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Sometimes You Get What You Pay For

I've never been entirely sure how to feel about Fair-Trade coffee products. In theory, it all sounds well and good, but I've never really been convinced that the movement achieves the goal it sets out to achieve. Several times in the past, I've been in the awkward position of choosing between a coffee that I really want, or another "certified" Fair-Trade coffee that doesn't seem quite as appealing.

(from colleen_taugher on Flickr)

Cuppa Joel, my favorite DC coffee roaster, offers an interesting perspective:
...Fair-Trade coffee also presents a number of drawbacks, such as lack of information and lower quality beans. Because certification is only available to relatively large cooperatives, specific details about individual lots of coffee are generally sparse. And, while farmers may participate in a fair-trade coop, they may not sell all their coffee through the coop.

For high-quality growers, they can often fetch a higher price on the specialty market than the set premium available through the coop. As a result, they will sell their lower-quality beans through the coop and reserve the better stuff for the specialty market. There is also the fact that because coffee from the whole coop is sold together, good and bad quality beans are often mixed together, leading to mediocre quality lots.
Admittedly, I don't know a lot about coffee growing, but this seems like a plausible explanation. If Free-Trade is effectively inflating the price of poor quality coffee but not high quality beans, then I'll continue to be reluctant to buy it.

Now, this question is really about exactly how much control farmers have over the quality of their crop. If the quality of coffee is mostly dependent on the quality of the land its grown on, then a farmer with bad land will inevitably be stuck with bad coffee. On the other hand, if there's an art to coffee growing, then Free-Trade certification offers an opportunity for farmers to get more money for a worse product, and distorts their incentives to improve it.


Wade said…
But have you heard the latest news! Six a day for health!

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