Fair Trade and the Food Movement

“Mass movements can rise and spread without a belief in God,” the social critic Eric Hoffer once wrote, “but never without belief in a devil.”

Few groups better embody this adage than “the Food Movement”- the amorphous but impassioned effort to bring responsibly produced food from farm to fork. The Movement, which has surely done more than any other reform effort in American history to provoke popular interest in sustainable agriculture, encompasses such a hodge-podge of sub-genres-localism, organic, “deep organic,” “artisanal” production, anti-GMO, foragers, farmers’ markets, free-range meats, slow food, etc.-that it couldn’t possibly be said to worship anything so unifying as a single God. But let there be no doubt about the devil, the diabolical force that gives wholeness to the parts and venom to the rhetoric. The devil lives. And it goes by the name of Big Agriculture.

Big Ag is a fat target, repeatedly pummeled, and much of the time deservedly so. In addition to heaping ladlefuls of invective upon the Cargills, Monsantos, and McDonalds that embody the inherent evils of agribusiness, the Food Movement has responded to the industrialization of food by developing niche alternatives intended not so much to reform Big Ag as to bypass it altogether.? Acolytes want to turn on the anger, drop out of the system, and tune in to a fundamentally different set of agrarian ethics. How these renegade goals will play out in the 21st century, despite the movement’s explosive start, is anyone’s guess.

The recent history of Fair Trade coffee offers a telling suggestion, although perhaps not an optimistic one, of what lies ahead for the Food Movement should it insist on trying to operate outside the bounds of conventional markets. The Fair Trade system, which imposes a price floor to protect growers if the market price of coffee falls below a certain level, promises to return to workers a higher wage, better working conditions, and incentives for more sustainable practices.? It’s hard to gainsay these values, ones that the Food Movement has, much to its credit, made central to its mission. Who, after all, doesn’t think agricultural workers deserve more social justice? Who doesn’t think the environment should be respected by the hardworking men and women (and children) who grow our food?

But the problem with Fair Trade coffee is that as the program scales up, the alternative market ethics it wants to sustain collapse.? Inevitably, the Fair Trade market becomes subject to the same laws that drive the conventional commodities market.? When the price of coffee drops, the appeal of Fair Trade’s price support lures growers into the cooperatives that sell coffee under the Fair Trade label. As poor growers rush into Fair Trade agreements, the supply of Fair Trade coffee rises. Protected by the price floor, the Fair Trade coffee remains inflated despite flagging demand. What Fair Trade importers thus end up doing with the excess Fair Trade coffee is dumping it-upwards of 75 percent of it!-on the conventional market.

And this is when the rhetoric and reality of Fair Trade really lock horns.? Excess supply dumped into the conventional market has at least two effects that run counter to the stated mission of the Fair Trade label. First, even though we’re not talking about a great deal of coffee, the dumped Fair Trade beans still add to the supply of conventional beans, thereby driving the price downward and, however unintentionally, hurting poor farmers growing for the conventional market.

Second, as the gulf between supply and demand grows, it becomes harder for cooperatives to enter into Fair Trade agreements. Whether through more expensive certification procedures or higher costs of inspection, the barriers of entry go up, leaving the Fair Trade market to an exclusive handful of producers. Gawain Kripke, Director of Policy and Research at Oxfam America, explained in an e-mail that “as long as fair trade only relates to a small fraction of trade and production of only a few select products, its impact will remain limited.” Kripke observed that Fair Trade markets are growing, and that they have benefitted many poor producers, but added that “they remain tiny in relation to overall trade.” What’s “desperately needed,” he added, was “a broader reform of trade and agricultural policy.”

I bring up the case of Fair Trade because the Food Movement-driven as it is by the Big Ag devil-is currently gathering steam around a similar idea: it wants to go “beyond the barcode.” Not unlike the Fair Trade system, the idea here is to find, as Michael Pollan recently put it in The New York Review of Books, “a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations on the one side and government on the other.” My sense is that no matter how honed the Movement’s dedication to food and social justice may be, no matter how heady its animating slogans, the quest to go beyond the barcode-to find that “new social and economic space”-will find itself ensnared in the same economic and historical realities that have so severely compromised the initial promises of Fair Trade.

More to the point: the barcode, and the global system of commercial exchange it represents, cannot be dismissed, ignored or bypassed. It’s part and parcel of a deep history that our generation has (for better or worse) inherited and, as such, it must be confronted head on and reformed from within. Fair Trade reveals an unavoidable reality that will likely nag the Food Movement at every turn throughout the twenty-first century. The collective effort to drop out of the industrial food system and pioneer a fresh path might succeed when it stays small and can reliably depend on the sustained goodwill of consumers willing to seek reform through the fork, but it will likely backfire when it scales up. And sure, small might be beautiful, but small is also small, and goodwill — well, goodwill is a terribly fickle impulse.


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  1. BADKarma says:

    “Fair Trade”, “Locavore”, “Food Movement” (similar to a bowel movement, but worthless and unsatisfying)… All are synonymous with ‘Veganist Jihad”. To wit: The megalomaniacal belief that your decision to eat like a cow in a feedlot should be shoved down the throat of everyone else on the face of the planet, using any means necessary.

    This is especially repulsive in light of the ever-increasing body of evidence that “sustainable” agriculture not only ISN’T “sustainable”, it’s far, far more damaging to the environment than (BOOGA, BOOGA… Cue “villain music”) BIG AG…. (SHRIEK, SCREAM!!!!!).

    Of course, since the actual goal is to starve out approximately 2/3 of the human race as a form of stealth Eugenics, (by making food unattainably expensive), I guess that’s not really a problem, is it?

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  2. Mike D. says:

    Joe D (#3), I read “scale up” as “full deployment of this method upon the somehow-death of Big Food”.

    My big take-away here is that as the FM continues to grow, farmers will jump from industrial agriculture to these more traditional methods of farming. That means we’ll be producing less food.. I don’t eat less “organic” food vs. “industrial” food (except insofar as I can’t afford as much “organic” food), therefore I expect the demand for food will remain static whether we use “industrial” or “organic” food.

    Please understand – I am opposed to use of known toxic pesticides on grown food, opposed to pre-sterilized GM crops sold by Monsanto to ensure their own future income stream and hobbling their customers, and opposed to use of hormones which are scientifically shown to be passed into animal products and are detectable in humans once they ingest them. However, unless we want to kick off the food wars, I think it would be foolish to attempt to kill Big Ag rather than reform it.

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  3. Tzipporah says:

    The Food Movement is about nostalgia for an imagined past that never existed.

    It posits that one can live in the luxury of the first world, with abundant energy and resources, while eschewing many of the technological processes that allowed the first world to become so luxurious.

    As someone growing my own organic garden, and sewing my own quilts, etc., I recognize that the movement is not sustainable with the privileges afforded by abundant clean water, energy, private property and accumulated wealth.

    Wouldn’t it be nice ifsome of the movement’s adherents put as much energy into finding real solutions for the people around the world living in real poverty and HAVING to eat only local food, cook slowly, etc., as they do into canning their own farmer’s market $5-a-pint raspberries?

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  4. Mantonat says:

    I’ve been wondering about the scalability of the food movement ever since Whole Foods went from a small purveyor of all things organic to a nationwide economic force of its own. Most of what you can now purchase at Whole Foods has little to do with the ideals that attracted customers in the first place; it is now little more than a glorified upscale grocery chain. I’ve also seen this with a local spice shop that is attempting to franchise nationally. They are moving from a model where the shop imports and grinds all its own spices to a centralized warehouse that supplies ground spices to all of the franchises. How is this any different than just buying spices from a grocery store? They will be lured by the same temptations that brought down the price and quality of the mass-producers: economies of scale, less hands-on quality assurance, and the goal of consistent mediocrity rather than occasional greatness.

    As an aside, what is the standard for “more social justice?” Who’s going to measure the minimum social justice rate?

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  5. Terry says:

    The recent large and growing movement from corn syrup to cane sugar is a perfect example of how businesses will respond to customers. If we all want organic, someone will try to provide it.

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  6. brent says:

    “The recent large and growing movement from corn syrup to cane sugar is a perfect example of how businesses will respond to customers. If we all want organic, someone will try to provide it.”

    What this proves is that lies told often enough, and repeated by a credulous, or worse, media outlets, can fool the public.

    The fact is that sucrose and high fructose corn syrup contain almost the same ratio of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose. Table sugar is made up of 50 percent of each, while high fructose corn syrup comes in two varieties: a 42/58 percent fructose/glucose formula, and one that contains 55/45 percent fructose/glucose.

    Look it up.


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  7. Ken says:


    Table sugar is made of sucrose, which is broken town to fructose and glucose by the enzyme sucrase in the digestive system. The allegation is that consumption of HFCS sends less signals to the body that one is getting full, so one ends up consuming more HFCS when eating/drinking than one would with ordinary table sugar. Being nutritionally equivalent after digestion, that translates to a larger calorie intake.

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  8. Josh says:

    “But hey, let’s say ALL coffee became Fair Trade, or even the vast majority of it. The cost of production would then accurately reflect the needs of the people working on the farms across the board.”

    – Michael

    Also most of those people would be out of a job as coffee consumption tanked to a fraction of what it currently is because of skyrocketing prices (not to mention the rise of a large black market in “sweatshop coffee”). Artificial wage supports just privilege some subset of a population to the detriment of the rest of the population.

    Anyway, the food movement is a utopian joke. Unless you also combine it with a mandatory abortions/sterilizations for most of the world’s population you are going to have mass starvation. There no way to feed everyone but more or less the way we are doing it.

    Big Ag is by no means a laudable enterprise. It is what it is (a moneymaking machine). It definitely needs to get off of the taxpayers teat, but doing so would not change its structure dramatically, and large monoculture tracts in the most arable lands are always going to be the most efficient way to produce food.

    Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the food movement is how selective its adherents are with science when it doesn’t suit their purposes.

    A rigorous study finds some pesticide is bad? “SCIENCE IS ALL WE CARE ABOUT, BAN IT BAN IT BAN IT.”

    A rigorous study finds some other pesticide is harmless “WHO CARES ABOUT CORRUPT RESEARCHERS, BAN IT BAN IT BAN IT.”

    Not to mention the anti-GMO people who are just completely off the deep end. That is like being anti-wheel. GMO is going to be the bedrock of a huge range of future human technology, closing your eyes won’t make it go away.

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