Not quite fair, but a start

Published December 4, 2003, in issue #0248 of The Hook

Christina Ball's October 30 article on Fair Trade coffee [The Dish: "Fair trade? Coffee debate winds up in cup"] did a wonderful job of alerting readers to the mounting humanitarian crisis in coffee growing communities around the world. However, the article failed to explain that the Fair Trade program– an important and admirable part of the coffee industry's effort to stem this crisis– is designed to serve only a portion of the 25 million coffee workers worldwide now facing financial devastation.

To participate in the Fair Trade program, a farmer cannot own more than two hectares, or approximately five acres. This means that larger landowners cannot benefit from the program, nor can the millions of coffee workers worldwide who do not own the land they farm.

So Ball's statement that "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" is not quite true. The goal of Fair Trade is to ensure that the smallest landowners, by joining democratically run collectives, can get a minimally fair price. I say "minimally" because, even without Fair Trade certification, the highest quality coffees command a price substantially higher than Fair Trade's $1.26 per pound.

Should caf├ęs and consumers buy Fair Trade coffee? Absolutely! But should they refuse to buy any other coffee? I don't think so. To do so abandons millions of other coffee workers who also face desperate poverty. For example, in Central America, where 70 percent of coffee workers do not own the land they farm, the U.N. estimates that 50 percent of coffee-growing families live in "extreme hunger," 70 percent have no access to health care, and 20 percent have no clean water.

Ronald Bailey is right. With supply growing at 3.5 percent per year, and consumption at only 1.5 percent, the current crisis will not be solved by socially conscious consumers.

The industry needs to make changes. The U.S. needs to rejoin the International Coffee Organization. Eight and half percent of the world's population depends on coffee for their livelihood, and they're depending on those who drink it to treat them fairly.

Remember that the next time you have a latte, but also remember that Fair Trade is not the only answer– just the best organized and marketed one.

Melissa Scholl
Lexington Coffee Roasting Co.