her story. From teaching in the high tech industry, traveling Latin America and witnessing the detrimental impacts of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), selling handicrafts door to door, to her work with FWP, Dana has dedicated her life to engaging consumers so they can participate in creating a more just economy through the market and in transforming policy.


Interview: Dana Geffner | July 6, 2017

Grow Ahead (GA): Tell us your story. What led you to co-found FWP?

Dana Geffner (DG): My work in the fair trade movement began after traveling and volunteering in Latin America. In the late 1990s, I was working in the high tech industry and also teaching high school students when I decided I wanted to travel and learn from different cultures. I started volunteering in communities in Guatemala and Nicaragua. During this time I learned about how NAFTA policies impacted the daily lives of people in the region so that a handful of corporations could reap the benefits of high profits at the expense of local people and their communities. I wanted people in the United States to understand what happens to communities abroad when policies crafted by corporations place the importance of profits over people and the environment. Communities were being devastated, families were being broken up, girls were being forced into prostitution. I wanted to show people that alternatives existed through solidarity partnerships and economic development programs that put communities first. That’s how I found the fair trade movement. In 1999, I returned to the U.S. and started focusing on educating my friends and families in their homes about the issues and challenges that small-scale producers in the global south face due to unjust competition and policies implemented by global north countries.

Dana weaving with Tradiciones De Mayas, a foundation that works with Maya Women and their communities

GA: You also organized communities to discuss these issues, can you tell us about that?

DG: Very soon this became a business model with an educational component. I started organizing communities in homes, churches and community centers throughout the U.S. to talk about these issues. I packed up my car and drove around the country to sell handicrafts and coffee from weaving communities throughout Latin America, and eventually other marginalized communities around the world that were impacted by international policies.

A strong dedicated contingency existed in the U.S. that recognized the importance of creating a solidarity movement with small-scale producers in the global south, who were (and still are) bearing the brunt of the impacts of our economic policies. I was invited to stay in the homes of people that helped me organize these educational events across the country. People believed in a solidarity movement that could change our economic system that would allow small-scale producers to be at the forefront and empowered to build their own communities how they wanted to. We were passionate about creating a different system than the colonialist system of institutionalized oppression and that for so long had dictated the lives and exploited the most marginalized communities.

GA: How has fair trade evolved since that time?

DG: Over a decade later, the dialogue in the fair trade movement changed to being about certification only. The main certification system and NGOs were promoting a marketplace label that was used to sell products without any analysis or discussion about building a solidarity economy. “Fair trade” certification was showing up on packaging by large multinational brands known for their exploitative business practices without really changing their core values and practices.

A few of us from the movement started talking about creating an organization that could tell the stories that so deeply needed to be told. We wanted to tell stories that were more complex than the marketing narratives that were coming to dominate so much of the conversation, stories that would engage people to take action.

We started by producing a magazine called For A Better World, free of advertising, published twice a year. We very quickly realized that we needed to do more than telling stories and educating readers. That’s where the other work that we do got started: today we do a lot of watchdogging the certification systems and creating campaigns to help people engage in our political systems to shape policies that impact people and our planet.

GA: Tell us more about FWP’s work.

DG: FWP works to build a just economy that benefits and empowers all people, especially those traditionally marginalized in our current system, including family-scale farmers, small-scale artisans, and food and apparel workers. We educate consumers, retailers, manufacturers and marketers about standards, criteria and the potential of fair-washing behind claims of fairness and justice on products. We also work to educate about the benefits and limitations of depending solely on third-party verifications. We work to engage people to become active citizens and take action in our political system to help transform international trade policies to help create a more just economy.  

GA: What are some of the major challenges small farmers around the world are struggling with?

DG: I’ve visited cotton farmers that have only seen one-third of their normal yields due to radically changing weather patterns, and coffee farmers losing entire crops to La Roya, a disease that is exacerbated by climate change and has been rampant throughout Latin America coffee farming communities.

Small farmers are losing their land at alarming rates due to pressures ranging from corporate policies and land grabs to crop failure due to the climate crisis. Policies continue to be written by large multinational corporations that put profits over people.

Small-scale farmers are marginalized and are up against large farms and agribusiness. These big businesses have lobbyists supporting their vision of trade policy, they have easy access to capital and markets, and they can take advantage of economies of scale.

GA: Small farmers produce over 70-percent of the world’s food on one-quarter of the earth’s farmland. Will this even be possible in the future? How are we going to sustain this in order to feed 9 billion people by 2050?

Dana speaking at Rock Against the TPP.

DG: With the pressure of a global economy with unjust competition, transportation challenges, lack of information and changing climate patterns, small-scale farmers will struggle to continue to feed the majority of the world.

Our only hope for feeding a growing population is focusing on transforming policies to protect small-scale farmers. We need to halt subsidies for industrial agriculture and punish bad actors that exploit people, animals and the planet. We need to put small-scale farmers at the forefront of policy-making decisions. 

Small-scale farmers need funding to combat this climate crisis that they had no responsibility in creating. There are farmers who are incredibly innovative, coming up with techniques for more resilient, regenerative production‒with access to funding, they can share those methods with others so they too can continue to cultivate their land despite these rampant challenges.

And as consumers we need to support brands that are building supply chains in partnership with small-scale farmers so they can consistently use regenerative organic techniques that protect their land, build their communities and combat climate change.

GA: How can and why should consumers play a role in standing with small farmers?

One of the 5 coops that Tradiciones de Mayas works with.

DG: Consumers can play a major role in standing with small-scale farmers by supporting brands that put small-scale farmers at the forefront of their business model. They can also donate to funding organizations (like Grow Ahead) that provide farmer to farmer training and microloans that enable farmers to implement regenerative organic agriculture to reverse the impacts of climate change on their communities and the world. And consumers must become engaged and active citizens and call and write to their members of congress to tell them why they believe our food system is important and why small-scale farmers are the key to helping us deal with this climate crisis.

GA: Why is Grow Ahead important and why did FWP want to be involved with re-launching this initiative?

DG: Grow Ahead is important because it allows everyone to participate in building a more just food system. Small-scale farmers have the answers but they did not create this crisis and so all the burden should not be on their backs. Grow Ahead allows consumers to engage directly with farmers beyond just purchasing products. It allows each of us to take responsibility of the impact we each have on this planet.