Fair Trade Coffee
By Victoria Fenner
The producer of a Starbucks or Tim Horton’s paper cup earns more for that cup than the person who picked the coffee.
Picking coffee is hard, backbreaking work. Pickers spend their day bending and stretching to get every cherry on the tree. The bags that they put the coffee in grow very heavy.
In Central America, picking and carrying coffee is women’s work. That’s because it’s seasonal and doesn’t pay very much — six cents a pound. On a good day, an experienced coffee harvester can pick a hundred pounds, walking away with six dollars. At the start of the coffee harvest season, when bushes are loaded with rich berries, a hundred pounds can easily be picked. But by the end of the season, most of the bushes have been picked over and it’s often difficult to get two or three hundred pounds in a month.
The human and social cost of a morning cup of coffee is just part of the burden on Big Coffee’s shoulders. Environmental costs are huge. “Here’s a product that uses more agricultural chemicals and more pesticides than it necessarily requires,” says Derek Zavislake of Merchants of Green Coffee, a small, Fair Trade organic coffee importer/roaster in Central Toronto. “It normally grows in the shade and gets all the nutrients it requires from its region. Now it grows in the open sunlight and we’re forced to put in the agricultural chemicals. Coffee, when it’s grown naturally, doesn’t have a bug problem. It’s when it’s an unhealthy sort of production that you have a bug problem and require the pesticides.”
Deforestation is another consequence of coffee production. Developing country roasters use firewood to process their coffee, adding to deforestation from land clearing. In mountain communities it is common to see piles of hulls beside stream — a serious source of pollution. Organically produced coffee leechate is harmful too, says Derek. “In the cleaning of the coffee, water is simply dumped into the streams. And although you wouldn’t describe it as a toxin from a chemical standpoint, it robs the water of all its oxygen therefore killing its rivers and streams.”
Concerns over the social and environmental costs of coffee production and trade have fueled the growth of the Fair Trade organic coffee movement. The movement began in Europe after World War Two, but remained small. In the 1960s and seventies, the concept reemerged in solidarity and social justice movements. In the last ten years, Fair Trade organic coffee has become mainstream. You don’t have to go to specialty shops anymore to buy it … all major grocery store chains carry “socially conscious” bean.
That’s not just good news for the grower. It’s good news for coffee-conscious consumers as well. Now there are alternatives to large-tinned coffee swill on grocery store shelves. All the more reason to buy Fair Trade, says Derek Zavislake. To keep the good quality coffee beans flowing, we need to support small coffee growers. For more information, go to: