This article is the second in a 2 part interview – the first part can be found here.

DB: I’m very familiar with the evolution of “organic” labelling and I’m assuming the same concepts you are using for coffee could be applied to the organic food industry.

MG: With organic certification, I’ll go all the back to the Organic food productions act of 1990. I worked in the natural foods industry for years.

The original protocol we used for organic certification was based on the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) and was very stringent. It was difficult to become certified. As you and I know, anything that is good for the earth, good for all living beings is difficult.

DB: It is going to require extra work to do the right thing.

MG: Long story short, going back to when the Fair Trade scheme was co-opted by the big boys, they influenced it from that day forward like Organics. Back in the ’80s when support for Organics really began to strengthen, the demand grew and the big boys said ‘Hey, we’re missing out on this.

They looked at the stringent requirements from the OCIA certification and said ‘We can’t meet that criteria on our large scale.’ What they did was simple. They pulled all their resources together and lobbied lobbied lobbied and went to the USDA and said it’s unfair that OCIA has this strict criteria. The large corporations said the demand for organic food was higher than supply and it was unfair for the criteria to be so strict. ‘Look USDA, you need to lighten the criteria for certification so us big boys can get in there and make more organic food available for the consumers who want it.

We can talk about the emotions we feel about this but when you compare the certification criteria for OCIA and USDA organic production, they are different. OCIA used to be truly sustainable and a much better process for food production but it was too strict. We have to deal with that. It breaks my heart.

DB: A lot of the small scale farmers I partner with don’t even pursue organic certification anymore because it just isn’t financially feasible and almost doesn’t apply to small scale producers.

Drying beds for coffee from Kokowagayo Coop, a producer from Sumatra

MG: Yeah how are the small-holder farmers supposed to compete with large companies like CalOrganics? The large ‘organic’ producers are the ones that influenced the USDA rules for organic certification. Unfortunately, some of the small scale farmers had to bite the bullet and get the USDA certification just to have a booth at the farmers market or to get consumers to even glance at them on the shelves.

Consumers were asking for organic certification but then you look at the prices they demanded from these farmers which were based on CalOrganics retail prices. It just isn’t possible to grow great food on a small scale and compete against the large-grower retail prices.

Most consumers aren’t going to buy the $3 bundle of kale when CalOrganics retail it for $1.50. How do we get to the true cost of food?

When Food Inc came out back in the day, everyone had an awakening moment but where did that movement go? We are still struggling to get people to realize the true cost of food.

DB: Which labels today with coffee are still legitimate. Are there still genuine labels out there?

MG: Many of them are legitimate in one way or another. But despite what the consumer may be lead to believe, most of these labels fail to advance small-holder coffee producers out of poverty.

The original Fair Trade registry was held in Europe…picture a giant book like something you’d find in Hogwarts… it had all the producer organizations that were qualified to be labelled as Fair Trade.

To qualify required being organized into farmer cooperatives. This was a way to give the small-holder coffee farmer a chance to compete out in the market and it worked. Transfair USA was the original US-based scheme that enabled Fair Trade coffee to enter the US market at scale.

After several years of success and market share growth, TransFair was lobbied heavily by the large corporate roasters saying ‘You guys are unfair. You limit the certification to those that are associated with cooperatives. We need you to include private estates, large farms, fazendas, etc…”. 

Today, it’s more crucial than ever to support farmer co-operatives. For millions of farmers, if they aren’t a member of a producer cooperative, they are at the mercy of the buyer on the road, the ‘coyotes’ who will buy their harvest at incredibly low prices, and they may not even give them money. They may just give you a bottle of mezcal or a bag of food and say “I’ll take this off your hands”.

A lot of these farmers have no education, no voice in the system. So this original co-op plan was organized to give these farmers a voice and have a say in the coffee sourcing market. They are very strong at organizing communities and growers.

After immense pressure from these large corporations, TransFair finally had to change and allow entities other than co-ops to be labelled “Fair Trade”. That includes private estates, fincas, etc.

How are the original small-scale coffee growers who only produce a few bags of coffee a year supposed to compete with these large estates?

A majority of the coffee producers in the world are these small scale producers that are at the mercy of the New York Board of Trade’s Coffee, Sugar, and Cocoa Exchange (CSCE) daily closing price. Long story short, TransFair changed their name and along with others like Starbucks and Whole Foods decided to create their own ‘ethical trade’ labels/symbols (apart from the Hogwart’s book of cooperative fair trade. Consumers fell right into place supporting these symbols.

Unfortunately, the grass-roots, cooperative support system took a back seat. Starbucks put posters up in every store of farmers and big “Fair Trade” signs all over the place but they only support 5-10% truly fair trade sources. Call it Green-washing or Social-washing. It’s disgusting.”

Starbucks has their own fair trade scheme even if you can’t get a cup of coffee from these fair trade systems. Last year alone, twice, Starbucks was accused of child labour sourcing in Brazil. Twice! How fair is that? I’m saying all this in an emotional way because your original question stumps me.

What is it going to take to get the consumers to stop being ‘educated’ by these corporations who are claiming to support fair trading practices and pulling farmers out of poverty? The fines thrown at these businesses for child labour. 10 million dollars and for them, that’s just the cost of doing business.

DB: Instead of labelling, do you think transparency is the standard these roasters and consumers should chase?

MG: I’m with you on that. I believe you’re right. Somehow we need to be educated, we need to be empowered, and we need to learn how to say these words: “Please prove it”.

Transparency means there’s proof. How much did the producer get per pound? How much of the retail price of a 12oz bag went back to the producer?

Starbucks stopped buying stuff directly from growers and started buying from exporters because if something went wrong, they could just point the finger at the exporter and say ‘We trusted them’.

They do this to protect themselves in case they are called out. Transparency needs to be available and getting consumers to be confident enough to say prove it. And then we have to get the consumer to refuse to buy the coffee if transparency isn’t available.

This has to be programmed deep on an ionic level with consumers. A mother with three kids gets a text from her husband saying “get a bag of coffee”.

There is so much stuff going on in the coffee aisle that there is no way she will have the energy to check the transparency of each company. We need to find a way to empower the consumer again.

Origin; who grew the coffee is important, but it needs to be verified by a legitimate third party. Don’t settle for anything less than the truth.

End of Interview.

Today, Mark works with Cooperative Coffees. You can find the list of roaster-members who make up this green coffee importing cooperative here. Clearing up the murky waters of fair trade labelling will take some time but for starters, look for supply chain transparency of the product rather than any specific label.

Instead of searching for the most catching ‘fair trade’ symbol on a product in the coffee aisle, perhaps we should ask our coffee roasters and retailers the details that matter.

It will take time to learn which companies we can trust to be transparent but if that can be established it would represent a big step forward.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent those of Bartalks.

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