I am a co-owner of a local 100-percent fair trade coffee roaster and I feel compelled to comment on [Wasim Salman's] recent editorial on fair trade. While I recognize that fair trade has big issues to deal with — the power disparity between small producers and big corporations being at the top of that list — the ideals of fair trade need to be fought for and not abandoned.
Your assertion of fair trade leading to a glut of coffee in the market is simply wrong. The major over supply of the past fifteen years was caused mainly by the entry of Vietnam into the world coffee market. This flooded the world with cheap coffee from a country that never produced a bean until the nineties. The forces behind this disaster were the World Bank and IMF, not fair trade. I would like to challenge you to provide any statistics to back up your argument beyond the very shaky article published in the Economist recently.
I also have to take issue with your argument that fair trade should include plantations and large farms. Fair trade was started specifically to give small farmers and their democratically organized cooperatives an equalizer in competing with plantations and large farms. These plantations have had a long-time unfair competitive advantage over small-scale producers by using poorly paid and mistreated labor forces to pick their beans thus reducing their costs and allowing them to sell their products for rock bottom prices. This is the very definition of subsidizing production costs using unfair practices. Fair trade has built a market that pays small farmers a better wage. This has helped many farmers stay on their land as opposed to having to become plantation workers or being forced to migrate to larger cities for work.
I wholeheartedly endorse looking hard at fair trade, identifying its problems, and trying to fix them. A good place to start would be building a more democratic certification system where producers have a bigger voice to shape policy and where corporations are held to the same standard of transparency expected from producers. However, fair trade should not be simply thrown out simply because it needs work. It is at its core a much better system than the "free market" race to the bottom. Paying a living wage to democratically organized producers is never a "subsidy." It is economic justice.
Matt Earley Just Coffee Co-op 1129 E. Wilson St. Madison, WI 53703