Fair trade? Coffee debate winds up in cup

Tall or grande? Regular or decaf? Free trade or fair trade? Once again, coffee questions are multiplying– only this time some questions involve a major global debate.

It's being played out locally at UVA. Starting in November, students at Newcomb, O-Hill, and Runk dining halls will be sipping 100 percent organic, shade-grown "Fair Trade"-certified coffee. (Fair Trade is already an option at Java City, the new espresso bar in the university bookstore.)

What is Fair Trade? Over the past three years, the wholesale price of coffee has fallen almost 50 percent, bringing global prices to a 30-year low. This price collapse has resulted in a humanitarian crisis for as many as 25 million coffee-growing families in more than 50 developing countries. Unable to cover their costs of production, small farmers cannot earn enough to feed their families, send their children to school, or purchase essential medicines. Many have been forced to leave their land.

The primary goal of the Fair Trade coffee movement is to ensure that the majority of the world's coffee farmers get a "fair price" for their product. This translates into $1.26 per pound, regardless of market fluctuations.

One of the national group's most recent victories came September 15, when mega-corp Procter and Gamble, the largest coffee seller in the U.S., announced it would begin offering FT-certified coffee through its specialty coffee division, Millstone.

The UVA move came earlier this month, backed by a newly formed UVA student organization, Students Promoting Fair Trade, headed by 4th years Mike Figura and Chris Antoun.

Antoun, an economics major, became active after spending a semester abroad in Nicaragua. "Many other, perhaps more socially active, universities were making the switch to Fair Trade, so I thought we had a good chance," he says.

While some free-marketeers applaud the Fair Trade concept as a voluntary way to vote with one's purchases, Charlottesville journalist Ronald Bailey worries that because it delays the shift of the coffee workers to other jobs, the Juan Valdezes might be locked into subsistence farming.

"Fair trade may temporarily boost the incomes of a small number of the world's poor," writes Bailey in the September Reason magazine, "but it definitely will not lift hundreds of millions out of the desperate poverty in which they live."

UVA decision-maker Eddie Whedbee cast his vote for Fair Trade coffee– specifically beans from a firm called Pura Vida of Seattle. Even though they cost twice as much as previous beans?

"It was an easy decision," says Whedbee, associate director of UVA dining services. "Fair Trade coffee is a socially responsible choice to make, and we fully support the students' efforts."

Pura Vida is used by many universities across the country, and, Whedbee notes, "They give 100 percent of profits after operating costs to the Fair Trade farmers."

"By choosing Fair Trade, you can affect a lot of people's lives and get a better product," says Figura, an Environmental Thought and Practice major who's been drinking coffee since sixth grade (his parents are coffee activists).

Accustomed as they are to the richer roasts available at local cafés and stores, students will surely be satisfied by the dining hall change. (Whether they will opt for better quality in their beer-­ Starr Hill over Natural Light remains to be seen.)

Encouraged by their victory, Students Promoting Fair Trade is now gathering members and getting to work on its two-fold mission: promoting the buying-­ and selling– of more "fairly traded" coffee in town, and educating people about the complex farm-to-cup process.

In addition to UVA dining, java activists can sip their conscience at several area cafés: Higher Grounds offers a FT coffee of the day, Java Java sells only FT coffees, and Starbucks brews FT coffee on the 20th of each month.

Chris Antoun and Mike Figura