Fair-trade coffee: a cause not just for the left

When I first set foot on Old Campus, I couldn’t wait to stick it to the man and topple his evil capitalist empire. Hardly settled in, I joined the ranks of STARC and helped organize Yale’s national Socially Responsible Investing conference. I broke out my sleeping bag for the 30-day Students Against Sweatshops camp-out. I even led my very own 20-person “pod” at that year’s World Bank/IMF protests.

Three and a half years and an economics major later, I’ve become disillusioned with much of the anti-globalization rhetoric. Nowadays, I see trade as a cure to global poverty. I see sweatshops as a necessary evil. And I see the WTO, IMF and World Bank as indispensable in the fight against Third World underdevelopment. But there’s one economic justice cause I — and the YCC, for that matter — still believe in: fair-trade coffee. By promising farmers a fixed minimum price for their beans, fair-trade coffee allows coffee growers to escape the vagaries of the unpredictable coffee market. This semester, Yale has an opportunity to cast a positive image on this front.

Last November, in a resolution sponsored by former YCC presidential candidate Matt Nickson, the Yale College Council called on Yale Dining Services to replace all campus coffee with a fair-trade alternative. In December, the topic made its way onto the agenda of the steering committee which brought organic food to Berkeley. The committee will meet again in February, and could formulate a new policy by the end of spring. If all goes well, fair-trade coffee could be introduced to Yale dining halls as early as next fall.

That’s good news — especially for Third World farmers. In the past two years, they’ve watched inflation-adjusted prices for coffee beans plummet to their lowest levels in more than a century, due to rapid expansion in Vietnam and a resurgent crop in Brazil. Beans that garnered $1.20 per pound in the 1980s closed yesterday at just 65 cents (for a March futures contract). For companies like Nestle or Philip Morris’s Kraft Foods, that has translated into windfall profits, since shelf prices have fallen only one-third as much as raw bean prices.

But for independent farmers, the coffee crisis has dislocated families, impoverished villages, and devastated countries like Uganda and Burundi, where coffee makes up 70 percent of exports. In Mexico and Central America, the World Bank estimates that 600,000 coffee workers have lost their jobs in the past two years. Former coffee growers in Colombia are turning to heroin poppies for a living.

Here’s where fair-trade coffee can help. Fair-trade promises farmers a “minimum wage” of $1.26 per pound, double the going price. To sustain this, fair-trade dealers buy from cooperatives and bypass middlemen who’ve traditionally transported the beans from farmers to exporters. To verify that farmers receive the $1.26 minimum, fair-trade dealers must be approved by an international consortium of fair-trade labeling organizations.

Granted, fair-trade accounts for less than a half-percent of American coffee sales. In the most socially conscious European countries, where fair-trade has existed for over a decade, the number rarely passes 5 percent. It would be lucky to attract even that many customers in the United States — the majority of consumers will never buy on, since fair-trade alternatives cost more than your regular brew, even if only by a few nickels per cup.

But even a 5 percent share of the U.S. market would be a boon to Third World farmers. So far, 278 producer organizations have been certified by the international consortium of labeling organizations. That’s roughly 490,000 farmers plus their families who earn $1.26 per pound, instead of the volatile 30 cents to 50 cents price offered by the prevailing market. For fair-trade activists, the challenge now revolves around boosting demand, so more farmers can sign on.

Here’s where Yale can help. Charles Bennett, Yale’s Associate Director of Dining Services, estimates that our dining halls serve 9,000 pounds of coffee per year, and that switching to fair trade would entail an approximately $2 per pound upcharge. Since Yale’s current distributor, Northeast Coffee Roasters, also owns Yale’s brewing equipment, switching to another dealer would be a logistical nightmare. But according to Ernst Huff, Yale’s associate vice-president of student financial and administrative services, Northeast offers fair-trade alternatives — if that’s the case, the estimated $10,000 to $30,000 extra is mere pennies for Yale Dining Services, whose annual food budget exceeds $7 million. A few less fro-yo machines would rescue a dozen more farmers from the dregs of poverty.

Even if negotiations with Northeast hit a snag, the University could still supply fair-trade alternatives at its non-dining hall coffee stops, like in administrative offices or Durfee’s. At Yale, pots of lukewarm coffee are as ubiquitous as internet kiosks. I’m sure some of those pots could begin serving fair-trade.

Indeed, even symbolic gestures would work wonders for both the University and the fair-trade coffee movement. For Yale’s part, attaching its name to a worthy cause is bound to garner prestige. It’s no coincidence that two weeks after Berkeley College introduced its organic food initiative, the Wall Street Journal ranked its dining hall as America’s best college cafeteria. And when Yale attaches its name to the fair-trade movement, in whatever way, Third World farmers are bound to benefit. At this stage, spreading the word about fair-trade coffee is just as important as actually purchasing it. Yale should do its part on both ends.



Sahm Adrangi is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.

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