ITGA calls for understanding of the challenges faced by tobacco growers

The world’s tobacco growers are facing urgent economic, social and environmental challenges, from rising production costs and stagnating prices to labour shortages, unseasonable weather, soil degradation and deforestation.

The International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) wants to shed light and understanding on the realities of tobacco growing. It has been talking to tobacco growers about their most urgent challenges as part of its 2023 Market Survey, and its CEO, Mercedes Vázquez (pictured), will be presenting the results of the survey at this year’s InterTabac from 14th to 16th September in Dortmund, Germany.

The top concern for the tobacco growers was the rising cost of production. Although this was an issue across the globe, it was particularly serious in certain countries. For farmers in Malawi, for example, the high cost of production and rising cost of living is causing insolvency issues, while growers in Argentina are struggling to cope with the added burden of a 94.8% rate of inflation. Meanwhile, tobacco growers in the US told the ITGA that this year’s crop was the most expensive in history because they have a serious issue with labour shortages and rising hiring costs.


Shrinking margins: ‘the new generations are not replacing the old’


The movement of people away from rural areas and the lack of succession by the younger generations of tobacco farmers are contributing to labour shortages.

“Farmers are mostly over the age of 50 and are likely to continue farming until they retire, but the new generations are not replacing the old,” Vázquez told TobaccoIntelligence. “Tobacco farming was very lucrative in the past, but it’s hard work and margins are shrinking. Everyone wants a better life for their children.”

US farmers are responding to the hiring crisis by switching to other crops, but this isn’t an option for other tobacco-growing countries – such as Malawi and Zimbabwe – where tobacco is the main cash crop and there’s a ready market for it.

The tobacco processing industry has been sourcing fewer crops from the US and Europe because the prices of crops farmed in these regions has become too high, which has increased demand for product grown in other parts of the world. For example, demand for tobacco leaf from African countries is likely to exceed current supply levels and leaf merchants have flagged uncommitted inventories in the single digits, which is a historic low.

Demand for tobacco leaf might be high outside the US and Europe but not all growers will benefit from this due to variations in leaf prices, according to Vázquez.

“This year there was an increase in production in Brazil, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, but the only countries getting good prices were Brazil and Malawi. By the end of the season the crop in Zimbabwe could reach 300,000 tonnes, but prices are not so high in the country so the growers won’t see the benefits,” she said.


Long-term impact of climate change and deforestation


The long-term prospects for tobacco growers are also impacted by serious environmental issues such as climate change, which is causing unseasonable weather in all regions, leading to adverse growing conditions in some areas and water shortages in others.

Deforestation is a major problem in Africa. The ITGA has been trying to educate governments and raise growers’ awareness of the issue. It conducted an afforestation awareness campaign towards the end of 2022 in three important tobacco growing regions of Zimbabwe.

The ITGA is calling for more support for farmers from the tobacco industry and wants all parts of the tobacco supply chain to be part of the same conversation. To this end, it has applied to join the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) meetings as observer – most recently to COP10, but its application has been refused on more than one occasion.

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    “It’s very difficult to get into the conversation on this powerful platform, which is very worrying,” said Vázquez.

    One of the convention’s goals is to mobilise governments to end subsidies on tobacco growing and support farmers to switch away from tobacco to alternative crops – which is not an option for farmers in all parts of the world, according to Vázquez.


    Giving a voice to tobacco farmers


    “There are four big tobacco producing countries that are not part of this international treaty. That means countries with insignificant production levels will be advising governments about tobacco control measures while more significant players are not part of the conversation,” she said.

    “It’s important to have all members of the supply chain present to provide expertise about what growers have to go through.”

    Misinformation is also an issue, according to Vázquez. She cites the campaign by the WHO and other health organisations for World No Tobacco Day, which distributed messages that, Vázquez says, are not evidence-based. For example, one of the campaign’s claims was that tobacco companies were manipulating growers by providing loans that would keep them in debt so that they could not switch crops.

    “It’s very easy to manipulate information, because tobacco has such negative connotations. Tobacco farmers need to be protected by their governments. The WHO and FCTC operate in an exclusionary manner, which does not give a voice to tobacco growers. Ignoring tobacco growers’ legitimate concerns is putting the livelihoods of millions of people at stake.”

    In a bid to counterbalance these “unfounded and damaging claims” ITGA launched its own May 31st World Understanding Tobacco Farming Day.


    Growers being ‘kept in the dark’ about their future


    “Tobacco companies are becoming increasingly distant from the real issues,” she said. “Some of them are sharing their vision for a ‘smoke-free future’ with the general public and media, but growers are not aware of this. And the industry is still relying on them for production of their main product: cigarettes. It’s an ambiguous message, and it’s unfair on the growers. They’re being kept in the dark, and they should be informed so they can prepare for the future.”

    Vázquez will be presenting the results of ITGA’s 2023 Market Survey at this year’s InterTabac trade fair for tobacco products and smoking accessories from 14th to 16th September in Germany.

    Also speaking at the event will be TobaccoIntelligence’s director of legal analysis, Pablo Cano Trilla, who will be analysing regulatory trends and forecasts in the tobacco alternatives market.

    TobaccoIntelligence will also have a stand in Hall 5, please come and see us at stand 5.B18 or book a meeting using this link.

    – Lorraine Mullaney TobaccoIntelligence staff

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    Lorraine Mullaney

    Senior writer
    Lorraine is responsible for writing news analysis and assisting with copy-editing. Lorraine is a copywriter and editor who has written and edited words for a wide range of audiences, from local community newspapers to consumer magazines and trade websites.

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