JOE BRESKIN'S GUEST COLUMN FOR THE PORT TOWNSEND FOOD COOP'S 'COMMONS' NEWSLETTER

THE VOICE OF THE CYNIC

Published in a significantly reduced form in the Spring 2004 Coop Common's


So, I am sitting here drinking Fair Trade coffee (Adam's Rocket Espresso available special order from Mountain People's Warehouse ... now UNFI ... lightly spiked with Equal Exchange Hot Cocoa powder (from Small farmers with love) and Organic Valley Half  &  Half and I can't help wondering what this supposedly loving and enlightened relationship between us nortenos and the people who grow and harvest this stuff for us really means.

The packaging and the hype on many of the labels (though not these particular products) encourages me to synthesize images of endangered hunter-gatherers with face-paint and feathers cruising the jungle and collecting wildcrafted cocoa pods, but we all know that it isn't so. For starters, it means that they are working on plantations growing row-crops for us instead of food for themselves. Even "collectives" are clearly caught in the monkeytrap of globalization. And there is the whole issue of slave labor associated with Cote d'Ivorie chocolate harvests.

Adam's website is mostly about Adam himself but offers some horrific but enlightening information about Thiodan-Endosulphan Paraquat-Gramaxone and other nifty organochlorine agrichemicals used in coffee production and I highly recommend a visit. He touches on some experiments in Chiapas involving biological control of Hypothenemus hampei the La Broca beetles that infest coffee berries using wasps that reduce the need for Thiodan pesticide (a pesticide banned in Columbia in 1995 and widely considered worse than the pest it purports to control ). This same chemical is used on cotton, rice, and cashew plantations around the world, everywhere except where it has been banned. Keeps commodity prices low for us in the USA. And we can pay for our purchases in pesticides!

I hope this also reminds you that we already know a lot about monoculture - that we learned it right here in the Northwest with our timber plantations and that it reminds you that the same people who replaced our forests with cotton plantations exported this management model to the coffee plantations of South and Central America. And for those who want to know where monoculture is leading us, a Phytophthora fungal infection of cocoa pods that also kills the trees themselves is a fast-growing problem (300% increase since 1980) affecting up to 44% of the cocoa pods worldwide and over 80% in some areas, with no non-chemical solution on the horizon. There is another issue here, too: when it comes to chocolate, source matters. Most of the world's chocolate comes from plantations in the Ivory Coast - Cote d'Ivoire - and most of it is grown and harvested under conditions that most of us would find hard to characterize as 'loving'. This is NOT news, because coverage of it when it WAS news got preempted by the circus that followed 9/1l and since then, the industry has successfully put the breaks on change. There is plenty to study online, if you have the stomach for it. And there are options, too, if you are prepared to do your homework AND pay real money for your chocolate.  But the goalposts are constantly moving, with companies like Hershey's buying Scharffen Berger (2005) and Dagoba (2006) so finding some slave-free Organic chocolate today does NOT guarantee that that stuff sold under that label will mean the same standards of either organic or slave-free have been applied next month or next year.  

This gets us to the guts of the issue: what about those Fair Trade labels?

 The Equal Exchange Cocoa carries both a transfair seal and an interesting Equal Exchange "Fair Trade Certified" seal that is cute but essentially undefined on their corporate website.

So I dug deeper and found a press release from Equal Exchange (JAVA JIVE Number 19 September 1998) that explains that Equal Exchange has invented this seal and states that "Equal Exchange by itself will comprise over 95% of the coffee that bears the Fair Trade Certified seal in 1998." Quite the marketing strategy: don't bother with anyone else's standards - just certify yourself ... and promote your own stamp.

Where does this leave us? In a quandary, I'd say.

Since the matter of standards and certification is of major importance to both producers and consumers, I looked at the issue is some detail. Google finds the Fair Trade Federation founded in 1989 which provides references to dozens of certifiers including GEPA, IFAT, EFTA, FLO but no reference to this seal.

Fair trade organizations (intially called ATO's - 'alternative trade organizations') were begun in the Netherlands in the '60's in recognition of the insidious cycle of debt created through globalization: third-world producers are disadvantaged in the exchange because the price paid for their commodities decreases (through inflation) while the price they must pay for industrial goods- and the cost-per-calorie they must pay for food increases, because their best land is devoted to export production.

Obviously, this problem is most serious when their production becomes inextricably linked to the west's inflationary petroleum energy economy - through the introduction of "value-added" product schemes like mechanical shell removers that reduce human labor but require diesel engines to run them, or the demand to deal with parasites or fungal diseases on their monoculture plantations that reduce productivity and "require" increased labor or chemical herbicides purchased with export dollars. So, it stands to reason that buyers who take a strong position on organic and pesticide free and shade-grown are making a step in the right direction. But it still looks to me like this is mostly about making me feel good about buying the product, more than about making the product good for the people who are producing it.

And what do the producers really get out of it?

In the late 1980's the Max Havelaar Foundation (named after the protagonist in a 19th century novel who battled against government corruption in Colonial Indonesia after the collapse of the Dutch East India Corporation) standardized the Fair Trade Coffee criteria, and developed the concept of `criteria pillars' for producer certification. Thus far the benefits of certification have not come without cost. Clearly, the growth of the market for organic/bio products among upper-middleclass consumers in Europe and the US has allowed their growers to command premium prices in a depressed economy. But there are other issues lurking here - total cost of delivery (think total petro-calories expended per delivered calorie of food value on the shelf and recognize a 10:1 or even a 100:1 imbalance) and the necessity of a meaningful push for local content - because the effort to develop sustainable local communities is ultimately at odds with globalization and Fair Trade agriculture is at best, mostly about reforming colonialism ... and at worst, it is just a means of putting a sparkly green paint job on the same old business-as-usual predatory trade practices.

One of the most serious hidden costs is directly related to the proliferation of certification bodies and "standards", such as the one from Equal Exchange referred to above. This proliferation creates a minefield for producers, who are not well-equipped to decide whose certification to seek or adopt.

How does this relate to me?

There are numerous criteria for certification that have grown from this work, and a few of the criteria from TransFair international, a certification body associated with Equal Exchange, are truly worthy of note here because they are applicable to our own Food Coop's operations as well as it's buyers' purchasing policies. The first criterion for certification is that the producers receive a price that includes both Cost Of Production and a guaranteed margin for "investment in the future" and premium price points for added criteria such as organic growing methods. The second criterion is that the workers are represented in the decision process at the collective, including the decisions about reinvestment of the profit and premiums resulting from "Fair Trade" transactions. Organic Valley takes a similar position on Democratic process: "From the time we began, with only seven Wisconsin farmers, to the present with over 619 farmer members in eighteen states, our farmers have been directly involved in every decision we make"

Would your own Food Coop qualify for certification?