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Got Fair Trade?

Elizabeth Bast and Tracy Sayegh

The taste of justice in your morning brew is exactly what students, faculty, and staff are demanding. You see, that cup of coffee you crave has a story behind it you need to know.

The coffee you drink most likely comes from the beans of one of the 20-25 million farming families in developing countries who grow coffee. The vast majority of these families are facing a serious crisis, because the real price of coffee has fallen 50 percent in the last three years and is currently hovering at a 50-year low. This situation is partly the fault of rich countries like the United States who through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have pushed developing countries into expanding coffee production, only to foster an oversupply that has world prices plummeting.

Many coffee growing families are living on the edge, and cannot afford basic food and needed medications. With prices as low as they are now, many farmers are finding that it’s not financially worth the labor intensive work of picking their coffee beans. Children in these families, especially girls, are no longer able to attend school. Meanwhile, major coffee companies, for whom beans are a small percentage of their costs, are making record profits.

Sure, the situation is bad, but what can you do about it from here at MIT?

The answer is a lot. Fair Trade is one initiative that has emerged to address this crisis situation. Purchasing Fair Trade certified coffee is a simple way to make a difference in the lives of the small farmers. Fair Trade certification is a system that ensures farmers get a fair price for their coffee -- $1.26 per pound or more if it’s organic -- as opposed to the $0.50 per pound they would get on the world market. The Fair Trade system cuts out the middlemen, so that coffee goes directly from cooperatives in developing countries to purchasers in industrialized countries, giving farmers the income they need to provide for their families’ health and education.

The Fair Trade system also emphasizes long-term contracts between growers and buyers, and buyers are required to extend credit to growers when needed, giving producers added stability. Farmers receive training and support to improve coffee quality. Fair Trade also encourages environmental sustainability, since most Fair Trade coffee is grown under the shade of fruit trees without harmful chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

Fair Trade certified coffee was first made available in the U.S. in 1999. From 1999 to 2002, 38 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee have been sold in the U.S. This has generated $31 million of additional income for farmers. Fair Trade coffee continues to be the fastest growing segment of the U.S. specialty coffee market, and the more Fair Trade is sold, the more farmers can be helped by the system.

At MIT, almost all dining establishments offer a Fair Trade coffee option. But we should be asking for more. The quality and variety of Fair Trade coffee beans is the same if not better than any other; why should we allow farmers to be exploited by any of the coffee we drink? We have the opportunity to show MIT dining establishments that we care about the people who make the products we buy. We can demand that MIT dining services offer only Fair Trade coffee in their offerings.

Next time you are buying coffee, have a look at the options. If the outlet isn’t selling the blend you want as a fair trade option, fill in a comment card or ask them about it.

Don’t miss your chance to make a difference. Get Fair Trade!

Elizabeth Bast and Tracy Sayegh are members of the group Students for Labor Justice.