Carlo Sumaoang is a 34-year-old from the Philippines, and for work… he does a lot of different things: he manages the marketing for his family’s organic fertilizer business, and in 2016 he founded MNLGrowkits, a start-up that sells kits to get people started growing their own food. “They’re simple boxes with everything you need to start cultivating plants,” he explains. And he’s a farmer himself.
“I often hear that “fair” food has something to do with the people growing it,” says Sumaoang, who’s also the President of the Slow Food Youth Network in the Philippines. “Though I find it flattering, given that I’m a farmer, for me the concept of fair food doesn’t begin with humans, but with the earth, from the soil we use to cultivate our plants. Being fair means ensuring that we don’t use products or tools that compromise the future of our soil.” And that’s not all: according to Sumaoang, fair food is food that ensures a worthwhile life to the communities that produce it: “It’s impossible to speak about equality if we look at the issue from just one point of view. It’s important to put ourselves in the shoes of the different stakeholders and try to understand what they mean by this word.” Summing it up, he says: “Equality is ensuring that every actor in the food production chain get the same opportunities.”
Opportunities. Something that, in the Philippines, are often hard to come by: “We’re considered an agricultural nation, but our agricultural industry is quite backwards compared to our neighbors,” he admits. “Lots of the poorest families in the Philippines work in the agricultural sector, but there’s little support from the government: I find it shocking just how difficult it is, for farmers, not to prosper, but simply to survive.”
At the center of the argument is, inevitably, the question of prices. “Producers frequently have to do business with middle-men who, opportunistically, buy up their stock at very low prices. Those who cultivate, therefore, earn a pittance. That doesn’t just impact the living conditions of the farmers, but compromises the future of their families: it often happens that their children, since infancy, are forced to work alongside their parents, and are therefore unable to go to school.”
And it’s from young people like Carlo that we have an example of a different possible future: “When I started my adventure in farming I took on a battle to change the way that young people see agriculture. Before beginning MNLGrowkits, we did a survey: we asked 100 millennials from Manila, the capital of the Philippines, what they thought of agriculture. The responses were shocking: almost 80% of them had a negative opinion; some said ‘it’s not for me, it’s dirty’; others that ‘you can buy vegetables easily at the supermarket’. My favorite response was ‘agriculture isn’t cool, I can’t put it on Instagram’. I want to erase this stigma, transforming agriculture into something accessible and even instagrammable. My hope is that more young people realize that farming can be both fun and rewarding.”