Last week, articles in mainstream and industry media outlets on the economic impacts of Fair Trade on smallholder farmers caused something of a furor among coffee cognoscenti. The most serious discussion seemed to revolve around this study published in Ecological Economics. Unfortunately, in the squabble over certifications most people missed what was easily the most important single sentence in the entire study:
“Per capita net coffee incomes are insufficient to cover basic needs of all coffee producing households.”
In other words, none of the smallholder farmers surveyed in the study — whether they were certified or not — are not making enough from coffee to feed their families.
Tomorrow I will publish a detailed review of the full article and what I think it means for organizations like ours that accompany smallholder farmers. We may indeed begin to reconsider our approach to certifications based on this article. But the impact of its findings and recommendations on our work may go well beyond the certification issue to include the thousands of farmers we support who are not aligned with any certification.
P.S.: A shout-out to Poul Mark of Transcend Coffee, who did not miss this important detail in his excellent blog post on the study.
Markets will never be enough, third party certified products are only as good as what their standards proscribe. Smallholder coffee farmers are vulnerable due to historical, infrastructural and political asymetries that fair trade cannot even begin to rectify.
But let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. FT helps, and that’s why we should support it; along with political reform and collective action.