Archive for December, 2008

Njari, Tanzania, 2006.  A meeting held by the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union

Njari, Tanzania, 2006. A meeting held by the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union

As the year 2008 comes to a close, the world must cope with a recent assertion made by the Food and Agriculture Organization that “one billion people will go hungry around the globe next year for the first time in human history…”

This shameful scenario was presented in the December 28th issue of The Independent: “The shocking landmark will be passed – despite a second record worldwide harvest in a row – because people are becoming too destitute to buy the food that is produced….the growth in hunger is not occurring, as in the past, because of shortage of food – but because people cannot afford to buy it even when it is plentiful.”

Theories abound as to why the world is in this predicament and what should be done to regain control of the global food economy. Meantime, consumers in developed countries are learning more about the sometimes vast and unsustainable supply chains that bring them their food, and are questioning the enormous resources consumed to maintain this system.    One movement, which gained national attention in the US with the publication of Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, focuses on changing our eating patterns to be less global.  “Locavores” recommend turning to urban gardens, supporting farmers’ markets, and even keeping a few chickens in the back yard.  In short:  Buy Local.

But growing one’s own food, buying local and adhering to 100-mile food diets only offer partial solutions to the growing food crisis. As valid and important as these strategies are, we must also pursue other paths if we are going to restore balance to the food system and exonerate ourselves from such an unforgiveable crime as having allowed one billion people to go hungry.

If the primary problem is not a food shortage, but rather the gap between what food costs and what hungry people can afford to pay, then we must analyze the economic and political institutional failures which have created this situation. We need to redraft our trade agreements to keep workers in sustainable jobs in the U.S. and farmers productive on their fields in the Global South. For small farmers in this country, as well as consumers, one way forward is to organize now to radically change the next Farm Bill.  It’s great to see these movements gathering momentum to make dramatic changes in our agriculture and trade policies.

Where does Fair Trade Fit In?

But through all the news and the commentary about the food crisis, the problems and solutions, where is the mention of Fair Trade?  Why is the voice of Fair Trade so absent within the food sovereignty movement?

It’s as if Fair Trade has fallen off the social justice map. Is Fair Trade just a fad – a naive notion that “all a consumer has to do” is “look for the seal” and the world will be a better place? Can it really be that the achievements gained and lessons learned through Fair Trade have nothing to offer the current discourse about local farmers, sustainable agriculture, and the food crisis?

The Fair Trade movement has helped millions of farmers worldwide, assisted farmer organizations, and educated consumers in the North about the injustices of our trade system. After all, it was developed in response to the huge systemic injustices facing producers in the Global South. Small farmers simply can’t compete with large landowners, plantations, and family estates. The landowners have all the connections to the same oligarchies that acquired wealth and power by enslaving generations of farmers after appropriating their land. Many of these same landowners now run the countries, make the laws, own the banks, run the exporting companies, and pocket the profits.

Fair Trade was very successful in raising awareness of this situation. Alternative traders and other activists found innovative and creative ways to “introduce” producers and consumers to each other, to build bridges between cultures. The movement educated consumers, inspired many to learn, engage and take action. Fair Trade offers market access, credit and fairer prices to millions of farmers, enabling peasant farmers to become co-operative business owners with increasing political and economic power.

Of course, if Fair Trade is barely mentioned amongst those concerned with food security and food sovereignty, try searching through the conversations about Fair Trade within the movement itself. Inspired? I don’t mean to offend, but the dialogue can get tiring. “Fair Trade,” “Whole Trade,” “Direct Trade”,  “Beyond Fair Trade” — does the Fair Trade movement have nothing more to offer consumers and activists than rivalries between roasters; who makes more trips to source; who knows their farmer partners better?

Fair Trade must join in discussions about our industrial food system, the plight facing small farmers in the US, and the governmental policies that created the industrialized food economy in which we all are forced to participate.  We need a rich debate within the movement about these larger issues that affect small farmers and consumers.

Bringing it All Together

Some of us are thirsting for a deeper level of conversation. Personally, I want to see Fair Trade raised alongside the “buy local” and agriculture and trade policy reform strategies. Gains have been achieved and lessons learned. Why isn’t the Fair Trade movement influencing – and being influenced by – the food sovereignty movement?

Fair Traders need to get back into the ring or we will lose the advances the movement has made. It’s time to tone down the marketing rhetoric and return to the educational goals of our mission; find new ways to talk with consumers – and each other – about our work and why we’re doing it. Most importantly, we need to continue creating innovative new strategies, and joining others, to fix the huge injustices in our food system and large scale destruction of the planet.

I also think that “locavores”, who talk about the need to support small farmers, community development and sustainable agriculture, should consider expanding their lens to include mention of small farmers in the Global South. As long as consumers continue to drink coffee and tea, and eat chocolate and other foods not grown in our country, let’s remember that the struggles of these small farmers are as challenging and as critical as those in the U.S. And while small farmers participating in Fair Trade are not in our own backyards, they are trying to maintain, and strengthen their own local communities. Their food security depends on their ability to remain organized in co-operatives; to receive the higher, “fairer” prices they deserve; and ultimately, on the agriculture and trade policies we enact here in Washington.

By the same token, when we talk about the role agri-business has played in dictating agriculture, economic, and trade policies, it would be powerful to highlight alternatives. If the large-scale mechanized farming favored by agribusiness – with its reliance on fossil fuel, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, government subsidies, and factory farms – is the problem, which businesses within the food system are offering solutions?

Certainly small farmers are central to our vision of a greener and more just food system.  But it is important also to recognize the significance of the food co-operatives, locally-owned natural food markets, independent restaurants and cafes, which shine as visible examples of those who are building an alternative day after day. 

Why is there so little mention of these independent and co-operative businesses in food security circles?   Many alternative trade organizations, and worker-owned co-operatives are demonstrating that businesses can have a social mission; reasonable profits can be made and shared more equitably amongst workers and farmers; business can be conducted through strong relationships based on mutuality, transparency and integrity; and of course that healthy food can be produced sustainably.

These organizations – producing, manufacturing, distributing and selling us our food – are walking the walk. They are demonstrating through action that alternatives do exist. Positive models are out there. And the more we can highlight, replicate and create additional independent, local and co-operative businesses, the more success we will have building the type of food system that the food sovereignty movement and all the locavores, fair trade and agriculture policy activists are promoting: a food system based on the principles of solidarity, sustainability and co-operation.

Our movements for a greener and more just food system could benefit by engaging more with each other. Ultimately, the more we challenge, learn from, influence and highlight the contributions each movement is making, the stronger and more successful we will be in our ultimate goal of fixing a broken food system. Let’s unite, deepen and strengthen our movements. With the threat of one billion people facing hunger and food security in 2009, it’s a change we can’t afford not to make.

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Ever wondered what happens at a General Assembly of coffee producers? Well, I’m not saying that the following report is typical… but Miguel Paz, Export Manager of CECOVASA, one of Equal Exchange’s coffee co-operative partners located in the south of Peru, gives his version of this year’s meetings. His account was published October 14th, on the Progreso Network’s blog. I’ve translated it here from the orignal Spanish. For those of you who know Miguel, I think you’ll appreciate his sense of humor…

Author: Miguel Paz – Export Manager, CECOVASA

Miguel Paz




This week Cecovasa has its General Assemblies. Cecovasa is comprised of eight co-operatives and in each one of them, a team of us must inform the co-operative’s members; I’m the third or fourth to do so. Sometimes the members agree to wait until we have all presented before they ask their questions, sometimes they ask their questions after each report; we like this (more…)

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The picture gets even clearer now as we dig a little deeper behind those grocery items…Many thanks to Madre Naturaleza for her informative – and gripping – storry that’s keeping us on the edge of our seats.

To start the story from the beginning, click here.

December 5, 2008 by Madre Naturaleza and first printed on the Fair Food Fight website.


Recapping the article “What Lurks Behind the Label, Part I”, Food Goliaths Hain Celestial Group and Small Planet Foods have gained a tight grip on the natural foods industry. They are like chameleons, blending into their surroundings with a clever disguise, thinking we won’t notice them. The center isles of the food co-op are crammed with shelves of processed foods all labeled beautifully with farm names and photos. We soon learned that the majority of these products, almost every item on my grocery list, in fact, came from the hands of only a select few decisions makers. Big Organic. What happened to our choices, farmer interactions, community, and transparency? My next job is to learn more about these Goliaths and how they have grown to be so dominant in the Organic and Natural Foods Industry. (more…)

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Earlier today, I let you know about an exciting new website, Fair Food Fight. They’ve got some great posts that will get your blood boiling. This one, What Lurks Behind the Label, Part I by Madre Naturaleza, is sure to get your hair standing on end – but that’s a good thing. Education is power. After you’ve finished reading this one, click on Food Democracy 101: Who’s Really Behind our Food? And Who Owns Organic? for more information about the organic industry. Then let us know what you’re discovering on your walk down the grocery aisle? How do you feel? Most importantly, what steps are you taking to assert your rights to be part of a healthy, green and more just food system? Share your thoughts and ideas with us! We’re on to something here…

November 16, 2008 by
Madre Naturaleza

If you are about to head down to the nearest food co-op or natural foods store for some grub, here is a helpful experience that will give you tips on which brands to be weary of. The food Goliaths are trying their hardest to hide behind these brand names, but we can see right through them!

I’ve decided to make a new lifestyle change. I want to move away from the industrial food system. I want to eat natural foods, organic foods, LOCAL foods. Now, don’t get the wrong idea about me. I’m no tofu loving, granola munching hippie, I just believe that there are better alternatives to Hamburger Helper and Kraft Mac N Cheese. Maybe it’s all the hype on TV that’s changing my mind, the buzz in the city when farmer’s markets are open, or the sense of hope and change that’s floating through the air lately. Either way, I’m ready to experience the health, ecological, and social benefits that come attached to natural foods. First item on my agenda: A visit to the local Food Co-op. Food Co-op….? I’ve never stepped foot in one before, I’m skeptical, but ready. (more…)

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Tired of carefully selecting your organic groceries only to learn that the cool, independent company you thought you were supporting (along with their commitment to your health and to the right livelihood of the product’s growers), was in fact bought out by some multi-national conglomerate earning mind-numbing profits, pushing pesticides, buying seed patents, maybe even assassinating labor unionists? Try Coca-Cola, Dean Foods and Cargill on for size.


Battles are heating up to protest unfair trade agreements, subsidies for agribusiness in our Farm Bill, and now… Tom Vilsack, Obama’s pick for Secretary of Agriculture. Consumers, environmentalists, labor organizations, Interfaith groups, and small farmer organizations – folks are feeling angry and fed up. As well they should be.


The good news is that while these larger policy debates are raging on, consumers are increasingly demanding action on a playing field closer to home – our food markets and our grocery shelves.


If you are what you eat, and money talks, then it is time we took back our food stores. We must know whose pockets our consumer dollars are lining, what ingredients (pesticides, hormones, gmos) are filling our bodies, and the conditions of those that are toiling in the fields to feed not only ourselves, but their own families.


Fortunately, we have some strong allies. Your local food co-operative should be one of them.

And now, Equal Exchange and a group of food co-operatives in the Twin Cities areas have launched a new web-site to help us navigate our way through the policy debates as well as the concrete, “bread-and-butter” dilemmas we face when walking down the food market aisles.


Fair Food Fight. You have to check this out!


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Our food system is broken.  One billion people across the globe face hunger and food insecurity.   On October 15th, World Food Day, a group of food, farm, labor, and justice organizations from across the US put forth a Call to Action calling on the next administration to take rapid steps to address the food crisis through fundamental changes to the government’s food, agricultural, labor and international aid policies.  This ad-hoc group, The US working Group on the Food Crisis, represents various sectors of the food system, including anti-hunger, family farm, community food security, environmental, international aid, labor, food justice, consumer, and other groups.  

Yesterday, they sent a letter, and the Call to Action, to President-elect Barack Obama asking him to take immediate action.  (You can still add your and/or your organization’s name to this growing list.)

Equal Exchange and a number of our food co-operative and Interfaith partners have endorsed this call. We believe that it’s past time to get our food system working for small farmers, consumers, and the environment. Changing government policies is imperative. Equally critical are efforts to support progressive businesses that are trying to change the food system by constructing an alternative economic model, based on solidarity principles. At Equal Exchange, we are continually challenging ourselves to learn about the food system, questioning what got us to this point, calling for appropriate policy changes, and taking concrete steps to support local farmers, farmer co-operatives, and businesses that live their values and are constructing alternative economic models that work for people. We encourage all of you to do the same – other models are possible! (more…)

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The following post was sent to us by Todd Caspersen, Equal Exchange’s Director of Purchasing, on his recent trip to visit our farmer partners in Colombia.

Riosucio, Colombia

December 5th 2008

View of Supia, Caldas... one of the towns where our coffee producer partners grow our organic Colombian coffee

View of Supia, Caldas… one of the towns where our coffee producer partners grow our Organic Colombian coffee


How do you tell a story that started so long ago that it has a multitude of sub-plots, characters, successes and challenges? I could start at the beginng in 1996 when Equal Exchange first purchased coffee from the Indigenous Resguardos (Reserves) around Riosucio or I could start when I first visited Riosucio in 1999 or I suppose I could start when we imported our first 90 bags of organic coffee in 2003 but I think I will start with the rain or “invierno”, as they call it here.

The 2008 harvest began with the flowering of the coffee trees in February which would have provided a bountiful harvest eight months later but then the rain started and has not stopped since. Take a look at the internet and you will see stories of flooding, landslides and disasterously low harvest throughout Colombia. According to the meticulous records of Don Hernan Trujillo, Riosucio has only had 8 days of straight sun three times since February. This has resulted in extremely low harvests and lots of damage to the coffee farms. To put it simply: summer never came this year.


There is general agreement among the farmers here that the climate is changing and it is having serious impact on the livelihoods of our partners. I never curse the rain but I want to now after days of walking through a landscape seriously impacted by it. Every road I have traveled shows multiple small landslides impeding passage; all of the coffee farms are affected one way or another and everyone is wondering: why is it raining so much and when will it stop?

Very sad and sobering to witness, but despite that I have seen some great stuff and am really excited by the progress that has been made over the last several years here. Three years ago, the Lutheran World Relief/Equal Exchange Small Farmer Fund gave a $66,000 dollar grant to the Asprocafe Ingruma Coffee Co-operative to support productivity improvements in the organic project. This included; soil analysis, credit for women and young people to buy pigs or cows for manure to use as fertilizer, and exchange programs with organic farmers in Nicaragua, among other things.


Last year Equal Exchange and Asprocafe organized a quality competition with the 350 organic farmers in Asprocafe to motivate the organic farmers participating in the program.  This year we returned to do a second competition at the end of the productivity project. On Tuesday, I visited last year’s first place winner to learn what he had done with his prize money and to see the condition of his farm. Don Franciso Javier Rodriguez lives in La Torre of Supia at 1900 meters above sea level. He produces coffee on about 2 hectares. When he won last year, he called his wife on a cell phone (yes they are everywhere now) to let her know that he had won and she wouldn’t believe him until she spoke with someone else. When I arrived at the river way below his house to start the long climb up he was still surprised that I had showed up, exclaiming that he never believed I would come or that any “gringo” would come to visit him. It was a long climb up through a saturated landscape through lots of mud. When we finally arrived at his tidy blue house on a flat spot just below cloud level, we were greeted by his wife, daughter and a hearty second breakfast.




After our meal, they showed me what they had bought with the prize money ($750 USD). Right after collecting his prize money he gave half of it back to Asprocafe to buy the materials for a biodigester that would produce methane gas for the kitchen, replacing the wood stove his wife had labored over all of her life.  The other half he used to make a payment on a loan he had recieved to buy a cow, which has produced three calves since he first bought it.



The cool thing here is that the prize money provided the materials for the biodigester which includes large sheets of plastic to make a long balloon and some pvc piping to conduct urine from the stables to the balloon and to then bring gas to the kitchen as well as to conduct the effluent to a cement tank. The effluent is then used as fertilizer; in this case on sugar cane. It’s not just the prize money that made this possible; it’s also the loans from the cooperatives to build the simple stable and pig stye as well as the credit to buy the pig and cow, most of which was fruit of the LWR/EE productivity project. It is a wonderful example of a multi-prong approach where Equal Exchange works with its U.S.-based partners and its farmer partners to create an integrated project that benefits everyone.




I am of Norwegian stock out of Minnesota and not given to great displays of emotion, but it was really heart warming and quite emotional to hear how the gas stove had changed the family´s life: Dona Rodriquez remembers the exact day the system started to produce gas, December 31st 2007. They no longer had to travel far up the mountain to gather wood, she no longer had to cook in a kitchen filled with smoke from burning wet wood that hurt her eyes and causes lung problems, Wow! Imagine going from having to start a fire every morning to just turning on your stove and have a strong bright flame. Another benefit is they are no longer gathering wood from the remaining forests. The cow they bought has produced more cows, milk and fertilizer. All in all a great example what we can do together.

Back in town, Beth Ann and the cupping team from the coop- Angelica, Yaneth, Edwin and Magda- have been busy cupping 150 samples for this year’s competition and despite the rain the farmers have turned in some very high quality coffee. It’s exciting to see this group of young people be so confident in their work as cuppers and perhaps more importantly, to see that they are still involved in agriculture. Tomorrow is the final round of cupping where we will select the top ten coffees and on Sunday the big event, where as many as 250 farmers will trek through the mud on their way to town to give presentations about their villages and associations, will receive presentations from the agricultural extention workers and what they are really waiting for is to see who won the competition. Stay tuned for an update on the results and hopefully some pictures but for now I am off to a place called Sirpirria to visit some more farms and later I will meet with the technical team from the cooperative to plan the next steps and talk about our plan to build a small scale organic fertilizer production facility. I wish I could share everything I have seen and know about this amazing place and its people but alas it would cover many pages. Pray or meditate for Sun in Colombia.



To learn more about the organic project that Todd refers to in his post, click here.  To read an earlier trip report I wrote after my first visit to Asprocafe, click here.

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Fair Trade Gift Ideas

Article written by Esther West, Interfaith Program Representative and Ashley Symons, Marketing Writer

This time of year especially, consumers have the power to participate in a movement that supports long-term partner relationships based on equality, environmental sustainability, and democratic business structures via co-operatives. Here are some ideas for holiday gifts that truly keep on giving.

Alternative Giving
Looking for a creative, green gift idea? Make a donation to benefit small-scale farmers on behalf of a friend or loved one through the Small Farmers Green Planet Fund, which supports farmer projects in South Africa, Nicaragua, Mexico and Colombia. The gift recipient will receive a card letting them know about the donation made in their name.

  • $100 supports Embara Chambi indigenous coffee farmers in the Asprocafe Ingruma co-operative in Caldas, Colombia, build a composting plant which will enable more farmers to transition to organic, protect their fragile eco-system and attain higher incomes.
  • $50 supports indigenous South African rooibos farmers of the Heiveld and Wupperthal organizations as they employ traditional soil and water conservation methods to adapt to the negative effects of global warming on their crops and livelihoods.
  • $25 supports women coffee farmers of the CESMACH co-operative in Chiapas, Mexico, as they plant organic gardens and fruit trees, raise chickens and rescue endangered native plants in the El Triunfo Biosphere.

Read about more ways you can support the Small Farmers Green Planet Fund.

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The Next Frontier

I don’t worry that America underestimates the gravity of the economic situation in which we find ourselves. I do worry that Americans will be content looking to the government to “bail us out”.  Barack Obama, even with the sharpest team of economists and thinkers of our time, cannot solve our problems without the support, and actions, of the American people. We, Americans, need to see this economic crisis within the context of a greater global disaster, and open our eyes to the world at large and our role in it. “Fixing” our economy can be only one prong in an unprecedented effort to save our souls. Even in its current state, we are the most prosperous country in the world and yet we hesitate to flex our muscles in a way that would benefit the most desperate of the world’s population. Iraqis do not hate Americans because they are jealous; they resent our empirical role in the global reality.

Even while our struggling economy leads more shoppers to Wal-Mart, to ship more of their money to China and oil-producing theocracies, examples like Fair Trade coffee inspire me to believe that Americans are capable of doing the right thing, willing to sacrifice something, to truly invest in our values. But Fair Trade is also an example of how disconnected we truly are.

European consumers purchase Fair Trade-certified rice, quinoa, vanilla, flowers and bananas daily at their local supermarkets. Bananas, which have yet to make a dent in the American consumers’ radar, are a perfect example; the political and often violent history of banana production is astoundingly depraved. Bananas represent the world’s most popular and most–traded agricultural commodity after coffee. In April of 2008, the third-largest supermarket chain in Europe, Sainbury’s, committed to sourcing Fair Trade bananas exclusively. Tesco, the fifth-largest retailer in the world, has seen a 60% growth in Fair Trade produce since 2005, including bananas. While the United States seems content with a dismissable percentage of our coffee being Fair Trade, our contemporaries are pushing the boundaries of Fair Trade across the market.

Bananas are grown in over 100 countries in the world. Indigenous to Papua New Guinea, they have grown to become an economic powerhouse in tropical countries around the world. The largest fruit commodity in the world, “dessert bananas”, as we know them in the United States, represent a tiny (15-20%) of global production. In developing nations, bananas and their starchier relatives, plantains, are a dietary staple in the developing world, providing much-need sustenance for millions of the world’s poorest inhabitants. Millions of families rely on bananas to feed their families and fund their own community development. (more…)

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