Monday, September 28, 2009

Fair Trade Certified?

On this fine Monday morning I read an article about today's Fair Trade Certified coffee program and its effectiveness. For those of you who do not know what Fair Trade coffee is, well, it's basically what the name entails. Coffee brokers, large companies, and even some small roasters pay the coffee farmers a higher-than-market-value price for their crop. This higher price supposedly ensures that the farmers and their families will be able to farm profitably; farm profitably enough to provide for themselves and stay out of debt. So, is this the case? Ever increasingly, no.

Let me explain. It is not as if the Fair Trade certification organization, led by TransFair USA, is deliberately under-serving its member farmers, it is not as if the idea of paying farmers more than market value is somehow evil, it is simply supply and demand. There are so many coffee growers out there, somewhere around 25 million small individual coffee growers, not to mention the huge Latifundia (to coin a Roman word) company plantations that the demand cannot boost the supply's price high enough for growers' sustenance. Fair Trade artificially boosts their incomes- for small benefits. These small benefits in income have been shown to fail to accomplish their goals: keeping farmers out of perpetually increasing debt. So what to do now?

Disclaimer: This is going to sound harsh. If our artificial attempts at boosting the existing farmers' income, with what is essentially Tariffs on the coffee roasters, are failing, we need to look at our economic model. The supply of coffee is too high. We need FEWER coffee growers producing less coffee. It is accepted that $2.00 per pound of coffee harvested is what it takes to minimally scrape by as an average coffee grower. Fair Trade pays $1.55 per pound, about $.15 better than market value. After Fair Trade coop fees and other expenses, the farmer takes home about $.50. What needs to happen is deregulation of the coffee growing industry, no more artificial crutches. Those who cannot support themselves in growing coffee should stop doing it. Less coffee = higher demand = higher prices, legitimately. If we are going to live in a world with supposed market economy processes, we need to let these processes go to work. It sounds harsh up front, but the farmers, all of them, will be better off for it.

With farmers getting paid better prices for their coffees, they will be able to afford better growing and harvesting techniques, with will increase the level of gourmet coffees taste. Better taste for gourmet coffees will result in higher sales for retailers. It is a winning situation for everyone. The only way the growers and retailers lose is if more of the same happens. Disagree? Let's hear your plan; comment below.

Today's brew was the last of the Papua New Guinea in the Bodum 8 cup French press. I used a bit too many beans for my usual 6 cup production, so it is feeling significantly more robust today. As usual though, the French press produced a pleasantly heavy brewed coffee with all the fine natural fats and oils in my cup. Long swallows warm me up inside. I love this bold beverage; a great way to start the week at work.

Lord, thank you for the great coffee. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

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