Fair Trade and the Food Movement
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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.

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