In a great new article, Andrew Chambers of the Guardian rips into fair trade:
Fairtrade provides a minimum baseline price for commodities, allowing farmers to hedge against market volatility. The co-operative system allows small farmers better access to global markets and encourages democratic representation. Each commodity price also includes a “social premium” which can be reinvested in social or development projects.
He continues by pointing to evidence of its harm:
[E]conomist Paul Collier argues that Fairtrade effectively ensures that people “get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty”. Fairtrade reduces the incentive to diversify crop production and encourages the utilisation of resources on marginal land that could be better employed for other produce. The organisation also appears wedded to an image of a notional anti-modernist rural idyll. Farm units must remain small and family run, while modern farming techniques (mechanisation, economies of scale, pesticides, genetic modification etc) are sidelined or even actively discouraged.
By guaranteeing a minimum price, Fairtrade also encourages market oversupply, which depresses global commodity prices. This locks Fairtrade farmers into greater Fairtrade dependency and further impoverishes farmers outside the Fairtrade umbrella. Economist Tyler Cowen describes this as the “parallel exploitation coffee sector”.
Coffee farms must not be more than 12 acres in size and they are not allowed to employ any full-time workers. This means that during harvest season migrant workers must be employed on short-term contracts. These rural poor are therefore expressly excluded from the stability of long-term employment by Fairtrade rules. Indeed, The International Development Committee declared in 2007 that “Fairtrade could have a deeper impact if it were to target more consciously the poorest of the poor”.
We might think of sub-Saharan subsistence economies when we think of Fairtrade, but the biggest recipient of Fairtrade subsidy is actually Mexico. Mexico is the biggest producer of Fairtrade coffee with about 23% market share. Indeed, as of 2002, 181 of the 300 Fairtrade coffee producers were located in South America and the Caribbean. As Marc Sidwell points out, while Mexico has 51 Fairtrade producers, Burundi has none, Ethiopia four and Rwanda just 10 – meaning that “Fairtrade pays to support relatively wealthy Mexican coffee farmers at the expense of poorer nations”.