Can Fair Trade and organic agriculture help us meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? That was the topic at a recent conference in Villach, Austria. The conference was part of the ongoing “Networking in Europe: Local Governments Meet the MDGs” project, which joins cities and NGOs across Europe in exploring how we can help to create a sustainable, fairer world through action at the local level.
The MDGs are often thought of as something which involve targets for developing countries only, but goals 7 and 8 — on environmental sustainability and partnerships for development — involve everyone.
The Villach conference had two strands. One emphasised practical, down-to-earth action on climate and sustainable agriculture and trade. We visited one
of the Villach kindergartens where children eat organic food — with the meals costing the same price as conventional meals — and ate easily the best school food imaginable. Later we also heard a terrific presentation from the people who had organised the project to use organic food in all Villach’s kindergartens: they shared why and how they had chosen to go this route and how they had brought others along with them.
We heard from a local farmer who was one of about 30 who had started Biobote, a cooperative that could deliver all manner of organic goods to local consumers. An innovative organic baker
shared the background to his move to going organic and what it had meant for his bakery. We learned about — and went to visit — a weekly organic farmers market that gives local producers the opportunity to offer high-quality, sustainably produced food directly to the public. We heard from the directors of the local Fair Trade shop and were able to visit
the shop itself, a beautifully designed space that not only features fairly traded products from around the world but also offers space for educational events on Fair Trade.
It was fascinating to hear what the Fair Traders were doing — and they seemed to enjoy our presentation on Oxford City’s work on food printing and Fair Trade, including a short video of Gilli, Julie and Elizabeth from our two Fair Trade shops.
We even went to visit the local biomass plant, which provides heat and hot water for a substantial number of houses in the community … and the beautifully designed energy advice centre, with a stunning solar installation that provides energy not only for the centre itself, but also for surrounding houses.
The conference also had a theoretical strand which tied the local activities to the larger picture. A number of technical presentations explained Villach’s move towards sustainability in energy generation and use. Christian Salmhofer, one of the conference organisers, gave a presentation explaining how local, organic food could be part of the wider drive for climate justice. And Benedikt Haerlin from the Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft in Berlin gave a superb overview of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, the future of food and farming, and the relationship between these and other climate and development issues.
What did we come away with? A sense of learning through sharing — it was great to be able to hear what Villach was doing and to see ways in which we could learn from their work, and they from ours. A sense of encouragement — it’s tremendous to feel that there are people working on sustainability and justice all over Europe. And a sense of the importance of “keeping on” and growing what we do — what happens locally matters not just for us but for the wider world.
The Networking in Europe project is funded by the EU. As well as aiming to help local communities meet the MDGs, it also aims to make connections among different parts of Europe and between local authorities and civil society. The connections that are being made are therefore not incidental, but an important part of the programme.