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Sun, Nov 03, 2002 - Page 12 News List

Global issues flow into Berkeley's coffee

By Kim Bendheim  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Rick Young, 36-year-old rookie lawyer out of the University of Berkeley law school, has made it his mission that every cafe, every diner, every restaurant, every 7-Eleven and every bake sale serve only Fair-Trade certified coffee -- coffee that guarantees a so-called living wage for small farmers in developing countries.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

A buzz in California has caught the attention of the world's biggest coffee companies.

In a growing movement reminiscent of the grape boycott in the 1970s, anti-globalization and human rights advocates in California have been promoting the purchase of Fair Trade certified coffee -- coffee that guarantees a so-called living wage to poor coffee farmers in developing countries. An estimated 25 million of these farmers have suffered because raw coffee prices have fallen below the cost of production.

Students in California have helped to pressure the Sara Lee Corp, the maker of the Hills Bros. and Chock Full o' Nuts brands, to start buying small amounts of Fair Trade coffee. On Nov. 5, voters in Berkeley, California, a longtime redoubt of student activism, will vote on a measure that would require the city's restaurants and supermarket cafes to restrict sales of brewed coffee to blends that are Fair Trade, organic or shade grown, which are considered more environmentally friendly than conventional, mass-produced varieties. Violators could face US$100 fines and six-month jail terms.

Major coffee companies have denounced the Berkeley measure. But at least one, Procter & Gamble, which sells the Folger's brand, said it would work with beverage servers to comply if the measure passed.

Fair Trade coffee, a pet project of the anti-globalization movement, has become a growing segment of the US$55 billion coffee industry. Although Fair Trade coffee is only about 2 percent of the global supply, sales rose 36 percent last year in the US, the biggest single market for coffee. About 7,000 retail outlets across the country sell Fair Trade coffee, according to TransFair USA, a nonprofit group in Oakland, California, that monitors food company compliance with Fair Trade standards.

Last week, Green Mountain Coffee, a wholesaler in Waterbury, Vermont, signed an agreement to sell Fair Trade coffee under the Newman's Own Organics label, the food company owned by the actor Paul Newman, next year in supermarkets nationwide.

The economic argument for Fair Trade coffee got a lift in September when Oxfam, the British charity, released a report saying that a global oversupply of coffee had pushed prices to their lowest levels in 100 years, adjusted for inflation, impoverishing millions of coffee farmers in developing countries.

In Latin America, Africa and Asia, the report said, farmers are paid roughly US$0.24 a pound for beans, while the four multinational companies that buy nearly half of the world's coffee -- Sara Lee, Kraft, Procter & Gamble and Nestl? -- sell those beans at an average price of US$3.60 a pound and "are laughing all the way to the bank."

Fair Trade coffee, which can cost more than double the price of conventional blends at the checkout counter, is comparable in quality and price with premium blends.

Small farmer cooperatives are guaranteed to receive about US$1.25 a pound for Fair Trade coffee.

To help these farmers, Oxfam proposed to the International Coffee Organization, a group of 40 major importers and exporters, that it cut the oversupply, and help raise prices, by destroying stockpiles of the lowest-quality beans.

Organization members generally oppose that approach, arguing that stimulating demand is a better way to raise price than reducing supply. Many also reject the Fair Trade approach, saying it supports prices artificially and could worsen the glut.

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