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Caffeine Fix

I’m drinking a ground seed concoction that (so the story goes) was discovered back in the ninth century by a young Ethiopian goatherder who noted the growing hyperactivity of his flock after they grazed on the red berries of a local evergreen tree. He then chewed down a few himself, and went off bouncing along the landscape in harmony with his hyperactive herd. This simple African tree would go on to become part of a multi-billion-dollar worldwide market that today ranks its seeds second only to oil in U.S. imports. It’s been estimated that 450 million cups of coffee are consumed daily in this country.

I was introduced to the drink at an early age by my mother, who always seemed to have a pot of the dark brown liquid brewing. I remember the invigorating smell, and the intriguing way the hot liquid perked into the glass knob in the center of the coffeepot’s lid. By the time I hit 15, I was a confirmed caffeine addict.

The coffee I’m drinking right now is a little different than most I’ve had in the past. It’s organic and shade-grown, reducing the negative environmental impacts associated with growing the caffeinated crop. What also makes this coffee different is the stamp on its bag that reads: Fair Trade Certified. In the middle of the stamp is an abstract person, half black and half white, holding what looks like a basket in each hand; each basket is the opposite color of that side of his or her body. There is a lot more to coffee than variety and taste.

Coffee is big business, but one of the interesting aspects of coffee economics is that 75 percent of the product is still produced by small farmers around the world. However, most of the profit on coffee is made after it leaves the land of its harvest. These small farmers are lucky to make 25-50 cents for a pound of coffee that costs them about 80 cents to produce. Most of the profit from coffee is made by middlemen, processors, packagers and brewers. Millions of coffee farmers worldwide are finding themselves in a severe economic crunch. This coffee crisis was behind the conflict sparked in Honduras last month.

Back on Oct. 2, the Honduran police let loose with water cannons and tear gas to break up a demonstration by coffee farmers demanding government assistance. In Honduras there are over 100,000 growers. The government had promised these farmers $20 million in loans to get them through the current economic crisis. When the government didn’t come through as promised, the coffee cultivators took to the streets—over 500 protesters were arrested.

Such loans won’t resolve the coffee crisis in Honduras or other countries in similar straits. The growers would be lucky if these funds got them through the next harvest. The farmers would get temporary economic relief, but end up further in debt. Such loans also put their country at greater economic risk, increasing the massive debt already shouldered by many coffee-producing countries. Fair trade might provide a better solution. I decided to look further into the meaning of the fair-trade stamp on the bag of coffee I’ve been brewing.

Fair-trade certification began in this country in 1998 when TransFair USA began offering their stamp, which also now covers tea and chocolate. The aim of fair trade, according to the organization, is to “provide low-income artisans and farmers with a living wage for their work.” They define a living wage as one that covers “basic needs, including food, shelter, education and health care for their families.” The group indicates that a fair wage is “at least that country’s minimum wage” and “whenever feasible” a living wage. TransFair has established the following criteria to earn their stamp of approval:

• Paying a fair wage in the local context. • Offering employees opportunities for advancement. • Providing equal employment opportunities for all people, particularly the most disadvantaged. • Engaging in environmentally sustainable practices. • Being open to public accountability. • Building long-term trade relationships. • Providing healthy and safe working conditions in the local context. • Providing financial and technical assistance to producers whenever possible.

The cup of coffee I’m drinking was evaluated against these criteria. While I don’t know exactly how it scored, the stamp does indicate the beans passed their fair-trade review. With the United States consuming about one-fifth of the global coffee harvest, the potential for domestic coffee buyers to affect market change is vast.

Through fair trade, the coffee farmer who might have gotten 50 cents per pound under contracts with exploitative middlemen, now gets more than $1 per pound of beans. Fair trade allows a larger percentage of the price paid for the coffee I’m drinking to go to the farmer who produced it. The growers, in turn, want to maintain this lucrative market relationship and have an incentive to continue to meet the environmental criteria required under the certification program. The increased price farmers receive is offset by cost reductions realized by cutting out middlemen, so fair-trade coffees don’t necessarily cost more than those lacking the stamp.

So the next time you’re in the market for coffee, take a few moments and check for the fair-trade stamp. You can also ask the coffee shops you patronize to carry fair-trade products. You might find that with fair trade coffees you’re getting better value for your money. For more information on fair trade and vendors offering certified products, click to www. transfairusa.org. Now, where’s that cup?

—Tom Nattell


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