What is Fair Trade & Organic Coffee?

If you visit Starbucks on a regular basis, you've probably noticed the option to buy organic or fair trade coffee. Most people probably know what organic means, and many are vaguely aware of what fair trade means, but how are these words applied to coffee?

Fair trade coffee is actually a certification that is granted by TransFair USA. The program is designed to allow farmers in developing countries access to consumer markets where coffee is in demand. Farmers are often trained on coffee production and are paid a fair wage for their products so they can improve their living conditions and those of their community.

As part of the deal, Fair Trade farmers must agree to use environmentally sustainable practices when growing their products. Some of these practices include interplanting crop species to improve soil condition, improving water conservation, and prohibiting crops in conservation areas. In addition, high labor standards are required for farmers to earn the Fair Trade label for their products. The Fair Trade process prevents abuse of farmers by middlemen by connecting growers with sellers directly.

Organic coffee means that the coffee was grown without using chemicals, pesticides, and toxic fertilizers. Although it is unanimously agreed that these pollutants do not survive the roasting process to reach your body, they are extremely hazardous to the water bodies and drinking water supplies. The additional nutrients and toxins often find their way into lakes, rivers and oceans to poison fish & plant species. Plus, it is unhealthy for farmers and laborers to be exposed to these toxic fertilizers and pesticides.

There is another category for coffee called "Shade grown." Shade grown coffee is grown under the canopy of tree branches in areas where the soil is appropriate for plant growth. Believe it or not, all coffee was once grown in the shade. Coffee plants are a shade loving shrub that, until 25 years ago, grew naturally in areas under tree limbs. Farmers have genetically modified coffee plants so they can grow in full sunlight to provide better yields. This has resulted in the complete clearing of tree covered areas in favor of flat, treeless rows of shrubs.

There are many more benefits to growing coffee in the shade. For one, it benefits migratory bird species who rely on the forest areas for temporary housing during their migration. In fact, over the past 25 years, migratory bird species who rely on just such forests have declined in population by 50% as trees have been cleared for more non-shade grown coffee. Also, taste is improved when coffee is grown in the shade. Less coffee beans grow per plant, increasing flavor concentration and reducing the bitterness.

If you are interested in buying organic, fair trade, and/or shade grown coffee, there are plenty of places in your community that sell it. But if you want to buy it online, look HERE.

1 comment:

  1. A few factual corrections here...
    * Only 3% of Starbucks coffee is Fair Trade
    * Farmers participating in Fair Trade are not necessarily paid a fair wage for their products. In fact, there have been a lot of reports about how many still make less than a local minimum wage. What FT does provide, however, is a baseline cost for coffee sold by farmers who belong to a cooperative. Now what that farmer earns from the cooperative is a different story. Including whether that wage is technically "fair" or not.
    * FT cooperatives agree to some baseline level of what might appear to be environmentally sustainable practices. But make no mistake: there are coffees labeled as "environmentally sustainable" and coffees labeled as "Fair Trade" and they do not follow the same rules. Case and point? Not all Fair Trade coffee is organic. So unless you think the use of pesticides and toxic fertilizers counts as "environmentally sustainable", it necessarily is not.
    * Fair Trade says nothing about the quality of the coffee. In fact, farmers (cooperatives) receive no upside for making a better crop -- only for hitting all the checklist items. This is why some of the more notable boutique roasters in this country, such as Intelligentsia of Chicago, have stopped doing business with Fair Trade altogether a couple of years ago and now only do their own "Direct Trade" instead.