Archive for October, 2008

It’s a question Dr. Phil Howard, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, has spent a lot of time trying to answer. Howard’s research focuses on the food system, the changes occurring within that system, and how those changes affect communities. So why does it matter? Many consumers choose foods that come from organic small-scale or family farms, because they don’t want to buy foods from multinational food companies.Little do they know, what appears to be organically grown by a family farm, while still organic, might actually come from a major corporation like Coca Cola, Clorox or Kraft. But because parent companies aren’t required to put their name on packaging, it isn’t always obvious who actually owns the product.One of Howard’s main projects has been to figure out who has that ultimate ownership. To demonstrate his findings, Howard created several visual representations, which are available on his Web site. The charts certainly get the point across: The organic industry is becoming increasingly consolidated.After seeing Howard’s charts and hearing him speak at our Annual Retreat, I had the opportunity to ask some more questions about his research.

AS: What does the consolidation of the organic food industry mean for consumers? Why should folks care who owns what?
PH: Consolidation in the organic food industry means that fewer and fewer people are making decisions about how organic food is grown, processed, distributed and sold. If you want to have a voice in these decisions you should care whether the people involved are likely to be receptive to your concerns, or if they are only accountable to Wall Street.

AS: How does this consolidation affect food quality?
PH: It’s hard to say with certainty. Some companies that have been acquired by multinational food processors have maintained their quality, while others have worked to increase profits by cutting costs in ways that we might not be happy with. This might mean importing more organic food ingredients from countries where wages are lower. Or in the case of Odwalla after its acquisition by Coca-Cola, it could mean dramatically reducing the percentage of organic ingredients.

AS: What affect does consolidation have on organic farmers, specifically small-scale farmers?
PH: Some small-scale farmers have lost price premiums which enabled them to stay in business, as larger farms were able to achieve economies of scale and/or externalize some of their costs. Others lost markets as the retail environment changed. For example, as Whole Foods grew they centralized their distribution system. They are now much less willing to buy from a small-scale farmer for one store, when they can buy from a large-scale farmer who can supply stores in an entire region. Consolidation in retailing also makes farmers more vulnerable in price negotiations with supermarkets. Farmers without other markets may have no choice but to accept a very low price for their product.

AS: Why did you choose organic consolidation as your research focus?
PH: Like most of my research, it was the result of responding to questions people asked me. I studied consolidation in commodities, dairy and supermarkets at the University of Missouri. When I talked about these trends in California people suggested I look at the organic industry, because it was happening there, too. Then people asked me which organic companies were still independent, so I put together a short list of some of the largest, nationally distributed independent brands.

AS: “It’s a chart that’s worth a thousand words,” wrote Laura Sayre about your organic industry chart. When did you start making your consolidation flow charts? Why did you choose this visual format?
PH: I started the first chart in the summer of 2003, to accompany an article on the broader topic of food system consolidation for California Certified Organic Farmers magazine. I chose a visual format primarily because it helped me to make sense of the situation in a way that a text-based list could not. I was able to see the whole picture with just a glance. Most people are able to take in more information with their sense of vision than their other senses, even before paying conscious attention. A new field of information visualization is developing to take advantage of this capacity.

AS: In your opinion, is it better that the organic industry ‘goes mainstream,’ by superstores like Wal-Mart starting their own organic lines and making organic options more available to a large number of consumers, or does this ultimately have negative implications for the organic industry?
PH: There are some positives in terms of reducing synthetic pesticide use, which is often used to rationalize this process. Ultimately though, if you have other concerns such as social justice, ecological sustainability, humane treatment of animals, or democracy, we need to recognize that what is now called ‘organic’ does very little to incorporate these concerns. They may have been ideals at the beginning, but they didn’t make it into the USDA standard.

AS: What can consumers do to help stop the consolidation?
PH: One way is to support smaller-scale and independent farms and processors through your purchases, if you can get that information about size and ownership. Sometimes this will mean paying a bit more, because big corporations can afford to sell at a loss if it means driving competitors out of business. Political action to enforce anti-trust laws and stop subsidizing the largest players is also needed. The Agribusiness Accountability Initiative is a good source for more information on what’s happening and how to get involved with global responses to these trends.

AS: Any recent discoveries you’d like to share?
PH: Private label organics is a very recent trend, and growing very rapidly on a global basis. Safeway introduced its organic label less than three years ago, and it has grown to include 300 products. What’s most interesting is that they are licensing it to other retailers, so you can now find their O Organics products in a French supermarket chain’s stores in Taiwan.

AS: What’s the best way for consumers to stay informed on this topic?
PH: Watchdog groups like the Organic Consumers Association and the Cornucopia Institute are good sources for staying informed, particularly for efforts to weaken organic standards.

View or download Phil Howard’s consolidation charts here.

To read more about who’s behind your organic food, click here and here.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2008 issue of What’s Brewing.  To read other issues of What’s Brewing, or to add your name to the email list to receive these e-newsletters, click here.

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The story of the CESMACH (Campesinos Ecológicos de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas) coffee co-operative in Mexico is a powerful example of what a group of far-sighted and tenacious farmers, with a commitment to protect the unique cloud forest in which they live, can accomplish when they set their minds to the task. Since 1995, when the co-operative was legally founded, the 270 coffee producers that live and farm within the buffer zone of the El Triunfo Biosphere, have dedicated themselves to organic farming as a way of protecting the Biosphere’s fragile resources and to create a more sustainable life for themselves and their families. Please read their story as they told it to us.


The CESMACH farmers are located in the Sierra Madre mountains in the southwestern part of the Mexican state of Chiapas. They farm within the buffer zone of El Triunfo, a U.N.- designated biosphere, rich in flora and fauna, containing many endangered and protected species. Within the nucleus of the biosphere, agricultural activities are not permitted as the area contains many endangered and protected species.  Organic farming is allowed in the buffer zone, which separates the biosphere from the surrounding region, as long as it is done in accordance with a strict set of standards designed to protect the fragile environment of the rain and cloud forest.


Equal Exchange has been working with the CESMACH co-operative since 2005 when we offered to buy 10 containers of their coffee – 60% of their total production. Since that year, our relationship has been steadily growing. In 2008, we brought our first group of visitors, representatives of food co-ops across the United States, to visit the farmers. It was during this visit, that the founders of CESMACH told us the enthralling story of how they transformed themselves from individual farmers to a strong and visionary co-operative business selling high quality, organic coffee. “It’s been a very long road to get here, and when we started it was just a dream,” Victorico Velasquez Morales, a founding member and former CESMACH president told our group.

CESMACH has had tremendous success selling its members’ coffee into the specialty coffee market, thereby keeping the communities unified and raising their members’ standard of living. Still, the farmers live in highly marginalized communities and they face many critical social and economic challenges. Coffee is the only source of income for most farmers in this region and they are economically dependent on their individual plots which average only five acres.

Consequently, the CESMACH farmers have decided not only to become the supplier of the highest quality, organic coffee in the region, but to create and implement a variety of social development and environmental projects which will benefit its members and the fragile Biosphere in which they live. Three years ago, the co-operative leadership began actively working with the women members and the wives of members to implement small individual patio gardens and collective chicken farms in order to both diversify their families’ diets and to generate additional income. (more…)

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One billion people around the world face hunger and food insecurity. Every time I hear that statistic (and it keeps growing), it never ceases to astound me. I’m struck both by the fact that in today’s world we have allowed this situation to occur AND that we have seen so little put forth by the current administration to do absolutely anything about it. Where’s the outrage? (more…)

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Those of you who have been enjoying our delicious rooibos tea, purchased directly from the small scale farmer organizations of Heiveld and Wupperthal in South Africa, may also be familiar with the work that the farmers are doing to mitigate the effects of the warming climate on their production.

Equal Exchange has been supporting the farmers’ efforts through our purchases and through our Small Farmer Big Change Campaign. This year, we have committed $20,000 to support Heiveld and Wupperthal implement soil and water conservation, enhance biodiversity, and recapture indigenous strategies of natural resource management used by their ancestors.

We are very excited to learn that the Heiveld Co-operative has recently been recognized for its contribution to environmentally sound economic development and has been selected as one of 12 finalists in the 2008 BBC World Challenge competition. Now in its fourth year, World Challenge 08 is a global competition aimed at finding projects or small businesses from around the world that have shown enterprise and innovation at a grass roots level. The winner will receive $20,000 to invest in their project/business and two runner-ups will each receive $10,000. (more…)

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Get up early in the morning before the family awakens. Collect the firewood. Light the stove. Grind the corn that you prepared the night before and start making the pile of tortillas that will accompany your family’s meals throughout the day. The fire is burning, the beans are cooking… and the smoke is filling the kitchen, as well as your lungs…



Most of us don’t think too much before we light up our stoves in preparation for cooking a meal. Yet, unfortunately, this daily activity which nourishes our bodies and brings families and communities together, can also severely impact the health of rural women in the Global South. The quantity of smoke they’re breathing and the amount of time they spend in their kitchens adds up over the course of a lifetime. In fact, respiratory illnesses are one of the most common maladies that afflict the rural poor in Central America.

It’s not just the health of women that suffers through this manner of cooking, however. As you can see from the photos above, it also takes a lot of firewood to keep temperatures hot. The constant gathering of ever more firewood is not only an exhaustive chore, but is also one of the primary causes of deforestation in the countryside. Ultimately deforestation causes a host of other environmental problems, such as soil erosion, decreased rainfall and water yields, as well as loss of wildlife habitat. We now know that the rapid rate at which we’re destroying our forests is contributing to global climate change and more severe and more frequent natural disasters.

But in Boaco, Nicaragua, the Tierra Nueva Union of Co-operatives is changing all this. “We have to reduce our firewood consumption. The biggest drain on the forest is the need for firewood, so we’re going to help our members acquire new fuel-efficient stoves that will eliminate the need to cut down so much wood,” explains Pedro Rojas, president of Tierra Nueva. (more…)

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Coffee grows best under a canopy of shade. By keeping their coffee farms well-forested, as well as by practicing sustainable farming methods, our producer partners are doing their part for the environment: reducing soil erosion, increasing soil fertility, maintaining habitat for wildlife and migratory songbirds, protecting water sources, and much, much more…

Unfortunately, when visiting our co-operative partners, regardless of which country we’re in, landscapes like the one below are becoming all too common. Here’s a familiar scene from our trip last week to Nicaragua:


But, there’s also a lot being done in farming communities to protect and restore the environment that keeps us hopeful.

Here’s a photo of Marvin Tonico’s farm in the community of Filas Verdes. He is a member of Fuente de Oro (Fountain of Gold), one of eight organic coffee co-operatives that are affiliated through the Tierra Nueva (New Land) Union of Cooperatives located in Boaco and Matagalpa.



You can see the row of coffee in the background, the different species of shade trees above. In the foreground are the “live barriers”, rows of plants used to prevent soil erosion.


Here’s another photo of young coffee bushes planted under the shade canopy:

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The Fair Trade Federation has published the following commentary about the credit crisis and Fair Trade, asking that the information be circulated widely.

A string of financial problems within the US and world economy, triggered by a US housing crisis, have arisen in 2008. The question becomes how may these global problems manifest themselves within the Fair Trade world?  When it seems that sales are solid – and many fair trade businesses are continuing to outshine the others on Main Street – why should we be concerned?

As the credit crunch lurches towards a full blown crisis, we need to ask ourselves if this credit will be available in 2009 and, if not, how we can continue to function and maintain our values as Fair Traders? It is very likely that credit will be much harder to find and that even existing lines of credit may be withdrawn.  How will this situation affect Fair Trade?

Below, the Federation has put together some thinking on the possible credit crisis with advice for wholesalers, producers, and retailers. Conversation, discussion, advice, information sharing, and other types of involvement are encouraged. (more…)

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