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Trading Fairly

Better Nutrition - July 2006

Trading Fairly  - Matt Kady

 

 The outlook for many poor farmers is looking brighter thanks to a movement that’s gaining real momentum—fair trade.  

Every morning millions of Americans stumble into the office with a hot cup of java in hand. While we’re more than aware of its power to give us a little oomph during those early hours, very few of us have any idea what’s involved in the production of our much- beloved brew.

Long before coffee beans arrive in our neck-of-the-woods, there’s a farmer from some far-off land attending day and night to their crops in order to provide citizens in affluent countries their required beverage. You would think that our increasing reliance on this bean would mean a pretty good lifestyle for those who give it to us. Think again.

Unbalanced trade

Many farmers from southern countries such as Honduras and Guatemala have difficulty maintaining their crops and meeting basic living expenses as a result of the low prices they receive for products such as coffee beans, sugar cane, cocoa beans and tea leaves. While a handful of middlemen and corporations prosper, peasant farmers are forced to sustain themselves, their families and their land on as little as a dollar a day. This contributes to a vicious cycle of poverty with everyone benefiting but the grower.

Nowadays, Africa, like other regions south of the Equator that are a part of the Global South, continue to contribute to developed countries’ economies by exporting raw materials such coffee and cocoa beans at low prices because of corrupt governments, poorly educated farmers and cheap labor (in the case of West Africa, some of it is forced child labor). Being able to buy bananas for a rock-bottom cheap price in Montana is a good indicator that somebody wasn’t paid very well to produce them.

But the outlook for many poor farmers is looking brighter thanks to a movement that’s gaining real momentum—fair trade.

The fair trade advantage

Fair trade ensures that producers in poor countries get a bigger chunk of the pie when it comes to the exportation of their goods. Fair trade should not be considered a charity, but rather a market-based solution to the trade imbalances that fuel poverty, allowing for a more equal distribution between developed and underdeveloped countries, according to Nicole Chettero, spokesperson for TransFair USA, an independent third-party certification body that sets fair trade standards and monitors producer organizations. “In other words, farmers are guaranteed a price for their product that is well above the standard price that is usually paid in a non-fair trade system.” This allows communities to build homes, hospitals and schools while reducing domestic violence; helping ensure that farmers can send their children to school instead of to the fields; reducing producers’ reliance on aid; improving sub-standard labor practices such as unsafe working conditions; and reducing the need to sell off land to pay off debts. Standards with respect to labor on fair trade farms are considered some of the strictest in the world in that forced labor, the use of dangerous agrochemicals and substandard living conditions are not tolerated. It’s apparent that the benefits of such a system extend far and wide.

Farmers involved in fair trade are usually part of a small-scale democratic cooperative. “Since there is strength in numbers, this gives them increased leverage and bargaining power,” says Rodney North, a member of Equal Exchange that sells fair trade coffee, chocolate, sugar and tea. The cooperative systems allow farmers to work directly with buyers while avoiding often corrupt middle-men. “What keeps farmers poor is only controlling the first link in supply chain.” Thanks to this movement, according to TransFair USA over 26 million extra dollars were put in the wallets of fair trade coffee farmers around the world in 2004.

Fair trade can also mean a better cup of java. Fair trade provides farmers the income they need to invest in technology (e.g. better fermentation equipment) and training that improves quality outcomes such as flavor and consistency,” says Chettero. You can also thank the strict environmental stipulations that fair trade imposes for improved quality. All fair trade farms adhere to tough environmental standards that limit the use of pesticides and protect surrounding eco-systems. According to Chettero, 85 percent of all fair trade-certified coffee is also certified organic. “The higher prices we pay the farmers allow them to invest in environmentally sensitive agricultural practices and fund organic conversion,” North says.

Perhaps the biggest success of this movement, according to North, is that it’s increased our connection with the growers of our food. “Fair trade has heightened our awareness of the problems facing farmers in the Global South and reminded the public that someone is on the other end of their chocolate bar.” Or even your cup of coffee.

Fair trade certification

Over the past several years, TransFair USA has certified over 100 million pounds of coffee, cocoa, tea, rice, sugar, bananas, mangoes and other fruits. The net result is more than $67 million in additional revenue to farmers throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Practicing businesses can be identified by the fair trade logo displayed on their product. This logo is issued by TransFair USA. It ensures that companies adhere to the monitoring criteria and standards set by Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) based in Germany. “TransFair USA’s main objectives are to connect businesses with producers, as well as to audit and verify the supply chain so that farmers are getting what they deserve,” says Chettero. For a product to be certified as fair trade, it must undergo a rigorous examination that verifies the farmers who grow the crop are getting the agreed-on price in the negotiated manner. These strict stipulations help increase consumer confidence that what they are buying is indeed worth the extra price.

How you can help

To help the Fair Trade cause here’s what you can do:• Shop more often at retailers that stock fair trade products. • Request that your local health food store offer more fair trade choice.• Ask your favorite coffee shop to offer more fair trade coffee, tea and hot chocolate• Take action. Log on to www.maketradefair.com to find out what you can do to make your voice heard.

Purchasing products displaying the fair trade logo enables us to make a strong statement with our wallets. Because in the end, are we not all looking for the same thing—a fair share?

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