Monday, March 13, 2006

why fair trade advocates drive me crazy

"we need a development agenda for coffee coffee farmers to help them win more of the value available from a bag of coffee sold. . . why don't we have coffee farmers process and package the product they are growing, stick their own trademark on it and then sell it direct to western supermarkets? we also need to help farmers to mechanise as much as possible to increase their productivity, helping living standards to rise."

you see, this is a well-meaning statement by a well-meaning yanqui who has zero coffee knowledge. it sounds great at first, right?

but the problem -- as so often happens with right-minded liberal white people who live far away from the issue and don't understand the reality of coffee agriculture -- is that it's completely the wrong way to go.

for several reasons: 1 - it's not practical, since rural central/south america(!) isn't rural england or sweden; 2 - it will result in more stale, low-quality coffee, which will depress consumption; and 3 - mechanization does not better coffee make, which again will depress consumption, and also cause rural disruption and illegal immigration.

the idea is raise consumption. if people only drank an average of 2 more cups of coffee a day, the usaid once estimated, the so-called coffee crisis would be moot.

everyone knows, for example, that americans used to drink a lot more coffee than they do now. why did coffee consumption habits change in the late 60s and early 70s?

the commercial coffee industry -- folgers, et. al. -- will say that it's the savvy youth marketing of soft drinks that stole america's coffee drinkers away. uh-uh.

i won't let you off the hook so easily, guys! consumer habits are supposedly tough to create and even harder to change, that's the whole point of advertising, right?

so how did the soft drink firms undo the decades of intense ad spending of the commercial coffee companies so easily?

are coffee consumers less fixed in their habits than other consumers? were they easily seduced away from decades of daily habit and the overall american coffee culture by "the pepsi generation" marketing?

or isn't what happened is that commercial coffee quality declined dramatically, beginning about that time, and is continuing downward to this very day? no one wants to drink bad coffee, so the coffee-drinking audience began to look around for an alternative.

and that's when the soft drink marketing caught them. scaa chief ted lingle has many times talked about the need to maintain quality if we are to restore or even maintain current coffee consumption levels.

we won't be helping farmers if we set up a situation whereby they grow and create lesser-quality, stale coffee no one wants to drink. that will only lead them to disaster!

let's look at my objections, point by point.

first, mechanization. the best, highest-quality, and most valuable coffee is grown at a high altitude on what are generally extremely steep mountain slopes, in underdeveloped rural areas in 3rd world countries.

most of the farmers who require the greatest help are small-holders, who have less than 5 hectacres (15 acres), and often even grow their coffee in an almost garden-type setting, in remote villages.

these people have no roads, or often at best dirt ones that tend to wash out, no electricity, and endure a situation where fuel is costly and scarce. exactly how are impoverished farmers to buy these coffee-picking machines, and then to get them to these villages?

and how are these large, bulky machines going to navigate erratic, steep slopes? the best coffee is planted not in wide rows like corn on level ground, after all, except in brazil, whose sun-grown practices we don't want to emulate.

(why not? full-sun coffee on the whole doesn't taste as good as shade coffee. and of course, don't forget the songbirds.)

the best coffee tends to be grown on mountain sides under the shade of larger trees. how are you going to get the giant mechanical harvesters under the shading mango trees?

look, due to the terrain alone, juan valdez' donkey is often the best transport in the coffee field. and "donkey fuel" costs a lot less than gasoline or kerosene!

also, when we mechanize, what will happen to the coffee pickers? they are human beings too, and frankly, the poorest, most vulnerable people.

coffee picking is a skilled task, believe it! dougie himself learned this when he tried to pick coffee in guatemala.

hand coffee-picking is preferable, because the machine just strips all the beans from the branches, not able to discern ripe from unripe, bug-chewed from healthy. as long-time readers know, the best coffee varietals don't always ripen uniformly.

a skilled picker can take only the good beans at the correct ripeness, but can also do so with great speed, and without any harm to the tree. altho' no matter how carefully coffee is picked, some leaves etc. end up in the basket anyway. . .

so to help the farmers, we have to throw the coffee pickers out of work and cause rural economic chaos and instability as they all head north to cross the rio grande in search of agricultural work?

foment massive illegal immigration to solve the coffee crisis? good solution -- not.

mechanization requires farmers at great expense -- when they don't have the money to begin with -- to adopt "modern" brazil-like practices that lower coffee quality, and force them to uproot older, better-tasting varieties for inferior-tasting ones that are hybridized to ripen all at once. and it tosses the coffee pickers to the wind.

now let's take up the processing, roasting, and packaging issue. again, i'm struggling to understand how farmers are supposed to do this themselves?

as is so often the case, the right-minded liberal above glosses over what "processing" means. i'm going to assume they mean something like washing and sorting, and not other types of handling and roasting.

just take a look at those links above. washing requires machinery, which is usually housed at a central, mill location. getting the coffee there can be tough -- because roads are lacking, transport is lacking!

this is why the so-called "coyotes" come by and offer to pay farmers for their coffee on the spot. because the farmers often can't afford to pay the cost to transport their coffee to the mill, or lack the means (a big truck) to do so on their own.

as i said, rural bolivia isn't rural sweden. there often aren't roads, cell-phone service to call the trucking company, no trucking company to call anyway, and no effective government aid to help you get any of this done.

in fact, the government officials would only be happy to rob you of your coffee and sell it themselves, if the coyotes don't do it first. the coyotes know farmers can't get their coffee to the mill or market on their own, and so force them to accept an artificially low price, sometimes at gun point.

it's just not a pretty sight, and one that above white liberal dreaming away in placid surrey or wherever doesn't really have a solution for.

but ok, let's say the farmer can get his coffee to the mill. there it is processed by the co-op to which he belongs (if he is so lucky) or by an independent processor.

his connection to the coffee is ended. the washing and sorting is done by the mill, mostly.

but now the fair-trade proponent above thinks somehow farmers should be able to afford a sortex?

look, in some places crude de-pulping equipment is run by men on modified bicycles who drive the machines by pedalling! i have seen pictures myself of such setups; one that comes to mind was, iirc, in indonesia.

the coffee is sorted by women in a shed, who spend day and kerosene-lit night picking over the coffee 2 and 3 times.

why? because remote rural areas in the 3rd world tend to lack electricity! hello, english right-minder! he-ll-oooo!

even if usaid dropped a sortex on these people's doorstep, they probably couldn't use it. well -- actually they probably would figure out a way to use pedal-power to do so, because if my recitation above has proved anything, it's that the local coffee people are ingenious, courageous in the face of organized crime and corruption, and self-reliant.

let's move to the roasting and packaging issue. here we come to coffee freshness, one of the most pressing isssues for coffee consumers after basic quality and purity.

high-quality but stale coffee isn't desirable. coffee has a limited freshness life-cycle, which is especially tight for espresso.

light, heat, age, and humidity are the enemies of roasted coffee. to be fresh and maintain quality, coffee has to be roasted, bagged within a few hours, and promptly shipped for quick purchase.

i'm struggling to understand how coffee roasted in say, kenya, which then sits on the dock for 30 days to be loaded, sits again for 6 weeks in the container as it crosses the water(s), waits another 2 weeks to be unloaded at the american port, and then still has to be shipped to the distribution point, shipped again to the retail location, and sit there to be stocked and sold, could ever possibly be fresh. or properly handled along the way to avoid the deadly light, heat, and humidity.

and exactly how are the illiterate farmers of the 3rd world with their 15 acres of coffee going to market directly to western supermarkets? is the wife of the late juan de dios blanco supposed to call safeway or tesco hq to do a sales presentation?

do farmers have the ability to do the logistics of shipping coffee by containers and insuring it? of handling the business risk?

what does our nice liberal friend think coffee importers do? and we haven't even talked about the financial situation -- are the farmers supposed to enter the commodities market?

do their own futures and hedging on ameritrade to manage their capital and risk?

actually, i suspect our fair-trade friend knows that his dream is impractical. what he really hopes is that fair trade groups or other nice white liberal people will do all this for the farmers, while charging them a nice "producers fee."

in short, the nice white liberals who "know better" will become the new coffee brokers, marketers, and distributors, charging fat fees along the way. isn't this patronizing exploitation of another sort?

don't you just want to call bill fishbein of coffee kids right now? bill, who always talks about setting the coffee farmers up with good structures, teaching them to run them on their own, and watching as the farmers build their own futures with a new-found autonomy and independence?

this is one thing that seems so odd to me about fair trade right now, if i may be frank. if we are into helping coffee growers with this fair-trade plan, why are we charging them to do so?

the subjects of our charity have to pay us first to receive our aid? isn't that weird?

i won't keep on ranting about this. devoted readers know that i am in general a fair-trade supporter.

fair trade can do good. it is part of the solution.

but it is not perfect, and some of its problematic goals, assumptions, and limits of knowledge are pointed out by the article above!

posted by fortune | 7:26 AM | top | link to this | email this: | links to this post | | 4 comments

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