December 20, 2014 · 28 Kislev

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Coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world market after oil. The United States is the world’s largest consumer of coffee and Americans today drink one-fifth of the world’s beans.

America is the wealthiest nation in the world. Yet the World Bank estimates that nearly three billion people around the world survive on less than two dollars a day and 1.3 billion people live on less than one dollar a day (an amount less than what one might spend on a cup of coffee has to cover food, clothing, shelter).

The industrialized world, particularly the U.S., consumes resources disproportionately to our population. And many of the products that we use on a daily basis and consider central to our daily routine, such as coffee, are produced by someone in another part of the world. Often, the poverty of those who produce these goods is caught up in our consumption.

The notion that each of us plays a daily role in changing the world can be a source of intimidation or strength. There are now emerging alternatives to our system of production and consumption. As Oxfam International, a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating global poverty, argues in its Make Trade Fair campaign, “World trade could be a powerful force for poverty reduction. Many poor people could work themselves out of poverty by selling their products to rich countries at a decent price.” We can play a part in this through consumer advocacy.

Coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world market after oil. The United States is the world’s largest consumer of coffee and Americans today drink one-fifth of the world’s beans.

But few Americans realize that coffee farmers, who live largely in Latin America, Asia and Africa often toil in "sweatshops in the fields.” More than 25 million farmers and coffee workers in over 50 countries rely on coffee sales for their livelihood. In July of 2002, the Wall Street Journal reported that, “In lush coffee-growing regions from Central America to Africa, the collapse of world coffee prices is contributing to societal meltdowns affecting an estimated 125 million people, [resulting in] a combustible brew of unemployment, hunger and migration.”

Since 2000, world coffee market prices have continued to drop steadily and today have reached their lowest point in real terms in history.  As a result, coffee farmers are now receiving as little as $0.20 per pound for their crops --about 1/3 of the actual cost of production.  Many farmers have been forced to sell their harvest for as little as 60% of the cost of production, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and debt. With no income from their only cash crop, farmers do not have enough money to buy food to feed their families or pay for education and health care.Because their families cannot afford to send them to school, many children instead have to work in the fields.  Other farmers are giving up their land completely and migrating toward cities in search of work.  It has even led farmers to look for more lucrative opportunities cultivating drugs in Colombia and Peru.  In addition to the devastating effects on farmers and their families, coffee farming can lead to severe environmental problems including pesticide pollution, deforestation, and the extinction of animals through habitat destruction.

One response to the devastation caused by traditional coffee farming practices has been a growing demand for “Fair Trade” coffee made without exploitative labor. Fair Trade Coffee is a real solution for some of these farmers. Fair Trade certification ensures coffee farmers are paid a decent, living wage for their harvest; encourages democratically organized farming cooperatives; provides access to affordable credit, which help farmers stay out of debt; and promotes sustainable practices, such as organic farming, which helps protect the environment.   

In the United States, TransFair USA is the certifying organization for Fair Trade products. In order to receive fair trade certification, importers must pay $1.26 per pound of coffee, regardless of the volatile market price; provide much needed credit at low rates to farmers; and provide technical assistance, such as transitioning to organic farming.  These fair payments are invested in education, health care, environmental stewardship, and economic independence, helping more than 500,000 farmers in 20 countries.

In addition to directly improving the lives of coffee farmers and their families, Fair Trade coffee is often grown using more environmentally friendly methods than regular coffee. Over the years, high-yield coffee production has led to deforestation, increased pesticide use, decreasing bio-diversity, and erosion. Erosion can cause devastating landslides and flooding during weather emergencies such as Hurricane Mitch, which killed thousands in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras in 1998.

Since 1999, more than 80% of the Fair Trade Certified coffee sold in the U.S. has also been certified organic and “shade grown.”  Shade-grown coffee is exactly what it says. Instead of clearing the forest, farmers plant the crop among the forest plants, thus saving the local ecosystem. Shade trees furnish habitats for birds, and the Atlanta Audubon Society has found that 90% fewer species are found in sun-grown coffee areas. Shade trees also protect coffee plants from harsh elements, and the birds that are attracted provide natural pest control, which reduces the need for synthetic pesticides. These shaded farms also protect topsoil from erosion by heavy rains and wind. 

In an age of increasing economic disparity between rich and poor, both locally and globally, it is easy to feel powerless to make a difference. By choosing to spend a few cents more on Fair Trade certified coffee, we support a living wage for farmers, increased educational opportunities for rural children, and improved environmental standards. Fair Trade coffee, which can be caffeinated, de-caffeinated and flavored, is growing in popularity in the United States. 

Fair Trade Means:

FAIR WAGES >Fair trade guarantees small farmers and artisans prices that exceed their production costs. This increased income allows them to feed their families, stay out of debt and keep their land.

CHILDREN'S RIGHTS >Many children's rights are violated when families are forced to choose between sending a child to work or to school. Fair trade increases family income, helping families better afford education and health care for their children.

WOMEN'S RIGHTS >Fair trade cooperatives must demonstrate that women have equal rights and responsibilities. They are required to document how many women are members of the cooperative, how many hold leadership roles, and how many own or co-own land.

ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS >Fair trade promotes organic farming which is better for the environment, and encourages chemical-free farming, composting, crop rotation and other beneficial practices. Nearly 85 percent of Fair Trade Coffee sold in the U.S. is certified organic.

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