Fair-trade coffee: not so fair?

In a piece in The National Post (Saturday, May 14 2011) titled “Fair-trade coffee producers often end up poorer”, Lawrence Solomon writes:

Coffee is one of our guilty pleasures, and not only because of the calories that can be packed into a double latte. Many of us feel guilty that our pleasure is coming at the expense of the Third World coffee farmer, so much so that we gladly pay more for “fair-trade” coffee, which certifies that farmers receive more revenue for their crop.

Saturday, on World Fair Trade Day, we have something else to feel guilty about. That fair-trade cup of coffee we savour may not only fail to ease the lot of poor farmers, it may actually help to impoverish them, according to a study out recently from Germany’s University of Hohenheim.

The study, which followed hundreds of Nicaraguan coffee farmers over a decade, concluded that farmers producing for the fair-trade market “are more often found below the absolute poverty line than conventional producers.

“Over a period of 10 years, our analysis shows that organic and organic-fair trade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers.”

These findings do not surprise me. I speak as someone who has had contact with various Third World producers in my capacity as president of Green Beanery, a company I founded seven years ago to raise funds for Energy Probe Research Foundation, a federal charity that I manage. Green Beanery sells more varieties of coffee, including fair trade and organic coffees, than any other company in Canada, giving me occasion to witness the nature of the fair-trade business, and hear first hand of its impact on small producers that supply us.

The fair-trade business is filled with contradictions.

For starters, it discriminates against the very poorest of the world’s coffee farmers, most of whom are African, by requiring them to pay high certification fees. These fees — one of the factors that the German study cites as contributing to the farmers’ impoverishment — are especially perverse, given that the majority of Third World farmers are not only too poor to pay the certification fees, they’re also too poor to pay for the fertilizers and the pesticides that would disqualify coffee as certified organic.

Their coffee is organic by default, but because the farmers can’t provide the fees that certification agencies demand to fly down and check on their operations, the farmers lose out on the premium prices that can be fetched by certified coffee.

To add to the perversity, it’s an open secret that the certification process is lax and almost impossible to police, making it little more than a high-priced honour system. Although the certification associations have done their best to tighten flaws in the system, farmers and middlemen who want to get around the system inevitably do, bagging unearned profits. Those who remain scrupulous and follow the onerous and costly regulations — another source of inefficiency the German study notes in its analysis — lose out.

The full article is found at: http://opinion.financialpost.com/2011/05/14/lawrence-solomon-fair-trade-coffee-producers-often-end-up-poorer/