Saturday, April 25, 2009

Fair Trade Coffee Can’t Market Itself

Fair Trade coffee and other products play an important role in the development of a worldwide sustainable marketplace, so it is important to promote the Fair Trade agenda to the general public of consumers, and not stop at higher-income, college-educated activists, social critics, and foodies. Although this is an excellent start, this is only a small portion of the entire coffee consumer market (as the Fair Trade coffee market is a fraction of the specialty coffee market which itself comprises only 8% of annual coffee production). Even if you reach 1000 people, according to surveys and actual buying trends, on average, 1 person may decide to buy Fair Trade coffee. In this light, only marketing to this niche group seems unrealistic and certainly ineffective in advancing the awareness agenda of Fair Trade coffee.

Instead, I agree with Nico Roozen (founder of the "'Max Havelaar'" coffee fair trade label who spends double what other European fair-trade coffee producers do on education and social marketing), who states

To effectively change society's norms regarding the need for sustainable goods in the marketplace, the Fair Trade message must extend to consumers and companies that as yet remain indifferent to concerns surrounding workers in other countries.


The first obstacle Fair Trade coffee has to overcome is ignorance. The American public at-large is unaware of the political, social, and economic issues surrounding coffee production. To some college students, the difference between a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee and a cup at the dining hall is merely price – they have to pay for Dunkin' Donuts, while dining hall coffee is "free". Many people don't realize some dining hall coffee is also Fair Trade. To others the only difference between a latte at Starbuck's and one from the Flavour CafĂ© is atmosphere – and the thought process between choosing which to purchase is equally as deep. The point is that some people are consuming or not consuming Fair Trade coffee and they don't even know it exists, or if they do know, they may not know why it exists, or if they know why it exists they may not know how their purchasing power affects anything. In this respect the person at the dining hall drinking Fair Trade coffee is the idiot savant of the sustainable market, advancing its initiatives through action only – they have no idea how or why. Access is nothing without education.

So as Roozen states, the Fair-Trade message must be brought to these consumers, consumers who may otherwise remain ignorant. A grass-roots campaign is a great start, but to honestly compete with non-fair-trade coffee, establish a market and gain market-share, Fair-Trade coffee is going to have to step up their game.

I understand that fair-trade coffee is supposed to be the opposite of several aspects of the middle-man populated, farmer-exploiting, non-fair-trade coffee production and sale. However, it doesn't have to be the opposite in every sense of the marketing process. Much the same way that the opposite of a small square isn't a large circle (I consider it to be a large square), fair-trade coffee doesn't need to avoid the marketing campaigns that allow non-fair-trade coffees to flourish in the market. In fact, fair-trade companies need to capitalize on these exact marketing techniques. And a combination of education and marketing.

Education to explain why fair-trade coffee is even necessary, what are the issues it is addressing and problems it hopes to overcome? And more importantly, why should I, the 20 or 30-something professional with the largest share of America's buying power, care? People need to be made to feel a kind of social responsibility. Perhaps through ad campaigns that explain in detail the farmer's cut of your $3.00 Grande coffee. Or the living conditions of the growers compared to the roasters and manufacturers. Once this appeal has been made, it is necessary to explain to the audience what they are paying for and who their extra money benefits – buyers need to feel not that they can make a difference, but that that they ARE making a difference.

In the case of Fair Trade coffee success in the Netherlands and Switzerland, it was concluded that organizations there had hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on marketing- thus allowing them to "reach a larger consumer base via the media" than their counterparts in the US. But the US doesn't necessarily need tons of money to begin a larger scale advertising campaign. To educate the public, Public Service Announcements, are effective. It is how the Truth Campaigns in Florida and the Reality Check campaign in New York began reaching out to its audiences to educate them about the manipulative marketing techniques Big Tobacco companies were using to target children and teenagers. They could expand their presence on college-campuses, as college-students make superb low-wage work horses when incited for a cause, tack on a little minimum wage supplement part-time and you got yourself a grass-roots campaigner. TransFair should seriously consider hiring a campus campaign coordinator, a student who could go into classrooms and give a 3-4 minute explanation of why fair-trade coffee is important and what people are doing to support it. The student could also make contacts with clubs and student organizations and present in their meetings. He or she would set up tables in highly visible areas, may hang intriguing posters and signs, hold informational meetings and events, give out free coffee samples, etc.: opportunities are endless. Though this may seem a bit much, I was a campus campaign coordinator for Teach for America last year, and did these exact things – applications for TFA increased 8 fold, not because of any special skills I had – just because I was there, present, on campus, sticking information in peoples' way, sparking interest and curiosity in something they may have never heard of otherwise.

So in conclusion I like to think Fair Trade coffee in America is out to a good start, but they can only expand. There are so many marketing areas that seem untouched, areas that may not require them to have a $700,000 marketing budget - maybe they aren't ready for commercials and large scale print and magazine ads on their own yet – that will probably require the help of businesses like Starbucks and Proctor & Gamble. But they are ready to ramp up their marketing routine to a grass-roots campaign – on steroids. I think they've already identified a portion of the market to target; they just need to target it more tenaciously.


Linton, et al. (2004)
Globalizations, Vol. 1, No. 2, 223–246.


Are Some Advertisements Targeting Children Good?

I would like to cut right to the chase. In my opinion, no; for a number of reasons. It is easy to see how marketing may negatively affect physical health – today, American youth spend two to four hours in front of the television and may see as many as 40,000 ads in a year. Unfortunately most of these ads aren't for fruits, vegetables, or healthy lifestyle choices, but for candy, cereal, and soft drinks. According to the Institute of Medicine, 33% of America's youth are overweight or obese. It is easy to see how marketing may affect mental health – instilling in youth and adults unrealistic and sometimes undesirable images of what they are supposed to embody. And reinforcing that until they fit that image, they should be self loathing, or at the very least, insecure. It's easy to quantify such things. But more serious than advertising promoting violence, or increased sexual voracity or unwittingly predisposing children to gluttonous behavior, is the fact that marketing 1) seeks to undermine family values and 2) seeks to eliminate the ability to think critically.

Whether they are advertising McDonald's Chicken McNuggets, Bubbilicious gum, Lay's Potato Chips, Barbie & Friends, Mott's Apple Juice, or Call of Duty, it is not necessarily what they are advertising – it is the fact that they knowingly target children and ultimately produce the same results.

Result 1

Now, a commercial for bubble gum may go on the list of the more benign objects being marketed to kids (if you aren't a dentist), however, I argue, unlike many critics, that the harm is not in advertisement of the product itself, but in the way that it is advertised. Consider the next two commercial scenarios.

Scenario 1:
Close-up on a stick of bubblegum against a white background, the voice reads what is clearly labeled on the package. "New grape bubblegum from Bubble Tape!"

Scenario 2: "It's the TRUTH. Your principal can't smile… can't swim…and 'I can't stand Bubble Tape!(says the principal)' Your school bus driver can't drive…wears curlers…makes funny noises…won't try Bubble Tape! 'No way, Jose! (says bus driver)' It's 6 feet of bubble gum for YOU not THEM."

Assuming, for the moment that bubblegum has no adverse health effects. There is generally not too much to be contested with the first commercial. The bubblegum is grape flavored. It is new from the brand Bubble Tape, and the commercial portrays what the bubble gum looks like, it's a fair representation of the product with little to no guile. The second scenario – well, let's look at it from a variety of perspectives. An 16-20 year old is most likely to recognize what is going on here – they are trying to portray adults, especially authority figures that teenagers may fear or dislike, as being "incompetent", "ineffectual", and "stupid". However, these same persons might still find amusement in the commercial and be persuaded to buy Bubble Tape. A group younger than that, maybe 10-15, may actually find merit in what the ad says, thinking, you know what, I have never seen the principal smile! Or yeah, yesterday my bus driver almost hit a mailbox – in high school, my bus driver was pulled over for a DWI while I was on the bus, so this ad hits home - and buy Bubble Tape because they identify with this ad whose underlying messages are many. Adults are incompetent. School adult figures are stupid. Bus drivers are dumb and are hardly qualified to even do the job they have. Principals are scary and stupid and don't understand that kids want to have fun.
These inadequate, ostracized, and annoying people can't understand why Bubble Tape is cool. But Bubble Tape is cool because they don't get it. If I get Bubble Tape, I'll be cool, edgy, hip, and participating in something parents' just don't get.

So it's not that gum is inherently bad, it's that the advertisement is completely undermining the value of respect for elders that parents try to instill in their children. And this is even worse for kids younger than eight, who may not understand that they are being marketed a product and that even though the words "It's the TRUTH" are written on the screen and spoken by the narrator, the words and message that follow are actually not an accurate representation of reality. Your principal does smile and probably can swim, and may or may not mind Bubble Tape. The point is that children are up against 40 hours of television filled with commercial advertisements a week: that's a lot when you don't even know what an advertisement is.

Result 2

Advertising robs us of the ability to think critically from an early age- by first robbing us of creativity. Countless times I have been brainstorming for a class project and the professor will say, "Would you like some ideas?" To which some people may replay yes, but I object almost immediately. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes when I hear someone else's idea I lose the ability to freely think of my own. After I hear or see an example, I begin to think should I model mine after it, not exactly, but the major premise, or maybe just keep that one part, yeah that's interesting, no, no, no. I keep trying to come up with something new, but it keeps looking like what I've already seen. Well, when we constantly barrage children with television shows, commercials, and the like, we are stifling creativity in a similar way and sucking any and all of the wonder out of their worlds. With a book, something is left to the imagination – a character description is never the same to any two people. With a movie or television image- your personal description is wrong, and the thoughts and values of the character designer and producers become the description you must accept.

So instead of having any personal dialogue about what an author may mean by a certain word or descriptive phrase, instead of drawing on context clues – children begin to rely on someone else's interpretations to be true and right. And that's it. Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids, presents this view when considering the Harry Potter books – which began as a wonderful way to revive the popularity of reading. However, once the first movie was made, all enchantment was lost, all wonder placed under siege and ultimately seized right out of the minds of the very wonderers – children. And from then on Harry looked like the Daniel Radcliffe and Hermoine like Emma Watson. This may seem a trivial case, but it is an important case to and for children. Especially since it applies not only to creativity, but to the ability to critically think about advertisements and marketing once children reach teen and adult stages. For so long, children will have been conditioned to think that advertisements are straightforward. And when they become aware of the fact that they are not, advertisers have a few more tricks up their sleeves yet. For example, consider the commercial for Grand Champions collectible horse figurines whose partial script is printed below from Nickelodeon's, Nick Jr. time slot which runs during the early afternoon – a time when children are out of school but before their parent's get home.

"If you love horses, you'll LOVE Grand Champions…the most beautiful horses in the world."

There is something so wrong about this that it may incite any self-respecting adult to anger. What grounds, and what right does an advertising company have to tell a four-year-old that if he or she loves horses then he or she will love this/that/and the other. If a stranger approached your child and told her if you love M&M's then you will love Snicker's, what would you say? Let's assume she's not lactose intolerant, and chocolate isn't the worst thing in the world. The first issue isn't with the entire content of the statement – sure it may or may not be logical to surmise that if I like M&M's I will love Snicker's – although Snicker's is different than M&M's, it has nuts, caramel, and some other weird layer. Similarly a toy thumb-size horse replica will not provide the same satisfaction of a real life horse. The issue is the authoritative statement - you love this, so you must love that. This is just how it is. Accept it. It doesn't matter why. Why do you think I'd like Snicker's, I have some ideas, but what made you say that? Why would I like this toy horse? Unfortunately television does not allow for these sorts of interactive questions, they reserve them for the check-out counter (does it come with batteries?). The point is that in denying you a venue to even voice any type of critical thinking approach, the voice is inherently stifled.

In conclusion, I really don't think it matters what is being advertised. Advertisements have a tendency to undermine family values (in the very fact that they are approaching a child in such a way as to make them want what they don't have) and rob children of the ability to learn how to critically evaluate scenarios, which in the long run (or short run), negatively impacts American society. We are selling out our youth.



Linn, Susan. Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising. Anchor Books: New York. 2004 pg. 105-124.

Heirloom Variety Vegetables, The Economic Crisis, and Renewal of Local Food Culture

There aren’t many things which are much more enjoyable than sharing the “local flair” of any given region with visitors. Food in particular has an uncanny ability to bring people together through different traditions. Everybody eats, and rituals surrounding food are a way of welcoming people into a new community (even today when people might not realize that this is the case). We’ve recently been distancing ourselves from traditional local food systems and rituals, which likely negatively impacts our ability to meaningfully connect with others by exploring different food traditions. Standardization of food and food culture also highlights outliers, and I can’t help but wonder if this lack of variety and exposure to a variety of food traditions makes us more likely to frame having food traditions outside the mainstream as difference (in the sociological sense of the word).

Fortunately, the economic crisis and rising food prices have prompted people to search for other ways of feeding themselves beyond the standard supermarket fare. Enter the reemergence of gardening and local food culture. A good way of gauging this resurgence is through demand for seeds, particularly heirloom and other rare varieties. Seed Savers Exchange, a major provider of heirloom variety seeds, sold more seeds in the first third of 2008 than in all of 2007(1). When individuals in the community decide to grow their own food, experienced gardeners are usually more than happy to help spread the wealth, and this strengthens community ties, cultivates local culture, and helps to preserve local knowledge and community memory. We save money, strengthen meaningful social ties, and reinvigorate local food culture all at the same time.

The growing emergence of community gardens and development of local knowledge-sharing networks is an exciting development toward achieving some of the goals of food sovereignty efforts, whereby individuals and communities have substantive control over the food system. My only misgiving is that the majority of the popular press frames gardening primarily as a money-saving tool to get people through the recession rather than emphasizing some of the less tangible benefits. Hopefully, during this time infrastructure will build up and people will derive enough pleasure from the experience of growing their own food to continue the movement toward community gardening, strengthening local gardening networks and knowledge, and extricating themselves from the current food system. In Coming Into the Foodshed, Jack Kloppenburg describes the process of “self-protection, secession, and succession,” whereby the dominant food system and market structure is fundamentally altered by individuals slowly leaving it and eventually defining a new system. Currently, community gardens and CSAs are in the secession stage, and, if the efforts continue to gain momentum, local community gardens might become a primary source of food. That prospect is rather exciting.

1. As food prices rise, more people grow their own

2. Community garden takes root

3. Recession gardens' trim grocery bills, teach lessons

4. Kloppenburg, Jack. et al."Coming Into the Foodshed." Agriculture and Human Values 13:3 (Summer): 33-42, 1996.

5. It's not just vegetables, either: A chicken coup: Group seeks to protect rare breeds

Friday, April 24, 2009

We spoke off and on about GMOs and the Green Revolution during class. Recently, I came across a new news article speaking about the latest problems plaguing Monsanto's roundup ready crops. It seems that many of the possible negatives we spoke about in class are occurring right now. The article describes an explosion in pests resistant to Monsanto's leading herbicide, Roundup. This poses a clear problem to both the environment and the crops grown by farmers using Monsanto's specialized products. The increase of these weeds is severely damaging the livelihood of many farmers, especially those who have relied too heavily on Monsanto's Roundup-Ready products. As with pesticides, the use of herbicides can lead to a treadmill effect, with users applying a larger and larger amount of the chemical in order to compete with constantly evolving organisms.
The problem is now far reaching and serious. Over 100,000 acres covering space in 29 counties in Georgia have the virulent pigweed, which grows fast and chokes down crops like cotton. Farmers are aggressively attempting to combat the pest, but the plant can easily produce 10,000 seeds at a time, so many more plants can crop up. Some farmers have taken to hand-weeding their crops in order to fight off the plant as other herbicides are not useful once Roundup is ineffective because of the risk of destroying the main crop. The difficulty faced by farmers in combating the pigweed led farmers to abandon 10,000 acres in Macon County.
Monsanto, of course, downplays the problem of the new weeds, suggesting farmers try alternate crops and different herbicides. One herbicide suggested is actually a component of Agent Orange. Agent Orange is the widely used herbicide of the Vietnam War, famous for its devastating effects on veterans who suffer to this day from increased risk of cancer and other serious complications. Somehow, it strikes me as somewhat unreasonable for Monsanto to suggest combating a problem caused by excessive chemical use by suggesting that farmer's use more amounts of even more toxic chemicals.
In another article from Forbes, I read that Monsanto is trying to sue Germany to force them to allow their GMO corn. In light of the evidence presented about the super weeds in Georgia, I can see why Germany would want to forbid the GMO crop from entering their country. The use of herbicides it would seem also contributes to the deskilling of labor mentioned in class. The farmers now rely so heavily on herbicides that they have been used to the point of actually creating the super weeds that are now choking crops.
In light of this, I feel Monsanto's products are contributing to a greater problem of unsustainable, ecologically unsound agriculture. At most, I think they can serve as a stopgap as we investigate more efficient and less risky methods of farming.

Get rid of Agricultural Subsidies!

As we come to the end of the semester I feel like I’ve gained a transformational perspective on the global and, more to my interest, the American food system. We’ve covered everything from the indirect effects American fast food has on the Amazonian rain forest to the gender division of labor characteristic of most every agricultural system in the world. We’ve explored the effects of using petrochemical fertilizers and how an unfair trade atmosphere makes a high value product like Starbucks coffee nearly unprofitable to the farmers that actually grow the beans. Through the many pages of reading and hours of discussion involved in this class and borrowing from my background as an economist, I am convinced that one of the most problematic characteristics of the world food system is the American agricultural subsidy program. Granted, the Green Revolution’s products of petrochemicals and fossil energy requirements possibly present a more serious ecological problem, but the fact that the subsidization of agriculture is easily reversible and highly inefficient, yet continued in the face of economists’ derision makes it my target for this post at least.

I’ll dive right in. Agricultural subsidies and guaranteed price floors distort the food market by encouraging farmers to produce as much food as they can possibly extract from their land. Farmers have no incentive to heed market signals that, in the absence of the artificial distortions, would dictate the efficient level of production. Without price signals, there is no way for the market to suggest to farmers making poor production decisions that they should change their practices or to reward farmers employing efficient practices. Farmers without the blinding net of subsidization have to choose between profitability and going bankrupt—prices clearly tell them what consumers are demanding. This goes a long way to explaining why corn has become so ubiquitous in our supermarkets: the excess corn had to go somewhere so food engineers got creative.

One of the “benefits” that subsidization supposedly provides consumers is lower prices at the supermarket checkout. These are false savings because consumers pay for the subsidization through their taxes. Furthermore, there is what is called the marginal excess tax burden resulting from the taxes paid for the subsidy; taxation causes a deadweight loss to society over and above the total amount paid out to farmers in subsidy.

The incentive to produce as much as possible causes environmental harms on biblical scales. The Gulf of Mexico has a growing dead zone resulting from hyper fertilization due to the over applied chemical fertilizers flowing down the Mississippi from a huge proportion of America’s total agricultural lands. Farmers are monetarily encouraged to over apply chemical inputs to boost yields. This is not only a cost to the environment in terms of excess chemicals; it is also a significant component in the crescendo of fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Cheap food devoid of real nutritional content, largely derived from corn, has made Americans fat. Huge proportions of American adults and growing numbers of children are now considered overweight or obese. Cheap calories provide a means of sustenance of life, but the quality thereof is greatly diminished. Subsidies reduce food prices, but the social good of that result is highly debatable.

Agricultural subsidies in the United States promote rising inequality and poverty in developing and third world nations. Due to WTO, IMF, World Bank, and purely budgetary restrictions, the poorer nations of the world cannot institute a system of protections similar to that enjoyed by American farmers. These same countries are largely unindustrialized, drawing most or all of their exports from agricultural commodities. American subsidies lower the world price for these commodities and make developing nations’ production uncompetitive. These characteristics cause small farmers to lose their farms, increasingly leading to landowner concentration, especially in Latin America. Fair trade movements attempt to correct some of these problems, but to limited effect.

Agricultural subsidization should be completely eliminated from the American production system. It causes deadweight losses to our own society, increased environmental harms, and poverty across the world. Subsidies distort an otherwise highly competitive market with good price signals and cause inefficiencies at the most basic economic level.


“Save the farms—End the subsidies”. Cato Institute:

Cassel, Andrew. “Why U.S. Farm Subsidies Are Bad for the World”. Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pollan, Michael. “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 10-12-03; The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions Of Obesity”. New York Times.

Polyface Farm: a model agriculture, but is it proliferable?

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan introduces to the reader Joel Salatin, an outspoken back-to-nature farmer that quickly became my hero. Salatin has managed to extract huge amounts of organically produced food from a relatively small farm, but in today’s agricultural scene of gargantuan yields the output isn’t the most striking feature of his Polyface Farm. That recognition goes to the diversity of species Salatin employs to successfully produce such huge yields.

American agriculture is dominated by monocultural farms utilizing chemical fertility in the form of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Year after year the same crops are planted on the same soil, deteriorating the natural fertility and causing serious problems like topsoil erosion. This is touted as a cost of doing business, unavoidable with a priority on producing a huge proportion of the total world food supply. Salatin’s farm demonstrates the fallacy of this argument. The only inputs his farm requires are sunlight and human labor, to produce “25,000 pounds of beef, 50,000 pounds of pork, 12,000 broilers, 800 turkeys, 500 rabbits, and 30,000 dozen eggs.” He clearly demonstrates the potential to take a relatively small amount of land (100 acres) and turn it into a sustainable producer of animal products, which by and large are produced as harmfully to the environment as the monocultural crops mentioned above. The question we then have to ask ourselves as a society is why we haven’t embraced the system of agriculture demonstrated by Salatin to be both productive and sustainable.

There is something to be said about the benefits of mechanized agriculture and petrochemical utilization. Where 80% of the population used to be employed in agriculture, American farmers now only make up 2% of the total workforce to produce enough food for all of American society and more. This energy intensive agricultural system makes sense in an economy with a surplus of labor demand and plenty of cheap fossil energy that doesn’t have an impact on the larger environment, which used to be the case. Or at least we didn’t know about the environmental impacts. The American economy today is facing job losses not in solely in a cyclical sense but increasingly as a function of the new structure of the labor market: labor intensive jobs are being either exported for cheap labor elsewhere or are being replaced by automated processes. We are also facing the potentially catastrophic prospect of devastating climate change due to the exploitation of fossil fuels. The agricultural system that draws a huge proportion of its energy inputs from fossil fuels, whether from farm machinery or from petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, is clearly detrimental to the cause of mitigating climate change. This is especially true when increased use of human labor and species diversity could potentially reduce the need for the energy intensive inputs, as Joel Salatin has so successfully demonstrated. Assuming this analysis is cogent, we have to examine the cultural barriers to transforming our agriculture from the energy intensive chemically induced system it is to one of sustainability and diversity.

I’ve never heard of parents dreaming of their kids growing up to be farmers. Of course, while I’ve lived all over the country, the locations have generally been in some form of sprawling ubiquitous suburbia. This is significant though: most of our population lives either in suburbia or inside one of our many cities. I think it’s safe to say without research that no significant number of children raised in these environments knows anything about farming and even fewer are being encouraged to pursue careers growing food. American children are encouraged to become doctors, lawyers, athletes, and engineers, but not farmers. I’ll speak from experience that most of these same children are in no way prepared to participate in the labor intensive agriculture employed at Polyface Farm; adolescents today loath physical labor. This lack of a push toward agriculture and a television glued youth presents a significant problem to transforming our agricultural system, barring the naturalization and encouraged immigration of Mexico. I have no idea how we might go about creating social incentives toward agriculture as a career, short of artificially boosting wages to an economically unsustainable level. I won’t try to speculate on a solution; I’ll just hope that someone more experienced than me is on the job.

There is also a lack of institutionalized skill in the type of farming Joel Salatin has mastered. It would be a huge undertaking to establish that kind of knowledge set artificially, but luckily for our society there are growing pressures toward a more sustainable agriculture, which will incentivize farmers to acquire the skills necessary to grow food absent artificial inputs.

I called Joel Salatin my hero at the beginning of this piece because he has held on to his principles and stood up against a massive industrial-agriculture system that literally eats small establishments. His example has inspired me to consider spending some time learning his style of farming and pick it up myself. We’ll see: as an economist my potential job market is pretty sparse right now.

Source: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

Fair Trade Coffee and the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

Branding is a better solution establish fair trade for coffee export in Ethiopia, compared to the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange or other top-down pricing mandate. 60% of Ethiopia’s economy is supported by the sale of its coffee. Ethiopia is also the 6th largest coffee exporter in the world. Recently, 6 major coffee exporters in Ethiopia stopped exporting their goods due to the fallen prices. As a result, the Ethiopian government is in the process of prosecuting these companies for hoarding their commodity. The result of a license to trade suspension would be that the company exports would be turned over to a state-owned commodity exchange organization.

“In 2006 the Ethiopian government trademarked “Yirgacheffe,” the name of the country’s most celebrated coffee-growing region, hoping to use its cachet to help all their coffee exports. Then in December, the government mandated that all coffee growers sell their crops through the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, to insure that all beans fetched an adequate price. Some antipoverty groups thought this would help all Ethiopiain coffee growers.

It meant, though, that coffee roasters in the United States and other coffee importing nations would not be able to buy from specific growers whose beans they prize the most. It effectively ends direct trade for single-origin and microlot coffee.” (Ethiopia Shuts Down Coffee Exporters, NY Times March 25, 2009)

Interestingly enough, the coffee from the Yirgacheffe region has been listed as a fair trade coffee before, at about $1.26 per lb. The expected rate of Arabica coffee trade in May however, will sell at $1.165 per lb. So the current coffee trade policy that Ethiopia is operating under does not necessarily exclude the possibility of fair trade coffee, but by killing the opportunity for direct trade, this possibility does not really support the export of fair trade coffee.

What has been working however, are branding initiatives on the part of coffee exported from the Yirgacheffe region. In 2007, Ethiopia began to explore branding, taking point from Starbucks, so that they could reap the benefits of a $10 per lb sale in the United States, or an estimated trade of $88 million yearly.

"The move could inspire producers of other commodities throughout Africa to harness branding and capture more value from the goods they sell to consumers in rich countries….It's quite innovative for a branding initiative to come out of the developing world," says Seth Petchers, the director of Oxfam America's coffee program. "It's about getting [farmers] to realize the value of what they have.” (In Trademarking its Coffee, Ethiopia Seeks Fair Trade Nov 9, 2007,

I think this is a fantastic solution, proven with two results: 1) Yirgacheffe coffee has become attractive and became a fairly traded coffee, and 2) If you go on to amazon, you can find Ethiopian Coffee at prices in the order of $10 per pound. And that is without shipping costs. Boyer’s Coffee Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, 2 16 oz bags are going for $15.25.

If the branding doesn’t persuade you, maybe the quality will: “Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is prized by connoisseurs for its delicate fragrance of orange blossoms, with an elegantly sweet and clean finish…..Ethiopia is the historic origin of coffee, and even today the breadth of its flavor experience is profound. Yirgacheffe charms you, with its high citrus notes and its deep bass foundations; its sensual wisp of flowers and its round body. A cafetiere of Yirgacheffe is a treat for the soul.” (

Systemic Change and True Organic

I recently read an article on Systemic change. The article was specifically about Education, but could easily apply to changes in our food system as well. It essentially argues that systemic change requires extensive planning, and understanding of the different stages of change. When you know which stage you’re in and which stages lie ahead, it becomes much easier to focus and eventually reach the end goal. The Stages of Systemic Change, by Beverly Anderson is a helpful resource in this process, however the food system is unique and special consideration must be taken at certain stages. These special considerations are articulated by Michael Pollan in the Omnivores dilemma.

1. The first step that is often taken is “maintenance of the Old System.” The food industry has made some initial attempts to make food production more sustainable by using organic fertilizers and pesticides, and creating an organic label to distinguish this food from others which are conventionally grown. When this system was developed people did not understand the complexity of the problem. This is common at this stage. After visiting a large-scale organic operation, Michael Pollan explains the ways that efforts industries made to go organic ended up being worse for the environment:

"This approach, which I discovered is typical of large-scale organic operations, represents a compromise at best. The heavy tillage—heavier than in a conventional field—destroys the tilth of the soil and reduces its biological activity as surely as chemicals would; frequent tilling also releases so much nitrogen into the air that these weed-free organic fields require a lot more nitrogen fertilizer than they otherwise might." Omnivores Dilemma, page 160

2/ While Pollan’s visit to the organic, industrial farm was not as pleasant as one might anticipate, it did inspire him to write and educate others. In fact, many journalists have written about our food as a system that needs to be changed. The number of books and articles and even movies around the topic has skyrocketed in last decade. This has educated the public, but has also been brought to the attention of stakeholders. Although this work is not done, this level of awareness fulfills the 2nd step.

3. Pollans visit also inspire him and others explore possible alternatives. Exploration is the 3rd step in the process of systemic change. This step is when people identify the best practices and the worst practices and really lay out what works and what doesn’t. Pollan for instance, found Joe Salatin, a very innovative ‘grass farmer’ in Virginia that was able to get substantial yields without making any environmental compromises.

4 + 5. The fourth step is to start making the transition from what doesn’t work to what does and the final step is when what works becomes predominant and causes an emergence of new infrastructure. While some small scale changes have been made, there is still some hashing out to do before we upscale and make the same mistakes we did with the industrial sized organic farm.

To make progress from here we need to either redefine organic, or utilize a new such as biodynamic or agroecological, making specifications that cannot be exploited. We also need explore more ways in which a model farms or food distribution systems can be replicated. We are far along in our attempts to change the food system, but these next steps will not happen by themselves. In fact they will potentially require more involvement than any of the other steps.

"Natural Flavors?"

Have you looked at the ingredients on any of the packaged and processed foods that you’ve eaten lately? Chances are, if you have, you’ve seen “natural flavors” listed, generally towards the bottom of the list. It’s nearly impossible to know what these natural flavors are, or from what they’ve been derived, so if you’ve wondered what that means, you’re not alone. Most of us, though, don’t get much further than simply wondering, and accepting that there are just some things that we may never know, and that what “natural flavors” actually are may just be one of them. In Fast Food Nation, however, Eric Schlosser explains why many of us should be concerned by the term.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. (e-CFR)

This seems pretty reasonable until you realize that it could basically account for just about anything; such a regulation has no cultural or religious context, a fact that Eric Schlosser has helped make public knowledge.

After reading Fast Food Nation, Hitesh Shah, a software engineer from Los Angeles, California, contacted McDonald’s concerned by the information suggested by Schlosser in his recent bestseller. The concern was that there was more in McDonald’s French fries than simply potatoes and the 100% vegetable oil that they were purportedly being cooked in. Since any additional ingredients could be reported by the fast food chain as “natural flavors,” this information was not publicly available, so Shah had decided to contact the corporation directly.

He was concerned not for health reasons, or out of curiosity, though, Hitesh Shah is a devout Jain and a vegetarian.
The religion Jainism forbids the consumption and wearing of all animal products, but McDonald’s French fries had appeared to be acceptable after they had switched over to 100% vegetable oil. By doing this, they had opened their doors to new customers who had frequently been estranged by the chain’s menu, which offered few items that weren’t derived in some part from animal products. Unfortunately for Shah and countless other vegetarians and Hindus, though, the “natural flavors” that were also present in McDonald’s French fries included a small level of beef flavoring that the chain had added to compensate for being cooked in vegetable oil as opposed to beef tallow. To maintain the taste, but appear healthier and as a product that more people could feel okay about eating, this “natural flavor” had been developed, but not publicized.

Thanks to Schlosser and the additional investigation of Shah, and later, Viji Sundaram, journalist for India-West and author of the article “Where's the Beef? It's in Your French Fries,” though, the truth behind McDonalds’ “natural flavors” was exposed to the general public. Since the controversy, and a class action lawsuit, the McDonald’s Corporation has released a formal apology to religious and vegetarian communities affected, claiming that they had never meant for any confusion, but had never made any claims that their French fries were a vegetarian option. In Schlosser’s Afterword to Fast Food Nation, he presents evidence to the contrary, but whatever the case, the truth behind the French Fries’ “natural flavors” had been exposed.

But McDonald’s isn’t the only corporation marketing products containing “natural flavors.” So this raises the question, what other food products are being consumed by, or even marketed to, vegetarians and members of religious communities with dietary restrictions contain similarly misleading “natural flavors?” Are there other controversial items, which cause such people to inadvertently go against their beliefs? Like McDonald’s French fries, there is little information available, but we should be questioning what we are eating. Change needs to come to the food labeling standards in the United States, because situations like this should be avoidable. Don’t you want to know what “natural flavors” really means?


Buncombe, Andrew. “There’s beef in your French fries, says McDonald’s.” The Independent: 25 May 2001.

Goodstein, Laurie. “For Hindus and Vegetarians, Surprise in McDonald’s Fries.” The New York Times: 20 May 2001.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Harper Perennial: 2005.

Sundaram, Viji. “Where’s the Beef? It’s in Your your French Fries.” India-West: 10 September 2002.