Fair Trade Organic: Oxymoron?
By Michael Hull
January 11, 2012
It just so happens that two of my favorite morning-time items are also two of the most popular fair trade items on the market – coffee and bananas. I don’t necessarily seek items carrying the official “Fair Trade” label, but I do think that increasing access to locally produced organic food (whether or not it is officially labeled “Organic”) is key to solving a lot of problems we face today, ranging from the profitability of processed foods to our ever-increasing demand for energy. When I play the role of consumer, I try to use my dollars as votes for products I feel are produced and delivered in the most sustainable way. As a result, “Fair Trade” and “Organic” are two labels that remain on my radar, despite my misgivings about certification processes benefiting mass-production interests and effectively reducing the ideas to institutionalized marketing gimmicks.
In this article, I'd like to explore how combining the two labels to form the phrase “Fair Trade Organic” (as many products do) is in a sense self-contradictory. My point is that the ideal type of Fair Trade Organic food often will not carry an official “Fair Trade” or “Organic” label and might not even be available in your supermarket. That's right - I am talking about food grown locally within your community! It may take some effort to track down this kind of food, but once you do you will reap benefits in areas you might not have expected.
Many definitions of “fair trade” make reference to sustainable business practices in developing countries. I immediately ask, “Shouldn’t DOMESTIC trade be fair and sustainable as well?” Seeing as “Too Big To Fail” pretty much set the bar in that department, I don’t think we can expect (nor should we ever have expected) the business world to keep itself in check regarding fairness or sustainability. At times, it feels like nobody is out there watching the ball making sure that sustainability is even a remote consideration for corporate America. I think the problem is that there are hundreds of balls to watch – and no one even knows the rules of the game that isn’t already either winning the game or paying big bucks to have the rules changed in their favor.
The labels “Fair Trade” and “Organic” would immediately be prerequisites for any food in a perfect world because everyone would be looking out for everyone else as well as the environment. This means food producers would select ingredients with maximal nutrition coming from the freshest and most local sources possible. What we mostly see in the U.S. instead are cheap processed foods designed to maximize profit at the expense of our bodies. In big diesel-spewing trucks this mass-produced, ultra-processed food travels cross-country in bulk, absolutely dominating most food markets. Meanwhile, towers of bureaucracy keep close tabs and tell us which products can be called “Organic,” taking a heavy toll in time and money on food producers who want organic certification. This makes it hard for small farms to keep up with large industrial farms who can easily afford to jump through the many certification hoops.
Fair trade? I’m not so sure. What I do know is that as consumers, we can undermine this advantage held by corporate organic farms by seeking out local foods from community-based farms which may or may not choose to use the official “Organic” label on their products. A good way to connect with these types of food sources is to participate in a local CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture) which many farms offer, or search online for farmer's markets near your area.
When I visit the grocery store (“health food” stores included), it is frustrating to be asked to pay a premium for organic products when most of what I see are corporate organic brands. I find myself asking, “Would the prices be so high if this store went out of its way to supply everything it could locally?” I have a suspicion the answer is “No.” When I see a product like organic lettuce from California, I have to wonder why it’s easier for the store to offer this in Tennessee as opposed to getting it from a local farm. The irony is that the “organic” farm in California is likely so large and commercial that it's not a community asset to the Californians who probably can’t even get direct access to the product without going to a chain store.
The fact is that most popular organic brands in supermarkets are just off-shoots of large national corporations that we all know and love. In the name of healthy eating, you end up feeling like your money isn’t going far enough in a figurative sense; but at the same time, your money is literally going TOO far to reach the pocket of a company that may be across the country. The rift that is forming is this: “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “sustainable;” and it sometimes even indicates the OPPOSITE of “fair trade,” although marketers would love for us to think of these concepts and the companies involved as one big happy circle of friends. While it’s great for your body to eat organic food, it’s more important to think about your community and the environment as a whole when making food decisions; and local food is the common thread that ties these things together.