Dec. 2, 2011
Fair Trade group aiming to weaken small farmer alliance
As if it weren’t bad enough that the state is ending the certification of organic farms, putting a burden on local small farmers, now Fair Trade USA, the U.S. group that certifies small farmers for the Fair Trade designation, is aiming to bend its rules to accommodate large plantations and corporations.
As we reported last week, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce will no longer certify farms organic in the state starting Jan. 1 due to budget cuts.
That’s not likely to affect corporations or large farmers who can afford out-of-state certification, but it could price small farmers out of being certified.
Now, it appears, big corporations and large plantations will be getting a break on Fair Trade certification in America, too.
For those who have long supported Fair Trade goods, it’s seen as a turnaround from the spirit of the movement (much as many believe the increasing use of the certification by large industrial farms and importing cheap “certified organic” fruits and vegetables from foreign countries is out of keeping with the
original organic movement).
A little background: Fair Trade began in the 1940s when a few small North American and European organizations reached out to poverty stricken communities to help them sell their handicrafts to well-off markets.
The movement to support impoverished farm workers – particularly in the Third World with coffee growers, banana pickers and handcrafters – grew and since the 1990s, it has become a global movement. Having a Fair Trade symbol on a product, such as organic coffees found at the grocery, ensures standards are followed
regarding working conditions, wages, child labor and the environment.
Such commercial giants as Walmart and Starbucks now proudly display the Fair Trade logo, which is reserved for goods that are certified as Fair Trade, either by Fair Trade USA in America, or the international Fair Trade organization, which has a different logo. (Mississippi has a Fair Trade store devoted to certified products at the Rainbow Natural Foods mall on Old Canton Road in Jackson.)
Fair Trade has had a powerful impact. As intended, it raised living standards for the poor and promoted building of hospitals and schools. And it put money in the pockets of a larger segment of the population in
impoverished countries, rather than the wealthy and multinational corporations.
Now, the rub. According to The New York Times, Fair Trade USA says it will cut its ties at year’s end with the main international Fair Trade group and will start giving the Fair Trade designation to coffee from large plantations, which were previously barred in favor of small farms.
It is also proposing to place its seal on products with as little as 10 percent Fair Trade ingredients (current standard is 20 percent; it should be raised, not lowered!).
Fair Trade USA defends its action by saying that it will benefit even more small farmers and workers – those employed by large plantations. But that claim is not selling well with others who complain that some companies will now be Fair Trade certified not because they have changed their business practices but because the
rules have been changed.
The international group has also rejected the changes, saying it refuses to “water those principles down.”
Given the uproar, we’ll have to wait and see if Fair Trade USA continues with its proposed changes. But it reinforces the fact that consumers must pay attention to the labels of the foods that they are buying.
Buying locally can promote the local economy. But if you buy imported goods, it doesn’t cost a whole lot more to look for the Fair Trade label to support schools, hospitals and better working conditions. Some American consumers, however, may now be looking for the international symbol – or Institute of Market Ecology (IMO) “Fair for Life” certification – rather than that of Fair Trade USA.
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.