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What do all those labels mean? Coffee is marketed under a variety of "causes"

In the rugged highlands of Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, local people still harvest some of the world's best-tasting beans. As Oxfam explains, "The coffee-growing area in the mountains to the west of the Great Rift Valley is so ideally suited to growing arabica coffee the farmers need no fertilizer or insecticides." However, the people who actually tend the plants were hit hard by the recent crisis of coffee prices.

Further, as Miju Adula, chairperson of Ethiopia's Kilenso Mokonisa Cooperative, puts it, "We used to sell our coffee to exporters who would cheat us and sometimes they did not pay us at all." Unfortunately, this isn't uncommon, because coffee farmers usually lack access to cell phones and computers, so they cannot locate fair price operations. They must often agree to low prices before harvest, when they are desperate for any upfront cash middlemen offer. Many Ethiopian coffee growers cannot afford to send their children to school, buy medical supplies or, in some cases, even purchase enough food, reports Oxfam. In 1999, the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) was established to link 35 cooperatives, representing 23,000 members. The union returns 70 percent of the profits to the farmers.

"We worked with Oromia to introduce the first-ever Fair Trade, organic Ethiopian coffee into the U.S.," says Dean Cycon, president of Massachussets-based Dean's Beans coffee company. "When I brought back roasted 'Oromia Blend' to the farmers, they went wild! Few had ever tasted their own coffee and none had ever seen it packaged with their name on it," he says. Dean's Beans now runs a program to help build much-needed wells in coffee communities, paid for by company sales. In Nicaragua, Dean's Beans helped set up a cafe roastery, where all profits fund a charitable prosthetic limb clinic, a godsend in a region plagued by land mines in addition to poverty.

 Clearly, coffee can have a positive impact on source communities, and according to the Hartman Group, 63 percent of consumers say they will pay a premium for products that demonstrate a positive environmental impact. But the trick for busy consumers often becomes sorting out potential marketing hype from those brands that make a real difference. That's why certification is such a hot-button issue.

Joseph F. DeRupo of the National Coffee Association says his group's recent research found that consumer awareness of organic coffee has jumped from 42 percent in 2003 to 52 percent in 2005 (when a quarter of respondents said that knowledge would influence their purchase decision). For Fair Trade coffee, awareness went from seven percent to 15 in the same time, and for shade-grown coffee it went from 10 to 15 percent.


For North Americans, organic coffee may be the most intuitive, since we've all seen the plethora of organic foods Akin stores across the continent. Buying organic coffee has less to do with personal health than, say, reaching for USDA-certified peaches or chicken cutlets, however, because research suggests your latte is likely free of chemical residues. Organic certification is handled country by country, and all foodstuffs sold in the U.S. can be labeled with the respected USDA seal. Generally, coffee labeled organic fetches a higher retail price.

"There's still a lot of what we call 'passive organic' coffee farming in Guatemala and other places, in which the growers are so poor and so isolated that they continue to work the old way, without any modern chemicals," says Jeronimo Bollen, the founder and president of the Guatemala-based farmer-support organization Manos Campesinos. Bollen says some of these farmers could benefit from organic certification, and adds, "There are things they can do to increase their yields, such as learning to use advanced soil conservation and compost techniques." Bollen says the easiest way to identify an organic farm is by its tree cover, because "essentially all organic coffee farms are shade grown, whereas most non-organic farms aren't." He says the cost to farmers of getting the certification is about one cent extra per pound produced.

In one innovative approach, the small Connecticut-based group Builders Beyond Borders is working with an association of Costa Rican organic coffee farmers to help increase sustainable production. Builders Beyond Borders recruits American high school students to travel to disadvantaged communities, and in this case young people will be helping build a new facility where organic coffee farmers will be able to meet, receive training and support, recruit new growers, display and sell their products (especially to tourists) and conduct other tasks.


"Once consumers learn the story of how important shade-grown coffee is, particularly for songbirds, it is an easy and empowering decision for them to switch to a shade-grown product," explains Sandy Pinto, director of licensing for the National Audubon Society. Audubon has been using its substantial educational muscle to help build support for shade-grown beans, especially those--such as the society's own branded offering--that are certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's standards.

"Luckily, in recent years we've been able to find those who still grow coffee the traditional way, and try to reward them for their eco-friendly efforts," adds Greg Butcher, Audubon's director of bird conservation. "This will hopefully keep them from joining the technified bandwagon."


The international Fair Trade movement is trying to improve the lives of the world's beleaguered farmers, and in Re case of coffee this means guaranteeing that producers earn at least a floor price of $1.26 a pound for their green beans, or $1.41 a pound if it's organic. Fair Trade premiums are paid only to cooperatives with democratic governance, many of which date back to the late 1970s. Buyers must agree to offer credit and cultivate long-term, stable relationships. Most co-ops reinvest some of the profits in the community, building wells, schools, coffee-processing equipment and so on.

Certification is managed by the Fair-trade Labeling Organizations International, and in the U.S., TransFair USA places the "Fair Trade Certified" label on cocoa, tea, bananas and other fruits, although coffee is the biggest seller. This label is specific to each batch of product, although companies can widely use the Fair Trade Federation logo if they can be shown to meet the standards across the board.

According to TransFair spokesperson Haven Bourque, the system benefits more than 800,000 farmers in 48 countries. She says the certified coffee sells, for a small price premium, in about 45,000 retailers. Some 32,866,758 pounds of green coffee were certified in 2004, a 76 percent growth since 2003 (and representing about 1.8 percent of the global java market). "In 2004, about 68 percent of Fair Trade coffee was also organic, and many co-ops use the revenue they get from Fair Trade to pay for organic certification," says Bourque.

In 2002, the progressive hamlet of Berkeley, California made national headlines with a ballot initiative that would have required all brewed coffee sold in town to be Fair Trade (or organic or shade-grown). It didn't pass, but a number of municipalities in the United Kingdom have since voted to become "Fair Trade towns," and have agreed to serve only certified coffee at official meetings and generally promote the politically correct beans. This summer, New York City and San Francisco passed resolutions that encourage purchase of Fair Trade coffee by government agencies.

Like any movement, Fair Trade has had some growing pains, and some critics have attacked the concept. Some argue that Fair Trade premiums could lead to an even larger glut of coffee, but Bourque counters, "That tends not to happen because these are small plot farmers who won't grow more than they can keep up with. They just want to stay on their land and farm traditionally." A 2003 Seattle Times article charged, "The program doesn't teach farmers how to compete in the global market, critics say, and the coffee tastes bad." Bourque says a few early Fair Trade coffees may not have been the best tasting, but she points to numerous quality and excellence awards since then. TransFair argues that, far from taking away consumer freedom, Fair Trade is really about giving consumers information so they can make their own choices.

One of the biggest complaints of Fair Trade is that the requirements for eligible farmers are quite restrictive, specifying that they must be poor land owners organized into coops. "My farms cannot be Fair Trade certified because we are too large," says Diego Llach of E1 Salvador, who says he pays his workers 50 to 110 percent above his country's minimum wage.

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