Fair Trade and the Food Movement
JOIN OUR MAILING LIST
Enter Email
CONTRIBUTE TODAY
FOLLOW US ON
FEATURED CAMPAIGN

 Watch the Video

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EmailShare

Aug 15, 2010
 

“Mass movements can rise and spread without a belief in God,” the social critic Eric Hoffer once wrote, “but never without belief in a devil.”

Few groups better embody this adage than “the Food Movement”- the amorphous but impassioned effort to bring responsibly produced food from farm to fork. The Movement, which has surely done more than any other reform effort in American history to provoke popular interest in sustainable agriculture, encompasses such a hodge-podge of sub-genres-localism, organic, “deep organic,” “artisanal” production, anti-GMO, foragers, farmers’ markets, free-range meats, slow food, etc.-that it couldn’t possibly be said to worship anything so unifying as a single God. But let there be no doubt about the devil, the diabolical force that gives wholeness to the parts and venom to the rhetoric. The devil lives. And it goes by the name of Big Agriculture.

Big Ag is a fat target, repeatedly pummeled, and much of the time deservedly so. In addition to heaping ladlefuls of invective upon the Cargills, Monsantos, and McDonalds that embody the inherent evils of agribusiness, the Food Movement has responded to the industrialization of food by developing niche alternatives intended not so much to reform Big Ag as to bypass it altogether.  Acolytes want to turn on the anger, drop out of the system, and tune in to a fundamentally different set of agrarian ethics. How these renegade goals will play out in the 21st century, despite the movement’s explosive start, is anyone’s guess.

The recent history of Fair Trade coffee offers a telling suggestion, although perhaps not an optimistic one, of what lies ahead for the Food Movement should it insist on trying to operate outside the bounds of conventional markets.  The Fair Trade system, which imposes a price floor to protect growers if the market price of coffee falls below a certain level, promises to return to workers a higher wage, better working conditions, and incentives for more sustainable practices.  It’s hard to gainsay these values, ones that the Food Movement has, much to its credit, made central to its mission. Who, after all, doesn’t think agricultural workers deserve more social justice? Who doesn’t think the environment should be respected by the hardworking men and women (and children) who grow our food?

But the problem with Fair Trade coffee is that as the program scales up, the alternative market ethics it wants to sustain collapse.  Inevitably, the Fair Trade market becomes subject to the same laws that drive the conventional commodities market.  When the price of coffee drops, the appeal of Fair Trade’s price support lures growers into the cooperatives that sell coffee under the Fair Trade label. As poor growers rush into Fair Trade agreements, the supply of Fair Trade coffee rises. Protected by the price floor, the Fair Trade coffee remains inflated despite flagging demand. What Fair Trade importers thus end up doing with the excess Fair Trade coffee is dumping it-upwards of 75 percent of it!-on the conventional market.

And this is when the rhetoric and reality of Fair Trade really lock horns.  Excess supply dumped into the conventional market has at least two effects that run counter to the stated mission of the Fair Trade label. First, even though we’re not talking about a great deal of coffee, the dumped Fair Trade beans still add to the supply of conventional beans, thereby driving the price downward and, however unintentionally, hurting poor farmers growing for the conventional market.

Second, as the gulf between supply and demand grows, it becomes harder for cooperatives to enter into Fair Trade agreements. Whether through more expensive certification procedures or higher costs of inspection, the barriers of entry go up, leaving the Fair Trade market to an exclusive handful of producers. Gawain Kripke, Director of Policy and Research at Oxfam America, explained in an e-mail that “as long as fair trade only relates to a small fraction of trade and production of only a few select products, its impact will remain limited.” Kripke observed that Fair Trade markets are growing, and that they have benefitted many poor producers, but added that “they remain tiny in relation to overall trade.” What’s “desperately needed,” he added, was “a broader reform of trade and agricultural policy.”

I bring up the case of Fair Trade because the Food Movement-driven as it is by the Big Ag devil-is currently gathering steam around a similar idea: it wants to go “beyond the barcode.”  Not unlike the Fair Trade system, the idea here is to find, as Michael Pollan recently put it in The New York Review of Books, “a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations on the one side and government on the other.”  My sense is that no matter how honed the Movement’s dedication to food and social justice may be, no matter how heady its animating slogans, the quest to go beyond the barcode-to find that “new social and economic space”-will find itself ensnared in the same economic and historical realities that have so severely compromised the initial promises of Fair Trade.

More to the point: the barcode, and the global system of commercial exchange it represents, cannot be dismissed, ignored or bypassed. It’s part and parcel of a deep history that our generation has (for better or worse) inherited and, as such, it must be confronted head on and reformed from within. Fair Trade reveals an unavoidable reality that will likely nag the Food Movement at every turn throughout the twenty-first century. The collective effort to drop out of the industrial food system and pioneer a fresh path might succeed when it stays small and can reliably depend on the sustained goodwill of consumers willing to seek reform through the fork, but it will likely backfire when it scales up. And sure, small might be beautiful, but small is also small, and goodwill – well, goodwill is a terribly fickle impulse.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EmailShare

Fair Trade for Farmers and Soil

Plowing field with oxen

Small-scale organic farming and regenerative agricultural practices combat our climate crisis and help feed the world. Here are just a few of the ways that fair trade producers and their brand partners are collaborating to grow ethical supply chains through regenerative organic agricultural methods, and producing goods that we can all feel good about. This […]

The Hidden History Made at Sakuma Brothers Farms

Picking blueberries: Copyright David Bacon

History was made on September 12, 2016 with the election of Familias Unidas por la Justicia to be the union representing berry pickers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington state. Three perspectives on what that means for farmworkers, farmers, and our food system. History was made on September 12, 2016 with the election of Familias […]

Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change

Food Wastage Footprint and Climate Change, Rome FAQ

As a child, you likely heard some variation of the cliché, “Eat all your food; there are starving people in the world.” While hunger remains one of humanity’s greatest challenges, the underlying causes are not as clear as one might think. Written by Ryan Zinn As a child, you likely heard some variation of the […]

Fair Cannabis?

Trimming

For decades, workers have flocked to Northern California and Southern Oregon to work the fall cannabis harvest. Some are migrants on their seasonal tour. Others are driven by an interest in cannabis culture, or by the promise of lucrative pay. While some “trimmers” have had pleasant, safe and profitable experiences, many have not. Written by […]

Sustainable Public Procurement:

Sustainable Public Procurement

An Understated and Effective Way to Grow Fair Trade Sales of fair trade products have grown in leaps and bounds, especially in Europe. While this growth is encouraging, supply from producers in the Global South is well ahead of demand from consumers in the North. How do we close this gap? Here’s a practical guide […]

Trading Down: How Unfair Trade Hurts Farmers

United States farm incomes sharply declined in 2016 for the third year in a row. Prices for wheat and corn are currently at ten-year lows, and in many cases U.S. farmers are paid below the cost of production for what they produce. While these low prices hurt U.S. farmers, when the crops are exported by […]

Grow Ahead: Crowdfunding Climate Resilience

Fair World Project is launching Grow Ahead, an online crowdfunding platform. For the first time, individual consumers can forge an intimate link with front-line farmer groups, directly funding farmer initiatives and supporting the global effort to address climate change on the farm. Industrial agriculture and food production is a major contributor to climate change, and […]

Fair Cities

cities_minnesota

    What will the just economy of the future look like? We asked for your suggestions for cities across North America that are living examples of fair trade values in action. Is yours on the list? MINNEAPOLIS/ST PAUL, Minnesota Minneapolis-St. Paul is a hotbed of fair trade activity. For decades now, local nonprofits like the […]

It’s Time for Wages With Dignity

timeforwage02

by Ryan Johnson Quietly, hidden behind the headlines that feature presidential candidates bemoaning the state of our country and our economy, voters in several states are no longer waiting on politicians. They’re taking matters into their own hands and launching minimum wage ballot initiatives to create the economic change people sorely need. The impetus for […]

The Business Case for Raising the Minimum Wage

businesscase01

by David Bronner At Dr. Bronner’s, the company I run with my family, we believe that we can only prosper in the long run if we contribute to the prosperity of society as a whole. It’s why we strive to compensate all our staff fairly, cap executive compensation at five times the lowest paid position, […]