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Buying Fair Trade Coffee

September 6, 2005

It's difficult to imagine that one cup of coffee can make a huge impact on the environment. However, it can. Especially if the beans used to make that cup of coffee are Fair Trade, Shade Grown and Organic.

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The Importance of Fair Trade Coffee

Seventy percent of the world's coffee is still produced by small family farmers. In fact, over 25 million farmers and families depend on coffee for their livelihood worldwide The production, trade and retail sales of coffee, however, has become almost entirely controlled by a small number of large corporations. These large corporations have encouraged freer trade by promising third-world governments that looser trade regulations will expand world markets and increase their worker's wages and benefits.

At least in the case of coffee, this has not been the case. Instead, the race by large corporations to capture the global coffee market has resulted in the corporations cutting worker's wages and benefits and funneling profits out of the coffee producing country rather than investing locally.

Growing coffee is backbreaking work. Many of the world's coffee farmers are used to living in poor conditions with little or no access to health care, and few educational opportunities for their children. While North Americans pay from anywhere from $4-$11 for a pound of conventional coffee, growers of that same coffee are paid as little as $.25 per pound. Coffee that has been certified Fair Trade, however, establishes a minimum fair price for the coffee farmer. The farmer is guaranteed at least $1.26 per lb. Coffee importers also provide a minimum amount of credit to farmers against future sales.

When you buy Fair Trade Certified coffee, you are ensuring a viable market and greater economic stability to the farmers and families growing your coffee. By cutting out the intermediary, profits go directly to the growers and producers. Families see greater economic opportunities, have access to better health care and can afford to send their children to school-maybe even high school and college-rather than needing them to help in the field.

The Importance of Coffee That is Shade Grown

Shade grown coffee is bird-friendly coffee. Many of the songbirds in our backyards migrate to and from Latin America. Coffee is a shade-loving shrub. The mid-level forests that most traditionally grown coffee still grows in provide feed and rest stops for migrating birds. The debris from these canopied forests also provides the coffee shrubs with rich organic compost and protects the soil from erosion.

In order to compete with the global market, many debt-ridden countries have resorted to "technifying" their coffee production by converting these forests to full-sun plantations in an effort to produce higher yields. This deforestation has reduced migrating songbird populations by as much as 25% and created an absence of natural predators, forcing the farmers to resort to pesticides to control pests and disease.

When the coffee you buy has been shade grown, you are protecting migrating bird habitat and encouraging traditional methods of coffee growing that are less damaging to the environment.

The Importance of Organic Coffee

Organic coffee is produced without using synthetic pesticides-pesticides that damage not only the health of farmers and consumers, but have lasting negative impacts on the environment. As a general rule most shade-grown coffee is organic, and often times, organic coffee is shade-grown. Still, this isn't always the case so it's important to read labels carefully.

Look for the Logos

Fair Trade Logo: Fair Trade coffee sports the black and white Fair Trade Federation (FTF) logo. The license to use the Fair Trade logo is granted for use on coffee only after the coffee passes a rigorous set of environmental and fair worker rights criteria set forth by the FTF.

Shade Grown Logo: Not all shade grown (bird-friendly) logos are created equal. Currently, two "bird-friendly" logos make their certification criteria available to the public. One is ECO-OK, now known as "sustainable coffee certified" by the Rainforest Alliance. The other is a bird-friendly logo certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Organic Logo: For coffee that is certified organic, look for the USDA Organic logo.

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