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Fair Trade

06/04/08 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) You may like cream with your coffee, but commentator Bill Mares, who is an author as well as a retired teacher and legislator, likes a little social activism with his....

(MARES) On my recent trips to Central America to work with coffee farmers and beekeepers, I've come to realize how difficult coffee production is and how little farmers make from that $9.00 per pound or $2.50 per cappuccino we pay in the store and café.   
As those farmers begin planting next year's crop, which they will pick literally bean by bean, I've decided that I'm happy to pay a premium for my coffee, as long as most of that money gets back to the farmers who produced it.
That's where the concept of "Fair Trade" comes in. "Fair Trade" advocates argue that farmers should get a "fair" and predictable price for their harvest, as well as safe working conditions, a living wage, and the right to organize. Such a fair price will also help farming families to eat better, keep their kids in school, improve health and housing, and invest in their futures.
While the movement is "market-based," it differs from "Free trade," which hallows price above all. For TransFair, the certifying arm and chief cheerleader of the Fair Trade movement in the United States, the goal is to empower and enrich the lives of family farmers and workers around the world.
Fair Trade is sometimes confused with organic practices.  However, organic certification is concerned with how coffee, bananas and other products are grown and processed, whereas Fair Trade certification focuses upon how farmers are paid and treated.           

Coffee is by far the largest product sold under Fair Trade terms.  Like all global commodities, its price fluctuates wildly, and producers have no control over those gyrations.   

With Fair Trade, farmers are guaranteed a set price of $1.26 per pound of coffee.  If the world price falls below that, the farmer gets his $1.26.   If it's above that, the farmer gets the same payment, plus a "social premium" of five cents per pound that goes to his cooperative.  In return, farmers agree to certain practices such as the democratic management of the cooperative, environmentally sustainable production, and financial transparency.

Here in the States, TransFair dreams of creating a social movement of millions of inspired Conscious Consumers, voting daily with their shopping dollars to lead a fundamental shift in the way food companies do business.

But Fair Trade is not without its critics.

On the Right, The Economist magazine and others say that Fair Trade is a misguided attempt to make up for market failures while encouraging inefficiencies and over-production.

On the Left, some, like Professor Daniel Jaffee, author of Brewing Justice, worry that Fair Trade is merely a niche market, another flavor, like hazelnut, and not a genuine global movement for social and economic change.       

No, Fair Trade is not the New Millenium of world trade, I've decided. But it's a good step toward greater equity between producer and consumer. I'll drink that half a cup over no cup at all.
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