Thoughts on Fairtrade and Organic Coffee

FAIRTRADE is an organized social movement and market-based approach that aims to help producers in developing countries obtain better trading conditions and promote sustainability.

FAIRTRADE is, fundamentally, a response to the failure of conventional trade to deliver sustainable livelihoods and development opportunities to people in the poorest countries of the world but, in some ways, has proven to be less effective as a “change agent” and more of a branding technique to differentiate one similar product from another.

The response to FAIRTRADE has been mixed. FAIRTRADE’s increasing popularity has drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. The Adam Smith Institute sees “FAIRTRADE” as a type of subsidy or marketing ploy that impedes growth and segments of the left criticize fair trade for not adequately challenging the current trading system.

Organic farming is the form of agriculture that relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and control pests on a farm. Organic farming excludes or strictly limits the use of manufactured fertilizers and
pesticides, plant growth regulators and genetically modified organisms.

In order for a coffee crop to be certified organic, an official certifying body must go to the farm and test to make sure that there is no evidence of chemicals in the soil or on the product. But the certification does not stop there and is very similar to “chain of custody” in law enforcement. The farm must be certified as an organic grower, the trucks that transport the beans to the mills must assure that the organic bean is separated from all non-organic beans and must be certified. The brokers in country and receiving the beans at the final destination must be certified. The cargo holds and shipping companies must be certified to transport organic beans and also separate the beans from all other products it is shipping. The roaster must be certified to roast organic beans and also assure that the beans are separated from all other beans on the premises.

The cost of certifying the beans and the labeling as FAIRTRADE can be prohibitive to the growers so sometimes they can only certify a partial crop. Then they have to pay to “label” their crop as FAIRTRADE. Their whole farm may be organic and FAIRTRADE but they sell some as FAIRTRADE Organic, some as Organic and some as “regular” beans when in fact they are all grown in the same exact way from the same exact trees. In many developing countries they only grow organic and sell solely through cooperatives but cannot afford to pay to get certified.

This is why there is concern that certifying and labeling as organic and Freetrade is more about “branding”; in effect making money off social consciousness because a fee is paid to a handful of agencies that are recognized to certify around the world and the cost is passed on to the consumer. Or, if the grower does not certify, they get less money for the same crop. This is one way of looking at it. You be the judge!

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