Domestic Fair Trade?
By Erin Volheim
Cooperation is the decisive organizing principle of human society. Its necessity is evident to those with common sense, but its behavioral definition is often misinterpreted. Before he left office, former President George W. Bush, stated that “with continued cooperation and determination” our global economic debacle “will be solved.” I suspect his understanding of cooperation is different than mine. He further maintained that free and open markets are the best way to ensure economic growth, stating that “all our nations must reject calls for protectionism, collectivism and defeatism in the face of our current challenge.”
Modern economic thought emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, as the western world began its transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society. One of the recurrent critiques of a domestic fair trade policy, like a Local Fair Trade certification label, is that it’s a form of protectionism, and hence antithetical to the free market. A free market is defined as business governed by the laws of supply and demand, not restrained by government interference, regulation or subsidy.
Agrarian and progressive interests in 1913, favored a central bank under public control, while the nation’s bankers opposed government intervention in the banking business. Farm subsidy programs have been in existence domestically for over 70 years, beginning with the Great Depression. The economic boom of the 1920s was a benefit for half of the American population. The other half– farmers, African Americans, low-wage earners and new immigrants were already disadvantaged when the depression hit.
The original intent of the Agrarian Reform Act of the New Deal was to alleviate the economic strife of farmers. Initially it helped, but the opportunity for misuse was wide open. Some farmers learned that if they switched to commodity crops like corn, wheat and sugar, they could get paid by the government not to farm, in part to keep commodity market prices high. Today the situation is even worse, with agribusiness cutting in for its share, despite recent victories in funding for organic farm research and certification fee reimbursement in the 2008 Farm Bill, the subsidy program lives on. Most small family farms don’t qualify for grants, and large agribusiness and wealthy landowners receive the bulk of it.
Income inequality in the U.S. since the Reagan era has grown so much, that it is now the same as it was the 1920s just before the Great Depression. Although our current economic crises has been compared to that time, it more accurately mimics the Panic of 1873, or the Long Depression. It was during this time that the American Grange Association became a resource collective for small farms. Farmers in all areas were plagued by low prices for their products, growing indebtedness, and a mortgage and banking crash. These concerns helped to transform the Grange Cooperative into a political force of that era. If there is one thing modern economic history can teach us, it’s that working with your community can see you through troubled times.
The call for domestic fair trade in agriculture is a worthy agenda, if not a new one. Americans spend the least amount of money on food out of all industrialized countries. Low farm worker wages and long workweeks is one way in which the business of agriculture keeps prices down. The assumption that organic farmers are different as a whole in their treatment of farm workers is a misconception. According to a recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, 61 percent of farm workers live in poverty, while agribusiness profits go up.
In 1999, a coalition led by RAFI-USA, Peace-Works Organic Farms, CATA (El Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas) and Quality Certification Services (QCS) began work to develop standards for fair trade between family-scale farmers and buyers including environmentally and socially just working conditions for workers, interns and children on farms. In early 2005, a group of organizations, now calling itself the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group, furthered the discussion about the converging interests of family farmers, farm workers, organic advocates and Fair Trade Organizations in domestic agriculture. They endorsed the principles of the International Fair Trade Federation as a basis for development of their own guiding principles. The goals are “to support family-scale farming, to reinforce farmer-led initiatives such as farmer co-operatives, to ensure just conditions for those who work in agriculture, to strengthen the organic farming movement, and bring these efforts together with mission-based traders, retailers and concerned consumers to contribute to the movement for a more equitable, diverse and sustainable agriculture in North America.”
By early 2007, four small farms in the upper Midwest had been chosen to participate in the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group’s pilot project, along with two food co-ops in the Minneapolis area. Another farm was added in 2008. All the farms involved have been closely audited, including their business practices and employee policies. They pledged to, among other things,
“1) Respect workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, 2) Provide adequate health and safety protections, including access to adequate medical care, information on potential hazards, and using the least toxic methods available, and 3) Pay a living wage.”
Farmworkers are a crucial piece in the growth of the domestic fair trade movement. Local Fair Trade Network Director, Erik Esse, believes that their collaboration with the farmworker group, Centro Campesino, for fair trade audits is significant. Not only does it provide “good info for our audits, but it also gives the farmworkers an ongoing resource connection.” This also lends itself to capacity building where more folks get access to educational programs that heighten the efficiency and quality of organic farming. This multiplicity of function is where domestic fair trade ensures adding more social value to your dollar.
In many ways, a domestic fair trade label could revitalize the organic movement. Anyone flush with concern for the public good who purchases a local fair trade organic product is investing in the future. The price may be higher than what you are used to paying, but you are collectively financing a future where organic farms provide a living wage for farmers, farmworkers and their families. You will also be supporting farms that provide you with fresh quality food while taking ecological care in the community where you live and eat. Overall, domestic fair trade could embody a truly free market where the fair trade farmer supplies the ethically produced food that our collective conscience demands.
Erin Volheim is a writer residing in the Little Applegate valley of Southern Oregon.