Archive for February, 2012

Tomorrow, March 1st marks the beginning of Banana Month at Equal Exchange!

All month the blog will be full of videos, reports, and photos from our various trips visiting our banana partners in Peru. Everyone here is excited to share these beautiful, informative, and fun stories that we’ve been preparing and collecting. It’s our way of sharing the hard work our banana team, farmer partners, and retail partners have been doing this past year. There will also be promotions going on in many of the stores that carry our bananas. This is also our way of showing appreciation to all of you who have been supporting us as we try to build a small farmer banana supply chain in which we can all feel proud and inspired.

Unfortunately, just as the kick-off promotion was about to get started in retail stores across the country, our two banana farmer co-op partners in Peru, APOQ and CEPIBO alerted us to some very difficult news. As you can see from the map below, last week many areas of Peru were hit with some of the worst rainstorms the country has experienced in the past 50 years. The government has declared a state of emergency throughout parts of northern, central, and southern Peru.

Areas declared to be in State of Emergency

Between the heavy rains and subsequent flooding, thousands of hectares of banana, mango and rice production, as well as crops being grown for the local food market, have been destroyed. The mango harvest was entirely wiped out, while banana production is down by 50%. The northern desert area typically receives little rainfall and the soils aren’t accustomed to the heavy storms which saturated the area. Many banana plants are suffering from “Mancha roja”, a red-spotting disease that affects the plants when there is too much moisture, making the bananas unsuitable for the export market. In addition to this loss of fruit, many roads have become impassable, preventing the co-ops from getting the fruit out of the farms.

We will keep you posted about the situation in Peru as we learn more. What does this mean for those of us in the North? The market for organic bananas is tight everywhere right now. This shortage of supply has driven up prices and is making it difficult to find enough bananas to fill all the orders we are receiving from our grocery store partners. Clearly this is frustrating for our retailer partners, especially as they had planned to join with us in promoting the bananas this month. It is also hard on our banana team who have worked so hard to bring these fairly traded small farmer bananas to all of us. So, please be patient with your grocery produce staff if they are short bananas and be especially kind to our banana team, Nicole and Jessica! Stay tuned and keep on supporting authentic fair trade.

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By Co-Executive Director Rob Everts and Community Sales Manager Susan Sklar
olivesIn early November 2011, Equal Exchange traveled to the West Bank to meet with the members of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) from whom we are now buying organic, fairly traded olive oil.

Equal Exchange and PARC are both grounded in the most fundamental industry on earth: agriculture.  Both of our organizations are committed to enabling small-scale farmers to remain on their land by working with their co-operatives, to growing quality products, and to building sustainable markets.

Working with a Palestinian group in the West Bank is particularly compelling given that this tiny spec of land in the Middle East is the source of more enduring conflict and heartache than practically any other in the world.  Equal Exchange launched its new line of organic, fairly traded olive oil after years of discussions with personal friend and Palestinian olive oil pioneer, Tania Maxwell, who has marketed PARC’s oil under her Olive Branch Olive Oil brand.  Tania’s experience and relationships proved invaluable in enabling us to form our new partnership with PARC, and she helped arrange our visit to the West Bank and accompanied us on the trip.
PARC was founded in 1983 by agronomists and veterinarians in order to serve farmers in the agricultural sector.  Israel, like governments in many countries we import coffee from, had prioritized other industries and not invested heavily in agriculture—particularly in the Palestinian Territories.  Ten years later the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established from the Oslo Accords, but vested interests in the PA were similarly disinterested in prioritizing agriculture.  PARC lobbied to influence these early policies and continues to this day to encourage farmers to push the PA for their rights.  Consequently, many see PARC as the proxy Ministry of Agriculture, which has led to some continuing friction with the PA.

describe the imageToday PARC works with 41 co-operatives, each made up of anywhere from 20-80 members.  These groups grow olives, couscous, almonds, dates and other products. They co-manage the plows, as well as the fertilization and harvesting of crops, and the maintenance of storage facilities.  PARC’s stated target constituencies are farmers, women, and youth.  In addition to promoting viable and sustainable economic development, PARC has also built community-based organizations and tries to instill transparency, accountability, and democracy in these organizations.

The Equal Exchange group included the two of us, Co-Executive Director Rink Dickinson, and Tania Maxwell.  We spent a day at the Al Zawyeh co-operative, one of the co-ops that currently supplies olives for our finished product, which is sold in 500ml bottles.  The co-op was formed in 2008 with 18 members and has since grown to 22.  Al Zawyeh was formed to counter the vulnerability of individual farmers to the greed of intermediary traders.  According to co-op president Ismail Hamondo, the benefits of the co-operative are numerous:  large-scale purchases, which have lowered the costs of production for farmers and the price they pay for pressing; as well as shared best practices in pruning, plowing and collection. In addition farmers are learning how to build democracy. The co-op also plays a social role in the community, which among other things, assists students in finishing high school.  Fair Trade income in the first couple of years has helped build a barn for sheep, and secure and distribute organic compost.

describe the imageMany of the olive trees are hundreds, even thousands, of years old. For that reason they hold an almost sacred significance for some farmers.  “When I was growing up my father took me with him when he worked in the olive groves,” said Sania Shqeer, a member of Al Zawyeh. “My father has since passed away. But I loved him; and because of that I love our trees.”

Even though Sania is university-trained as a social worker, she decided to become a farmer when she inerited her father’s land.

On another day of our trip, we visited an olive oil press used by the Banizaid Alsharaya co-op. The press is owned by a father and son member of the co-operative. Once the olive harvest begins, the press runs 24 hours a day for two months. The whole community helps to load and unload bags of olives and the press is a gathering point for farmers and youth during this time. At the press, we watched as the olives traveled up a conveyor belt. Leaves were blown away and the fruit was washed by machines. Then the olives were crushed—pits and all—and the oil was filtered. Later it was siphoned into containers and transported back to the co-op to be stored in stainless steel tanks. In the future the Banizaid Alsharaya co-op plans to purchase a press that is owned and controlled by all of its members. And next year, the Al Zawyeh co-op will join with three other co-operatives to buy its own pressing station.

In December of each year, which is mid-to-late harvest, PARC sits down with all the co-operatives to determine the exact price of that year’s olive oil. As with most co-operatives, PARC and the co-ops establish one price for all of its members. Every year the extraction rate is different for individual farmers. Since it fluctuates every year, the co-ops have agreed to establish a single price per member for each harvest.  PARC also determines prices for the domestic market, the export market, for virgin and extra virgin, and for certified organic; these always exceed the cost of production and meet or exceed the established Fair Trade price. As orders come in, PARC collects the oil at the co-op stations and bottles it at the facility of Al Reef, PARC’s nonprofit exporting organization, owned by all of the co-ops.  Over the last 5-6 years, there have been enormous gains in capacity, quality control and bottling equipment.  We were extremely inspired by what we saw and confident that processes and skilled people are in place to yield an extremely high-quality bottle of organic extra virgin olive oil.

Two factors have contributed to the relatively recent development of co-operatives in Palestine. First, the disappearance of the Israeli market after the second Intifada in 2000 forced Palestinian farmers to pursue other export markets for their olive oil.  This path led them to the Fair Trade market and its requirement for volumes and consistent quality with various elements of documentation. The second factor was the Islamic tradition of passing land on to your children.  For example, if a father passes his 12 dunums (approx. three acres) of land to three children, they each receive four dunums if they are all boys; girls receive one half of what boys do. This has led to the land becoming fragmented and in turn more likely to be abandoned and to drop out of productive use.  Together with the promise of profitable markets, forming a co-op meant a new incentive was created for individual landholders, like Sania, to band together.

A number of undeniable hardships are ever present for Palestinian farmers.  First among them is water.  Climate change-induced drought has increasingly affected the production of trees in recent years.  But Israeli policies limiting access to water for collection and irrigation has likewise posed a serious obstacle to a thriving agricultural sector.  In fact, most water in the West Bank is diverted either to settlements or back to Israel.

treesOn top of this is the problem of access.  Numerous checkpoints and the wall pose serious challenges to optimal cultivation practices.  In places, the wall separates a farmer from his or her grove and it is not possible to carry out the pruning and composting necessary to maximize productivity.  Resolution of the all-important issue of water rights was deferred under the Oslo Accords until a “final settlement.”

It’s impossible to separate the struggles of Palestinian olive farmers and our trade relationship from political struggles in the region:  access to water, the barrier wall, checkpoints, settlements, and frustration with the Palestinian Authority.  For Equal Exchange, this trip provided a first opportunity to begin learning how we might best contribute to just economic development in the West Bank.  We return sober about the prospects for an enduring peace in the region but highly motivated that our smallest of roles is a contribution in that direction.

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By Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing
Photos by Joe Driscoll, Equipment Guru

The Sierra Madre of Chiapas, Mexico, stretches South all the way to Honduras. Equal Exchange buys coffee from several co-operatives along this vast and dramatic mountain range. One super dynamic place is the area commonly known as “Jaltenango,” but officially known as Albino Corzo. The mountain ranges of this area are part of El Triunfo. The entire length of the Sierra Madre also includes the redoubts and byways for the massive illicit traffic that traverses them; this traffic affects every facet of life in this region. Most importantly, the folks of the Sierra Madre also produce some of the great traditional washed, mild coffees of Mexico and Central America–the area biologically known as Mesoamerica.

In 2007, Equal Exchange connected with a group of co-operatives based in Jaltenango, whose members are spread over a wide geographic area. The members are primarily members of Ejidos, a form of legal communal land ownership common throughout Mexico. Our partnership has focused on quality improvement and in-depth analysis of the agricultural practices of the co-op members. The co-operatives operate in areas that are legally designated as a biosphere; the biosphere has two types of designated areas: the nucleus and the buffer zone.

Human activity in the nucleus areas is restricted to scientific studies and extremely limited tourism controlled by the state. The buffer zone includes and promotes the sustainable development of the human communities that existed in the area prior to the establishment of the Park by the State and Federal Governments. The buffer Zone in El Triunfo is five times the land area of the nucleus. Globally the vanguard of the conservation movement focuses on the development of sustainable human economies for the protection of true wilderness. In the Sierra Madre, sustainable coffee production is the cornerstone of the local economy and the key to the continued protection of the remaining forests and its inhabitants; read: biological diversity and watershed productivity.The intention of the co-operatives is to practice sustainable coffee production and direct export. The co-operative members live in communities that control large areas of communal lands that are contiguous with nucleus areas, including existing forest, much of which is in an eco system service payment program through the federal government. The communities’ forests are located in watersheds that produce tremendous amounts of water. The Sierra Madre is like a huge sponge jutting out of the Pacific Coast some 2,500 meters above sea level; 1500 msnm is the transition to cloud forest which pulls water from the winds off the Pacific Ocean. This water falls and is absorbed into the watersheds of the Sierra Madre which divides the water–much as the continental divide does–between the plains of the pacific coast and inland Chiapas with outflows to the Gulf of Mexico. The federal payments are minimal, but are part of what is growing the global market for eco system services including water production and carbon sequestration. The road to commoditization of eco system services is fraught with peril but yet untold. The water from El Triunfo is part of the fundamental civil and ecological infrastructure of all of Southern Mexico including: coffee farming, cattle farming on the coast, human consumption, forest production, industry and electricity production, to name a few. It is imperative that we maintain the forests of El Triunfo for the ecological and economic survival of Southern Mexico and the broader Mesoamerican corridor. Further ecological deterioration along the Sierra Madre will exacerbate the existing profound social conflict and poverty present in the region.Despite the enormous complexity and difficulty involved with developing value chains in this environment, we have prioritized it. The first priority being to focus on maintaining and improving productivity at the farm level, the theory is increased productivity increases farm income and increased farm income decreases pressure to exploit the natural resources available in the biosphere. Despite the other many factors that influence farm income, not the least of which being relative currency value fluctuations, I believe that farm productivity is fundamental to the success of individual farms but also the agribusinesses associated with those farms: co-operatives, exporters, importers, brokers, roasters.After an initial review of on-farm practices it was clear that the majority of the co-operative members were not consistently practicing critical farm management techniques such as pruning, adequate fertilization, and old tree replacement; further, no one had ever done soil tests to determine what was needed. Many of the farmers were practicing traditional coffee production which can be certified organic but typically results in low yields unless the farm is on new or virgin soil – something to be avoided in the biosphere.

Based on those results Equal Exchange funded a two-part project. The first phase included community meetings and trainings on soil analysis by watershed and the acquisition and interpretation of 152 soils samples in the watersheds of Sierra and Cuxtepeques. Based on the results of the soil analysis it was clear that one of the best options was to build a regional composting facility to produce the great quantities of compost necessary to cover the needs of all the members of the co-operatives. Each tree of coffee requires at least two pounds of compost per year; each farmer has between 2,000-10,000 trees – you do the math.

Additionally, it’s difficult to acquire all the necessary ingredients to create a compost that contains the necessary nutrients to create a high yielding farm. In the second phase we bought a Jeep so the co-operative’s agronomists could visit the far-flung membership to provide technical assistance and training on farm management techniques like pruning, tree replacement and shade tree management, among others. During this phase they had 25 community meetings and visited over 500 farms, and they continue to provide assistance and follow up to 365 farmers. Perhaps most importantly the technical staff developed a solid proposal for the construction of a regional composting facility for which they have received funding in 2012. Days before my last visit a Colombian consultant had just finished up the technical details of the facility and the co-operative hopes to begin construction and operation in the next six months. The facility will be built on land the co-operative acquired to build a dry mill two years ago.

It is exciting to see the pieces of the productivity puzzle slowly come together and I look forward to seeing the results of our early work in the watersheds of Sierra and Cuxtepeques. This morning I watched the rain pour over New England and thought about the plan for future work we are going to do with the farmers of the Sierra Madre. Look for Organic Mind Body and Soul, make a French press, and dream about the goings on in the cloudy Sierra, and send the families who work there all the productivity energy you can muster.

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At last week’s BioFach Conference in Nurenburg, Germany, there was a strong show of support for small farmers and Authentic Fair Trade.

Watch the video now!

Have you signed your name yet?  Click here to learn more.

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By Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing
Photos by Joe Driscoll, Equipment Guru

It’s our first morning up in the mountains. We roll out of our bunkhouse just as the sun crowns the surrounding peaks, making the river and mist glow. It’s going to be a beautiful day in the forest. I run up to the cookhouse eager for hot coffee to thaw the night’s cold; it’s the coldest I have ever been in Mexico. Frost clings to the grass until the rising sun turns it to cold fresh water bound for the river.The previous day we hiked 12 km through coffee plantations then pine, oak and liquidamber forests, into the largest cloud forest in Mesoamerica, to Campamento El Triunfo.The camp is managed by CONANP, and the park guards are from the surrounding coffee growing communities–a great mechanism for community engagement.The cookhouse has a long, dark wood table that has coffee and a small snack to prepare us for our early walk; breakfast will come later. I am eager to hear from our guides the plan for the day, as the details of this little adventure had been vague all the weeks prior to the trip, and continued to be up until this moment. Jungle forays are frequently short on details.


We have two guides: Ramiro, the park ranger, and Dr. Guitchard, the subdirector of the Biosfera El Triunfo. They say we will have two walks in the forest and two activities at the camp, and then rushed us out the door to catch the early morning bird activity. We’re told to walk quietly and use all of our senses. We’re looking for tapirs, deer, boars, tepezcuntles, pumas, jaguars, quetzals, horned guans, wrens, swifts, warblers and migratory song birds, many of which are from New England. The forest itself is an amazing, complex symbiotic ecosystem; the trees host hundreds of species of epiphytes, bromeliads, insects, amphibians, and birds. It is incredible what is on, and in, just one of the huge trees seen all around us. In these conditions trees can actually develop a soil-like substrate in their canopy.Listening to birds all around us, our guide clues us into the different bird sounds and points out the small wrens and warblers hopping about near the forest floor eating insects in the lowest level of the forest structure. We see tapir footprints in the soft mud, tapir feces along the trail, wild boar footprints, signs of rooting, and pack trails leading deep into the forest. We continue.I linger behind and observe the group moving quietly through the forest together, all looking for the same thing: a special bird.As I watch, I remember the first time I went hiking with farmers. It was three years ago at El Imposible in El Salvador. It was there I realized what a valuable relationship-building tool it was to hike with your partners; common goals are important. I have been trying to include these types of trips into our sourcing activities and walking with this group is a great example. Our group has cooperative leadership from three different co-ops that work together in the buffer zone communities of the El Triunfo biosphere, two Equal Exchangers, a bank lending officer, two biologists, and park guards.

In this context, commerce is not the medium of exchange, and we are not the principle actors. The forest and its inhabitants are center stage.After an hour of hiking we spot the prized horned guan in a tree right by the trail. What a fantastic bird, he clicks and clacks his beak to a sort of two-thirds beat. Lying on the forest floor with fellow cooperators, witnessing this amazing bird together, was a great trust, knowledge and enthusiasm building experience for the whole group. I hope to experience something this special with other partners, in future trips.We walk back through the forest, one of the largest catchments of fresh water in Mexico, and marvel at our good fortune to share this place and protect it through the on-going development of a sustainable coffee trade within the buffer zone communities.—-

Today, I’m back in my office. I drink a Mexican Medium Roast from a small French press. I’m certain I taste notes of clouds in my cup.

Read the final part tomorrow or go to our website.

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By Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing
Photos by Joe Driscoll, Equipment Guru

El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve protects cloud forests on the upper slopes of the Sierra Madre, as well as the wet tropical rainforests of the Soconusco on the Mexican Pacific. It is also home to 15,000-18,000 people who grow coffee, much of which is exported to the United States, and is the basis for the regional economy.El Triunfo is a federally protected natural area in the Mexican state of Chiapas; it was the first reserve to enroll in the UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) program in 1993. Today it is joined by 580 reserves in 114 countries in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, and is recognized as one of the most biologically diverse parks in Mexico.

The general objective of El Triunfo is to contribute to the conservation of the natural heritage of Mexico through the promotion of a culture of preservation and sustainable development of the communities in the biosphere. It also seeks to maintain the biological and ecological functions of the ecosystems of the reserve and to engage the active participation of the population and institutions involved in conservation activities.

The majority of the reserve is a working landscape including community forestry, coffee cultivation, cattle ranching, corn and bean farming, in an area of 119,177 hectares (460 sq. miles). The nucleus areas total 25,763 hectares (99.5 sq. miles) divided into five polygons.Here is where Equal Exchange and your daily dose of coffee come in. El Triunfo is committed to the MAB goal to combine the three functions described below and be a place of excellence for the testing and demonstration of methods of conservation and sustainable development on a regional scale.

  1. Conservation: Contribute to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic diversity
  2. Development: Promote sustainable human and economic development from the socio-cultural and ecological point of view
  3. Logistics: Provide support to demonstration projects, environmental education, research and the permanent observation of conservations issues at a local, regional, regional and global level

My farm visits over the years have taken me over hill and dale throughout the region and my recent trip cemented it as one of the most special and beautiful places I have ever visited. People have been living in this area for a long time creating a rich human history; the mountains have been around since the Pleistocene era and sport amazing tree ferns, provide habitat to uncounted species of animals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and birds. In the nucleus area it feels like you just walked into “The Land Before Time”; I was certain there could be dinosaurs around the next corner.

I don’t think I can yell loud enough, write enough stories, show enough pictures to explain how important the continued conservation of this area is for the people, the animals, the plants and the regional ecological health. Take a breath, close your eyes and think of the places you know that give you that divine sensation of our interconnected universe. El Triunfo is one of those places.

You can support El Triunfo in a variety of ways but let me emphasize two. One, buy Mexican coffee from the coffee farmers Equal Exchange has partnered with. Two, change your consumption habits to reduce your ecological footprint. Climate change is a real force in the reserve today with real economic and ecological impacts. Increased intensity of storms has caused massive landslides killing people and destroying farms; changing or variable rains influenced by the temperature of the Pacific Ocean currents change the fruiting pattern of the forest and endanger many animal species. Support small farmers and ride your bike.

Fast Facts on El Triunfo Biosphere

  • Largest remaining tropical rainforest on the Mexican Pacific coast
  • One of the largest cloud forests in Mesoamerica
  • 548 species of terrestrial vertebrates
  • 369 species of birds
  • 80 bird species on the endangered species list
  • Captures 10% of the rainfall in all of Mexico
  • Lowland watershed dammed to create the Angostura dam, which provides 30% of the electricity to all of Mexico
  • 15,000-18,000 people
  • 29 Ejidos
  • 108 private properties (Finca Prussia was taken by the EZLN in 1994, it remains semi-abandoned)
  • Indigenous populations: Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Mame
  • Large temporary population of Guatemalan coffee pickers

For more stories and stunning photos from the Triunfo Biosphere, please visit here tomorrow or go to Equal Exchange’s web site.

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The countries are different. The specific challenges vary. But the key message we’re getting from small farmers across the globe is consistent: climate change is already severely threatening coffee production.

How do you address a problem that is a global concern but that is wreaking havoc in different ways in different communities?

Small farmer co-ops in Mexico are leaders creating models of sustainable farming. This winter they also became leaders in organizing others to take united action against climate change. They hosted a conference to discuss these complex issues and to build the forces for good (good coffee and good stewardship). Their creativity and commitment are a formidable counterweight to climate change in their region.

Our coffee sourcing specialist, Todd, and our brewing equipment guru (and great photographer), Joe, were invited to attend the conference and to hike into the remote biosphere preserve El Triunfo. This park is so important – and so fragile – that only 6 groups of visitors are permitted entry per year.

For more stories and stunning photos from the Triunfo Biosphere, check back tomorrow or visit Equal Exchange’s web site.

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A Bi-Partisan letter is being circulated in Congress for Senators and Representatives to urge FDA to require the labeling of genetically engineered foods. This letter will support the Legal Petition filed with FDA in October on behalf of over 400 organizations and businesses to require the labeling of GE foods.

Urge YOUR SENATORS AND REPRESENTATIVES TO Sign the “Dear Colleague” Letter being circulated by Senator Barbara Boxer and Congressman Peter DeFazio. You can see the entire letter to FDA here, but the last paragraph tells it all:

“We urge you to fully review the facts, law, and science, and side with the American public by requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods as is done in nearly 50 countries throughout the world. FDA has a clear opportunity to protect a consumer’s right to know, the freedom to choose what we feed our families, and the integrity of our free and open markets with this petition.”


CALL your Senators and Representative.
Call the US Capitol Switchboard: 202-224-3121
or go to: http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml


“Please sign on to the bi-partisan ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter to FDA being circulated by   Senator Barbara Boxer and Congressman Peter DeFazio to require GE LABELING. ”

In October 2011 a formal legal petition was filed with the FDA on behalf of over 400 organizations and businesses to require the labeling of GE foods.

The petition demands that FDA:
1. Issue new regulations requiring labeling of all foods produced using genetic engineering; and
2. Issue a new policy redefining a “material” fact as a change in food at the atomic, molecular, or genetic level that a significant share of consumers would find relevant to their purchasing decisions

On the grounds that, among other reasons:
1. Unlabeled GE foods are misleading, and therefore prohibited
2. A broader interpretation of “material” facts is both permissible and necessary
3. Consumers have a judicially recognized “right to know”
4. The patentability of GE foods demonstrates they are materially different from conventional foods
5. The lack of any independent testing or review by FDA supports requiring labeling
6. The demonstrated adverse environmental impacts of GE crops support requiring labeling



Want more information? See these great resources from the Center for Food Safety:

Labeling GE Foods: “Myths vs. Realities”

Issue Brief: Labeling Genetically Engineered Foods

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“For decades smallholder farmers and food justice advocates have used fair trade to build collective power by combining responsible consumerism and political awareness with a fairer and more environmentally sustainable market. Changes in fair trade certification enabled large corporations to enter this market, leading to a dramatic increase in sales—now topping $5 billion globally. Unfortunately, this growth has been accompanied by lower economic returns to farmers and disturbing social and political trends that threaten the future of the movement and suggest that fair trade is not as fair as it used to be.”

Click here to read the rest of this article written by Christopher M. Bacon, Kaelin Holland, and Eric S. George published by Food First.

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