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From our Oke USA Team:

avocado

Fact: 120 million pounds of avocados are expected to be sold in the United States in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.

That’s about 5 million cases.

At Equal Exchange, we’re busy filling Super Bowl orders with our customers, but we’re also asking ourselves how our work importing Mexican avocados relates to issues illustrated in the LA Times piece about the Mexican produce industry. Reporter Richard Marosi traveled across nine Mexican states over 18 months, meeting with workers at the giant farms that export much of the produce sold in the United States. The result was a four-part series released in December that exposed the hardships that Mexican laborers endure, including poor living conditions and work without pay.

Many people have responded to the article, calling for reforms to current trade policies and practices. As we reflect on our broken food system, we want to push the conversation beyond calls for reform. Instead of just reforming the existing policies and practices, we want to talk about what it would look like to truly transform the way Mexican produce is grown and exported to the United States.

What do we mean when we talk about building a transformative trade model?  Reform means taking what already exists, and then tweaking it. It means making amendments and revisions until it is better. But when we transform something, we start from scratch, moving beyond what has worked in the past and completely reconstructing the system.  Reform is easier, safer, and faster;transformation is harder, riskier, and happens over time. 

This post is the first of a three-part series that digs deeper into this topic. Over the next few days, we’ll highlight our ideas for a transformative trade model and the role that our distributors, stores, and customers play in making this vision a reality.

TRANSFORMING THE
(AVOCADO) INDUSTRY

At Equal Exchange, our work partnering with PRAGOR, distributors, and stores to build a more just and sustainable avocado supply chain has been incredibly challenging.  For the past year, we have all taken tremendous risks, and while our first season felt successful in many ways, we are still slowly figuring out how to make this a sustainable program for all stakeholders.

In the grand scheme of things, our impact is small. PRAGOR represents just 18 farmers. We import small volumes of avocados for only a portion of the year. We sell these avocados to small stores. Our supply chain isn’t perfect.

But the basic ideas behind this model are big ideas, and they are our radical ideas for what our food system should- and can- look like. At Equal Exchange, we believe that a truly transformative model includes:

1. Farmers owning their own land.
2. Small-scale farmers having access to the global marketplace.
3. Having the real cost of food reflected in consumer prices.
4. Connecting consumers with producers around transparent supply chains.

Interested in learning more about these values and how they’re reflected in our partnership with PRAGOR?  Click here.

The following post is by Darya Mattes, Community Sales
ROOTED IN THIS LAND 
olive trees On a rainy Tuesday in late November, just a few weeks after the end of the 2014 olive harvest, I had the opportunity to spend a day with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC), Equal Exchange’s olive oil partner in Palestine. I’ve visited a Fair Trade coffee co-op and have learned about many others during my four years at Equal Exchange, but on this visit, I was struck by how embedded olive farming and olive oil production are in every aspect of Palestinian culture. Unlike coffee, tea, and cacao, which were imported to many producer countries as commodity crops under colonial regimes, olive oil production is a centuries-long tradition for people in this region.
Read more here.

 

Equal Exchange, along with six consumer food co-ops across the United States, founded the P6 Coop Trade Movement in 2009. Our mission is to support just and equitable trade relationships between farmers, producers, retailers and consumers rooted in cooperative principles and values. In participating P6 co-op stores, you can find and learn more about the products that meet our highest standards and values.

Today, P6 is the symbol of a growing consumer-supported food economy recognizing products grown or produced locally, or internationally, by small farmers/producers, and co-operatives.

Watch P6 in Action:

For more information, click here.

The following post was written by Dana Geffner, Executive Director of the Fair World Project. The post was sent to us from Nicaragua where she is visiting Fair Trade co-operatives.

We leave Granada and drive a few hours through a beautiful lush landscape, horses and cows line the side of the roads, people selling honey and fruit as we make our way to Boaco, in the central part of Nicaragua. We are on our way to visit one of Equal Exchange’s coffee co-op partners to learn more about how small-scale coffee farmers are organizing in order to compete in a difficult global market that favors multi-national corporations working with large coffee estates that have access to capital, can take advantage of economies of scale and ultimately find it easier to reach the market shelves. We are visiting Tierra Nueva to learn why it is so important that small-scale farmers organize themselves so they can farm organically, stay on their land and feed their families. Read more here.

In today’s third and final piece on the Non-GMO Labeling Project, Sales Representative Gabriella della Croce offers us some thoughtful reflections on whether this particular labeling initiative is “better than nothing” for consumers who do not want to be consuming GMO products.  We leave you with this question to ponder:  Is something better than nothing, or does this initiative, with its good intentions, actually undermine other efforts which go so much further to keep consumers informed, educated, and healthy?  As always, we appreciate your feedback and your views.  Let us know what you think!

The Non-GMO Labeling Project:  Is something better than nothing?

“If I can’t afford to buy organic flour, should I bother paying for the Non-GMO verified seal?” When a good friend asked me this a few months ago, I told her that I didn’t think I knew enough about it to give her a thoughtful answer. Ever since then, I’ve been noticing the little orange Non-GMO butterfly seal everywhere, and trying to decide what I think.

If organic prices are too expensive and your budget limits your options to conventional or Non-GMO, isn’t Non-GMO better than nothing at all? What about the millions of Americans who want to feed their families well, but can’t afford to buy organic?

I think a lot about food justice and food access. And the Non-GMO project seems to offer some good middle ground. Yet saying that something is better than nothing strikes me as a sad place from which to reform a food system as broken as our own. Why should we settle for this? You could argue that it’s a good stop-gap measure, which seems to fit neatly into the Non-GMO Project’s vision. Founder Meaghan Westgate writes:

“I am not at all opposed to efforts to mandate labeling of all GMO foods, but I am a pragmatic person. After 10 years of the USDA ignoring our pleas, many of us who are committed to the non-GMO future of food chose to take matters into our own hands by creating the Non-GMO Project. It is a proactive alternative, and it by no means precludes the mandated labeling option.”

Yet in the rush to offer consumers more information, there seems to be some seriously careless rubber-stamping. I even saw Non-GMO Verified salt. This kind of marketing clearly fuels consumer’s confusion–and this salt is just one item on a long list of Non-GMO verified products that cannot possibly be genetically modified.

On one hand I recognize and appreciate the value of offering shoppers the ability to avoid GMOs even if they can’t afford organic products. However, seeing the label used so irresponsibly leaves a bad taste in my mouth and strikes me as an opportunistic rush to take advantage of consumers’ ignorance.

Grocery stores across the country are swamped with an alphabet soup of certification labels and dishonest marketing claims. There are six different seals all insisting that they guarantee Fair Trade. There’s the meaningless but popular term “natural,” plastered indiscriminately on just about everything. There’s organic, which means that 95% of ingredients must be organic and cannot contain GMOs. Now, on top of all this, there’s the Non-GMO Project butterfly seal.

Isn’t more information and extra verification a good thing in a market so flooded with hype? Maybe not. To me, the Non-GMO Project seal seems redundant on organic products. Perhaps many consumers don’t know that organic already means Non-GMO. Or maybe they’re worried about that 5% of ingredients that don’t have to be organic for a product to be labeled as organic. Yet the Non-GMO Project acknowledges that it can’t guarantee products are totally GMO-free either! Their website says:

Unfortunately, “GMO free” and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology. In addition, the risk of contamination to seeds, crops, ingredients and products is too high to reliably claim that a product is “GMO free.” The Project’s claim offers a true statement acknowledging the reality of contamination risk, but assuring the shopper that the product in question is in compliance with the Project’s rigorous standard.”

Perhaps by criticizing this label, I am pitting the mediocre against the good. It seems to me like many of the people who were involved in starting the Non-GMO Project have good intentions. Yet I worry that this seal undermines the much more comprehensive organic standard. I worry that it undermines the more ambitious state initiatives to label GMOs, rather than foods that don’t contain GMOs.

 

On Monday, we heard from Jenica Rosen who raises important questions about the Non GMO Project.  Jenica asks us to look into the companies that are supporting this initiative and consider their motives for doing so.  Encouraging us to “follow the money,” she urges shoppers to dig deeper into any certification or labeling system and then make their own decisions about the products and the companies they support with their consumer dollars.  Today, we hear from another Equal Exchange Sales Representative, Ellen Mickle, also based in our Portland, Oregon office.  In her post below, Ellen reminds us that organic products cannot be certified as such if they contain GMO ingredients.  Given this “gold” standard, she asks what, if any, value the Non-GMO labeling project adds in the market place.  More concerning, Ellen questions whether the ever-increasingly ubiquitous butterfly seal might not be undermining the organic certification system, as well as attempts to enact legislation which would require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOS (rather than voluntary labeling of those which do NOT contain GMOS).  Finally, Ellen reminds us that many of the products which are showing up with the butterfly seal are on products for which there are actually NO GMO alternatives.

Voluntary Non-GMO Labeling:  A Party Worth Joining?

Nowadays you can get your day started with Non-GMO Project Verified eggs, wheat toast and coffee – making it seem like industry, regulators, and consumers have united to carve out a brave new world in terms of our daily food choices. The only snag is; that world already existed. It’s called Organic, and this relatively new, voluntary Non-GMO Project Verified seal may be inadvertently undermining Organic, as well as attempts to enact legislation requiring mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs.

Consumer trepidation about consuming genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or “an organism that has been changed by injecting it with genetic material from another species”[1] is at an all-time high, with 93% of consumers wanting the federal government to make GMO labeling mandatory[2]. Commercial production and sale of GMOs in the U.S. began with a short-lived and much maligned “flavr savr tomato” in 1994, and currently nearly 75% of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain GMOs[3], mainly via the “big four” processed food superstars: corn, sugar beets, soy and canola[4]. Consumers’ concerns about GMOs range from personal health to environmental pollution. Public concern is bolstered by a growing body of evidence that the technology is falling short of its promises, as weeds[5] and pests[6] evolve resistance to the crops that were engineered to out-compete with them.

How did we get here? In contrast to the European Union, with member nations among the 65 countries requiring mandatory labeling of GMOs, the U.S.’s regulatory agencies overseeing the safety of GMOs (FDA, USDA, and EPA) do not employ the precautionary principle toward GMO regulation, which in environmental law has authorized regulators to “assess risk rather than wait for proof or actual harm[7].” In my estimation this is largely due to the FDA’s decision that flavr savr tomatoes required no testing or labeling because they’re “substantially equivalent” to Non-GMO tomatoes.

There are myriad political, historical, and cultural factors behind why the U.S.’s path to regulating this technology differs from many developed countries. However, one cannot ignore the impact of the famous “revolving door” between regulators and industry. For example, Michael Taylor, current FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods, also worked in FDA policy at the time the substantial equivalence policy set the groundwork for GMO regulation. Taylor then went on to work for Monsanto and a Monsanto-representing law firm in the intervening years[8] before he returned to the FDA as Deputy Commissioner for Foods.

So, in true American fashion, we take to the market to effect change and vote with our forks — when we’re not voting with our votes (lowest voter turnout since WWII, with two states’ mandatory labeling propositions on the ballot). The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit founded in 2005 that is “committed to preserving and building the non-GMO food supply, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices” began as a consumer-driven letter-writing campaign to food manufacturers to determine the “GMO status of products.”[9] It’s unclear to me why these consumers didn’t throw their weight behind supporting Organic from the beginning instead of creating a “cheaper alternative to organic.”[10] Most troubling to me is the preponderance of Non-GMO verified products that have no GMO counterpart in the marketplace (that coffee, egg, toast breakfast for instance), and also that opponents to mandatory labeling have used it as a defense, a la the “Portland Mercury” urging voters to strike down Prop 92 because, “if you really, really care about how your food’s produced, there are already labels for you[11].”

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) reminds us that we already have a gold standard of Non-GMO; “the USDA National Organic Standards prohibit the use of GMOs in all label categories (“100% Organic,” “Organic,” and “made with organic ingredients.)”[12] As we contemplate whether or not to pursue this label at our company we should account for whether it serves a need and serves our mission, and if not, should we put our energy towards educating ourselves and consumers about the continued relevance and importance of what we already have? Continue Reading »

The following press release comes from the Fair World Project.

News came out last week that Bob Stiller, founder of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (now Keurig Green Mountain) and still recognized as Chairman Emeritus, made a $10 million dollar grant to Fair Trade USA, a fair trade labeling organization on whose board Stiller sits. This is a challenge grant requiring $10 million additional dollars to be raised, bringing the total investment in Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) to $20 million.

In theory, this news should have the fair trade movement jumping up and down. Instead, many of us are wondering if this may be the final blow to the meaningful fair trade that we have advocated for so long. Read more here.

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