Fair Trade Coffee: A True Alternative

TJ Semanchin
Peace Coffee

After petroleum, coffee is the most heavily-traded commodity in the world. In most cases this fact spells Big Business, Big Money and Big Estate Farms. Yet millions of coffee growers – small family farms – continue to struggle for a decent life in the face of corporate globalization. Coffee drinkers now have the opportunity to join small, peasant coffee farms in their efforts to build a just and sustainable economy. The growing Fair Trade movement is the bridge that makes this connection between producer and consumer.

Fair Trade completely bypasses conventional markets, since neither the free market nor governments have proven their ability to protect rural communities or the environment. By closing the gap between consumer and producer, economic decisions can be made on a more personal and human level; one of respect for each other and the earth.

Fair Trade coffee companies (coffee companies that are 100% committed to Fair Trade) buy coffee directly from farmer cooperatives that are owned and controlled by small peasant farmers. These small farmers own their own land, in contrast to conventional (and some organic) coffee that is grown on larger estates or plantations that employ hired field workers. Many of these small farmers are also organic-certified, or at least passive-organic, since they have never used agro-chemicals. Small farmers are also better stewards of the land and have a softer impact on their environment.

Fair Trade certification guarantees that growers own their land and receive a fair price for their product. Fair Trade coffee is frequently, but not always, organic. A coffee that is only organic certified and not Fair Trade is certainly better for the earth, but the labor practices are not regulated and the coffee was probably grown on a larger estate.


Sustainable Coffee: Coffee that is economically fair, socially just and ecologically sound. Fair Trade, Organic- and Shade-Grown are three terms now used by coffee roasters to communicate sustainable methods of growing and trading coffee. Buying coffee from local cafes, markets and co-ops is the final link in a sustainable coffee system.

Fair Trade Coffee: Coffee grown and traded by small farmers who have joined together to form a cooperative. Bypassing the middle folks, Fair Trade coffee companies purchase coffee directly from these small farmer cooperatives at a guaranteed minimum price, ensuring that farmers earn a livable income. The conventional market is replaced by a new system of trade based on respect and fairness. Fair Trade coffee cooperatives are certified by the FLO (Fair-Trade Labelling Organization); Fair Trade roasters are certified by TransFair USA.

Conventional “Free Trade” Coffee: Coffee grown on either large estates or small farms and traded in a faceless transaction where prices are based on the New York futures market. Local speculators appropriately named “coyotes” take advantage of price fluctuations and small farmers’ lack of market information, paying a fraction of the market price to small farmers. This is a trading system that ignores economic justice, rural communities and the environment. Small farmers and their communities remain locked in a cycle of poverty while the profits from coffee are concentrated in the hands of a few individuals and large corporations.

Organic Coffee: Coffee that is grown in accordance with international standards that prohibit the use of chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides. By using on-farm inputs, sustainable farming practices promote self-reliance, and healthier farm families and ecosystems.

Shade-Grown Coffee: Coffee that is grown in the traditional manner with coffee plants interspersed under a diverse canopy of trees. According to researchers at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, shade coffee farms are second only to undisturbed forest in their ability to support bird life.

Full-Sun or Technified Coffee: New hybrid coffee varieties that are grown as a mono-culture without the protection or diversity of shade trees and are dependent on heavy applications of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Full sun coffee has higher yields but it comes at a hefty price in the form of soil erosion, loss of habitat and biodiversity, water contamination and risks to farm workers and their families.

Luckily for Twin Cities coffee drinkers, the Cities have some of the most sustainable coffee available. Here are some of the places you can find fair trade and organic coffees: All Twin Cities natural foods co-ops, Birchwood Cafe, Anodyne Cafe, Cafe of the Americas, Seward Cafe, El Norteno Restaurant, Whole Foods Markets, Roasting Stones Cafe, Livingston’s Cafe, St. Martin’s Table, Trotter’s Cafe, Coastal Seafoods

Facts About Coffee and the Environment

From the Wedge Co-op Newsletter Aug/Sept 1997

  • Traditionally managed (shade-grown) coffee plantations support over 140 species of birds. Sun fields can have as few as five or six species.
  •  There are 94-97% fewer bird species in sun-grown coffee plantations than in shade-grown coffee farms.
  • Up to 40 species of trees can be found in some traditionally (shade) managed plantations.
  •  In the regions most heavily used by migratory birds – Mesoamerica, the Caribbean Islands and Colombia – coffee forests cover 2.7 million hectares, almost half of the permanent cropland.
  • Sun coffee leads to greater soil erosion, acidification and higher amounts of toxic runoff, as well as loss of trees.
  •  Many pesticides widely used in Latin America are banned in the U.S.
  •  A study conducted by the National Resources Defense Council in 1983 showed that even after roasting, a sample of coffee from Brazil retained original levels of DDD (the toxic metabolite of DDT), a chemical used on non-organic coffee.
  •  It takes three to five years for a coffee plant to yield its first full crop.
  •  One coffee plant typically yields only one lb. of coffee per year.
  • Using organic farming techniques, coffee farmers can reduce input costs, eliminate their dependency on synthetic pesticides, reduce overall environmental impact and demand higher premiums on their beans.


Fair Trade Coffee

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